Tragedy of the Crimean Tatars

Following months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, and now in the midst a shaky ceasefire and brutal rebel assault on the Donetsk airport, one tragedy of the Ukrainian crisis has been largely overlooked: the plight of the Crimean Tatars. As Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tatars have long been the target of repressive measures. Following Russia’s acquisition of the peninsula from the Ottoman Empire in 1783, the Tatar population in Crimea slowly dwindled as they were pushed out by settlers from other areas of the empire. In 1944, the Soviet Union relocated the Crimean Tatars en masse to Central Asia and the Russian Far East in response to alleged cooperation between the Tatar leaders and Nazi occupiers. Nearly half of those deported died en route to their places of exile.  Since the 1980s, the Tatar community has only slowly trickled back to the peninsula.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, along with the 1783 Russian acquisition and 1944 deportation, are the considered the three historical tragedies of the Crimean Tatars. The Tatar community came out strongly against Russia’s annexation, deeply suspicious of Russia’s historical relationship with Crimea’s indigenous community. In the days following the collapse of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, Tatars came out in large numbers to protest for a united Ukraine. The representative parliamentary body of the Crimean Tatar community, the Mejlis, officially denounced the Russian-organized separatist referendum and called for Tatars to boycott the vote.

Thus far, the fears of the Mejlis and the Tatar community have been more than validated. The Tatars’ position against annexation put them at odds with organized Russian political groups on the peninsula, which has always seen the Mejlis and the broader community as a threat to their political dominance. Perhaps most importantly, the presence of the Crimean Tatars belies the oft-heard Russian slogan “Krym Nash” (Crimea is Ours), which tries to claim Russia’s allegedly historical stake to the territory. Crimea is not historically Russian, and the presence and history of Crimean Tatars is evidence that Russia’s narrative and historical memory on Crimea is largely falsified.

The Russian government very early on asserted its right to suppress the possibility of Tatar protest. In May, Russia banned former Soviet dissident and chairman of the Tatar Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev, from entering Russia (and by extension Crimea) for “extremist activity.” In reality, Dzhemilev had merely been the most visible Crimean face opposed to the Russian Federation’s illegal takeover of the peninsula. That same month, Crimea’s chief prosecutor threatened to permanently disband the Mejlis for publicly protesting against the Dzhemilev’s entry ban. In a heated exchange caught on video, the chief prosecutor informed the new Mejlis chairman, Refat Chubarov, to cease what she deemed “extremist activity.” The activities included allegedly blocking roads and highways for unauthorized protests. The Mejlis’ decision to continue to fly the Ukrainian flag on their buildings only exacerbated Russian pressure against the organization. Later that month, the local government also refused to allow the Tatars to publicly commemorate the 70th anniversary of their deportation in the Crimean capital of Simferopol’s central square, relegating them instead to the outskirts of the city.

In the run up to the Crimean parliamentary elections on September 14, which Tatar leaders boycotted, the repression and pressure on the Tatar community worsened considerably. The fifth report on Ukraine of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, released on August 17, noted the increasing pressure and human rights violations committed against Tatars. Russian security services conducted targeted raids on restaurants, shops, and other businesses owned by the ethnic group. Police raids on Tatar-owned bookstores resulted in the confiscation of so-called “extremist literature.” Russian authorities prevented those who had outdated Ukrainian passports or who refused to acquire Russian passports from leaving the peninsula. One Tatar activist was attacked, his passport stolen, when he tried to travel to New York to attend a UN conference for indigenous peoples. The Mejlis headquarters in Simferopol was repeatedly vandalized by assailants with spray paint prior to the elections.

And now, following the parliamentary elections which saw Putin’s United Russia grab more than 70 percent of the vote, the very existence of Tatar civil society and cultural autonomy is under extreme threat. On September 16, just two days after the elections, Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service forces stormed the Mejlis headquarters, confiscating computers, documents, and literature. According to reports from the peninsula, all of the headquarters’ workers have been forcefully evicted from the premises, and the charity that owns the building has been fined for failing to clear the building in an orderly fashion. Crimea’s pro-Putin Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov later said that the Mejlis does not legally operate in Crimea. He said, “from the juridical angle, there is no such organization for me. Which Mejlis? The organization was not registered properly. It does not exist.” This October, one of several missing Tatars was discovered dead after his kidnapping the previous month.

The era of an organized and active Crimean Tatar community on the peninsula might be quickly coming to an end. The tragic plight of the Tatars deserves far more attention than it receives. Some Western leaders have indicated that economic sanctions against Russia might be lifted if Moscow abides by the terms of the Minsk peace agreement for eastern Ukraine. This would be a mistake of historic proportions. The indigenous community of Crimea is under direct threat from the cynical and abusive actions of the Russian authorities, who are committed to a campaign of ethnic suppression in order to solidify their authority in the Ukrainian territory. The international community must bring more attention to the Tatars’ tragic plight, which is yet another catastrophe in the people’s trouble past. Russia’s continued abuse of its neighbors and de-stabilizing activities should not and cannot be swept under the rug for the sake of short-term economic gains.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center