Crimean Tatars: Russia’s Attempts to Destroy the Community Evokes Memories of 1940s
As an American Jewish and an American Muslim leader dedicated to the principle that Muslims and Jews should stand up for each other whenever the rights of members of either community are violated anywhere in the world, we are speaking out together against the ever-intensifying campaign of intimidation and punishment against the Crimean Tatars that has been underway ever since Russia invaded seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last March.
In recent weeks, even as the world has turned its attention away from Crimea toward other world conflicts such as the bloody Russian-supported insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, the Crimean provincial government, with the apparent full support of the FSB (former KGB), has accelerated its effort to force the Crimean Tatars, a small Muslim ethnic Turkic community of about 250,000, which is the indigenous population of Crimea and today accounts for about 12 percent of the population, to accept the Russian takeover of Crimea as legitimate.
This campaign has included a series of strong-arm measures, ranging from threats and harassment to torture and outright murder, according to activists and credible journalistic accounts (1).The world community must urgently remind the Russian government that it has a legal responsibility, as the occupying power in Crimea, to protect the basic human rights of all the citizens of Crimea, including the Crimean Tatars; who lost nearly half of their population to disease and starvation when they were exiled to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944, and now fear they may be facing a second forced exile from their homeland in 70 years.
Shortly after its takeover of Crimea, the Russian government commenced a charm campaign to give the impression that it would treat the Crimean Tatars fairly. In mid-March, President Vladimir Putin spoke personally by phone to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the elder statesman of the Crimean Tatars; assuring him that the Tatars had no reason to fear Russian rule. On the contrary, Putin said soothingly, "Measures will be taken to solve all (of) the social and legal problems of Crimean Tatars that went unsolved by the Ukrainian authorities for many years (2)."
Would that it were so! Instead, the Crimean Tatars were almost immediately confronted by full-bore repression. The first step was to deprive the Tatars of their two top leaders; Dzhemilev, a human rights activist who sat in the gulag for years during Soviet times, and Refat Chubarov, President of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (Parliament), which has governed the internal affairs of the community since the return of the Tatars from exile to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was accomplished last spring when Crimean authorities refused to allow Djemilev and Chubarov to return to Crimea from separate meetings in Ukraine (3), falsely accusing both of supposed incitement to extremism, even though they have been adamant in insisting that their people stick to non-violent tactics in resisting their occupiers.
In late May, Crimean authorities banned the Tatars from marking their annual commemoration of the 1944 exile in the center of the capital city of Simferopol as they had done every year since the early 1990s. They finally agreed under international pressure to allow the ceremony to go forward in a cemetery on the edge of town, but the solemnity of the occasion was marred by Russian helicopters buzzing overhead (4). In a recent interview, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, a onetime businessman widely known as "the Goblin" for alleged Mafia ties (5), accused Crimean Tatars of "morally humiliating Russians" by commemorating the 1944 deportation and threatened that they could be deported again if they "pit people against each other on interethnic grounds (6)."
Clearly infuriated by the Tatars act of defiance in going ahead with the memorial event, the authorities launched raids over the course of the summer on Crimean Tatar cultural centers and mosques. The situation worsened dramatically in mid-September when FSB officers raided the headquarters of the Mejlis; seizing documents, USB flash cards, Islamic literature and computers. Aksyonov then declared the Mejis dissolved, asserting that the body was "never properly registered" and therefore "does not exist (7)."
Also during September, the authorities have closed down the main Crimean Tatar library (8); and ordered the Crimean Tatar television station, ATR to hand over documents and a list of employees (9). Most ominously, two young Crimean Tatar activists, Islam Dzhepparov, 19, and Dzhevdet Islamov, 23 were abducted on September 27 by unidentified men in uniform. Despite the young men's families having immediately reported the abduction, and provided the registration number of the vehicle, there is still no sign of them (10). The apparent kidnapping of Dzepparov and Dzhevdet was chillingly reminiscent of the abduction torture and murder of Reshat Ahmetov, a Tatar activist who was filmed being seized by paramilitary units in late March while holding a solitary protest outside a government building in Simferopol. His battered body was later found, but no one has been charged in that crime (11).
In the face of this growing repression, there has been a dismaying tendency in both Europe and the U.S., to portray the Russian takeover of Crimea as a fait accompli that will be impossible to reverse. One important leader who has not forsaken the Crimean Tatars, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, gave a stirring speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which he called upon the U.S. and our allies not to leave the brave Crimean Tatars to their fate. According to Royce, "By refusing to surrender to endless threats and centuries of oppression, the Tatar people continue to give hope to all those around the world who are battling overwhelming forces in defense of their homes and freedom."
Indeed, the oppression the Crimean Tatars have endured at the hands of Russia did not begin last March, but goes back to the overthrow of the Crimean Tatar Khanate by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783. For more than a century thereafter, Russian Tsarist and Soviet governments alike brutalized the Crimean Tatars; destroying mosques and encouraging an influx of Russians and Ukrainians into the peninsula; finally exiling the entire Crimean Tatar population in boxcars to Uzbekistan, a hellish trip during which 46 percent of the total population is said to have died (12).
The Crimean Tatars began returning to their homeland in large numbers in the early 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the creation of an autonomous Crimea within independent Ukraine. However, there was widespread, sometimes violent, resistance to the return of the Tatars by some members of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. We are proud that, with the support of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations around the world, Crimean Jews and Tatars in the peninsula held joint cultural celebrations and joined forces in demanding that Crimean authorities take a stronger stand in denouncing and apprehending criminals who scrawled swastikas and other hateful graffiti on both mosques and synagogues (13).
At this critical juncture, we call upon the Russian authorities to reverse their order closing the Mejlis end their efforts to allow Crimean Tatars to express their opinions and practice their faith freely in accordance with international law protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Until that happens, we urge leaders of all faith communities and people of conscience to stand in solidarity with the beleaguered Crimean Tatars in their struggle for survival in their ancestral homeland. If we allow the rights of this small people to be violated, we diminish the cause of freedom and justice everywhere in the world.
When Mustafa Mustafaev moved to Crimea in 1993, he swore his family would never again leave their ancestral homeland.
The 57-year-old was born in Uzbekistan a little more than a decade after the Crimean Tatars’ harrowing 1944 deportation from their home along the Black Sea. The most serious ethno-political conflict in Russia today is not the intense xenophobia found in Moscow, St. Petersburg or even Chechnya, but the rising antagonism toward the Crimean Tatars.
Like other Tatars of his generation, Mr Mustafaev returned only after the Soviet Union crumbled. He built a home in Bakhchisaray, the ancient capital of the former Crimean Khanate, on the grounds of the former Khan’s stables.
But that life is now under threat and memories of their forefathers’ persecution are flooding back as Russia has unleashed a new crackdown on Crimea’s native people following its annexation of the peninsula in March.
“They are doing it again,” says Mr Mustafaev, fumbling his green velvet skullcap and eyeing every car that passes. He is too nervous to discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea at home, and prefers to meet at a street corner instead.
“My grandmother was given no more than 15 minutes to pack her things when they took her away – at least it hasn’t come to that yet,” he says. But he tells of an acquaintance who was taken away from his home at dawn 10 days ago, and of a raid on the local mosque. “Everyone is in panic,” says Mr Mustafaev.
The Kremlin appears to be seeking to stamp out any opposition on a stretch of land with enormous political and historical resonance – one whose recent conquest has boosted the popularity of President Vladimir Putin and become a fount of resurgent Russian nationalism.
Since this spring, Russian security forces in masks and with machine guns have raided mosques and many Crimean Tatar-run schools, claiming they were stocking extremist literature. Eighteen Crimean Tatar men have been abducted and some have since been found dead.
Political leaders have also been targeted. Mustafa Jemilev, a Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian lawmaker, has been barred from returning to Crimea, as has Refat Chubarov, his successor as head of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar people’s 33-member representative assembly.
The authorities fined 39 other Tatar leaders sums of Rbs10,000 or more each after they met with Mr Jemilev and Mr Chubarov in Kiev, and state media label them “extremists”.
“We are being targeted with an intimidation campaign. They want to destroy us from within,” says Ilmi Umarov, a Tatar activist who resigned from his post as local government head in Bakhchisaray after the annexation.
Crimean Tatar community leaders believe the repressions are being applied randomly to frighten ordinary people away from political activism and discourage them from rallying around the Mejlis.
“I’m sure they listen to everything we say,” says Arsen, a peasant in Sary Bash, a remote village in the steppes of northern Crimea. He would only give his first name, then squeezed his lips together with his thumb and index finger, as if locking his mouth shut.
After the devastation of the Stalin-era deportations, in which tens of thousands died, Crimean Tatars now account for only about 12 per cent of the peninsula’s 2m population. Under Ukrainian rule, Kiev granted some political autonomy in the 1990s but never properly addressed the deprivations that have stemmed from deportation.
“Kiev never did anything for us,” says Remzi Ilyasov, a former Mejlis member who has sided with the pro-Russia government and is now deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament.
He denies there is any persecution and says he hopes Crimea can emulate other Muslim territories under Russian rule, praising Chechnya, the North Caucasus republic ruled by a Kremlin-backed strongman as an example.
Next to the parliament building, a cathedral dedicated to Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince credited with defending the Russian state against invaders, is being renovated under Mr Putin’s patronage. “I hope we can build a big mosque next, like in Chechnya,” says Mr Ilyasov.
But in Sary Bash – the only village where Crimean Tatars are the majority of the population – the scene is grim: wretched huts shelter from the cold steppe wind, and only a few turkeys roam the deserted dirt road.
Residents complain that they lack fertiliser and water, that their use of the state land on which they settled after their return from exile has yet to be legalised, and that the Crimean Tatar language is not sufficiently taught.
Many view Mr Ilyasov’s promises that Russian rule will change things for the better with scepticism. “Giving him a senior office is just an attempt to undermine us,” says Akhtem Chyigoz, a deputy head of the Mejlis.
Crimea’s new Russian-backed leader Sergei Aksyonov has so far refused to talk to the Mejlis or even acknowledge the assembly’s existence unless it registers as an NGO under Russian law – something it has refused to do for fear it would lose its standing and legitimacy.
Tatar leaders believe such tactics may backfire for Moscow. There are already signs that a young generation – encouraged by family memories and fresh abuses – is becoming increasingly political. Some even warn that Moscow’s crackdown under the pretext of fighting extremism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “They are much more radical than we are,” says Mr Umarov of the young Tatars.
Following Russia's sudden and swift annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March, it soon became apparent that modern Russia lacks the institutions and mechanisms for integrating ethnic and cultural communities that have strong identities and traumatic histories. What's more, Moscow's usual methods of bribing, intimidating or forcibly relocating such peoples only exacerbate the conflict.
The Crimean Tatars are an ancient and indigenous people. They have absorbed many other peoples into their ranks and had their own state, the Crimean Khanate, for over 300 years from the mid-15th to the late 18th century. The Russian Empire under Catherine the Great later conquered Crimea, but the Crimean Tatars have always preserved their culture, language and exclusively Sunni Muslim religion.
In 1944, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of all 191,000 Crimean Tatars — some 47,000 families — to Central Asia. After a long exile, the Crimean Tatars began returning in the late 1980s to their homeland, part of Ukraine since 1954. By the time of the Ukrainian census of 2001, their number reached a total of 245,000, accounting for more than 10 percent of Crimea's population.
Prior to the referendum on March 16 to unite with Russia, the Mejlis — the executive body of the Qurultay, the supreme congress of the Crimean Tatars — decided to boycott the referendum.
The vast majority of Crimean Tatars followed the decision of the Mejlis and boycotted the referendum, according to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the legendary leader of the Crimean Tatars and renowned Soviet-era dissident.
Similarly, most Crimean Tatars did not take part in the local and regional elections held on the peninsula on Sept. 14. Thus the Crimean Tatar community did not support Russia's annexation of the peninsula.
The refusal by most Crimean Tatars and their leaders to accept the peninsula's annexation has led to a serious conflict with the new pro-Moscow government there. The Russian authorities have denied the right of both Crimean Tatar leaders — Dzhemilev and current Mejlis head Refat Chubarov — to return to their homeland for the next five years. They now carry out their duties in absentia from Kiev.
Chubarov, who is now prevented from seeing his loved ones, must meet with the Mejlis through Skype. Russian prosecutors justified the re-entry ban with the argument that both leaders engaged in "extremist activities." Now Chubarov will appeal that ban to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The Russian authorities have even gone so far as to ban all books by Dzhemilev on the territory of Crimea. Dzhemilev spent many years in Soviet labor camps and prisons for defending the rights of his people and during that time won support from such august personages as Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
Thousands of Crimean Tatars traditionally hold a rally every May 18 in the center of Simferopol to commemorate the deportation of their people, but this year, on the 70th anniversary of that event, the Russian authorities banned the gathering on the ridiculous pretext that "it is dangerous." Such a prohibition is an insult to all Crimean Tatars, for whom that deportation was the worst tragedy in their history.
The Crimean Tatars face pressure on all fronts.
On Sept. 16, men carrying automatic weapons surrounded the building where the Mejlis meets in Simferopol. In late September, government forces effectively seized the building, forcing the Mejlis members out onto the street. They also confiscated another building in Bakhchysarai, the ancient Crimean Tatar capital.
The Interior Ministry's "E" division for combating extremism, as well as government prosecutors, riot police and so-called "self-defense forces" have carried out numerous searches and raids of Crimean Tatar mosques, madrasah religious schools, community centers, businesses and private residences. They are also applying intense pressure on ATP, the only independent Crimean Tatar television channel, and have compelled a number of activists, journalists and bloggers to quit Crimea altogether.
Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, who has visited Crimea, details all of these numerous violations in a report he released on Oct. 27.
That report gives particular attention to killings, abductions and disappearances in Crimea. On March 3, three men in military uniform kidnapped Reshat Ametov, and his mutilated body was later found on March 16 in the village of Zemlyanichnoye. Activists Leonid Korzh, Seiran Zinedinov and Timur Shaimardanov disappeared in late May.
On Sept. 27, men in military uniforms abducted Islyama Dzhepparova and Dzhevdeta Islyamova on the highway between Simferopol and Feodosia and drove away with them to an unknown destination. Criminal cases are under way for each of these incidents, but the authorities have not yet found either the kidnappers or their victims.
Now Mejlis head Chubarov reports that Moscow is seeking to implement a "Chechen scenario" in Crimea by finding someone among the Crimean Tatars who, like Chechen leader and strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, could use Russian money and power to consolidate the recalcitrant Crimean Tatar community and ensure its loyalty to Moscow.
If this is the case, it is bad news indeed. The Soviet Union collapsed in no small part because of its inability to peacefully integrate diverse peoples. It preferred using repression and the bribery of ethnic leaders to granting those people their rights, or even more, giving them broad participation in a democratic dialogue. The future of the Crimean Tatars might serve as a bellwether for the future of Russia in the same way.