Russia’s Lavrov Best Look in the Crooked Mirror Before Making Ethnic Cleansing Jibes

The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign took a chilling turn this week by trying to marginalize Ukraine through comments that talk by Kyiv of a ceasefire in the south-east was just ethnic cleansing in disguise. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, making the comments in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on 17 June, said the retreat of Russia-backed and armed terrorists, fighters, call them what you will, would be ethnic cleansing. But, Mr Lavrov, who are you kidding? If it is a civil war in the east as Moscow claims, why are the coffins returning to Russia in lorries marked “+200”, the old Soviet insignia for military dead?

Another claim, repeated incessantly by TV mouthpiece RT, of Ukraine using phosphorus bombs in its fight against terrorists, was stopped in its tracks. Yevgeniy Davydov and Nikita Konashenkov, two Zvezda TV reporters of the channel controlled by the Russian Defence Ministry, apologized to Ukrainians for the blatant lies disseminated by Russian media. They confessed that, while they worked in Donetsk Region, all the information they aired was simply made up. In fact, they were receiving texts from their editorial office in Moscow. But let’s take a closer look at what the Russian authorities have been doing of late to the Crimean Tatars in their historic homeland.

From protest bans and mass searches of homes to open hostility from local authorities, the Tatars are being squeezed from all sides. Let’s not forget that the Tatars are the indigenous population of Crimea and they have been there for centuries.  The point was made last month by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a Council of Europe meeting in Vienna when he said their rights must be looked after. Clearly that is not the case. When former Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Cemilev (Dzhemilev) was banned from entering Crimea in early May the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said “the Russian government has once again challenged these people, who have been through so much suffering”. Official Kyiv called the ban “a blatant violation of all international and bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreements and another display of xenophobia, chauvinism and ethnic intolerance, which characterize the incumbent Russian regime.” On 2 May Cemilev, who is also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, was not allowed by Russian border guards to travel to Moscow on his way to Crimea. Getting to Crimea by air from Ukraine is currently possible only from Russian territory. The next day he was not allowed to enter Crimea by car. The head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, said Cemilev was not welcome. In a typical Russian propaganda tone, he said: “There is no doubt this man has received a task from Western intelligence agencies to destabilize the situation.” This comes on top of the five-year ban on entering Crimea, despite Cemilev’s name not being on the list of those banned from entering Crimea compiled by the self-proclaimed state council of the Republic of Crimea.

But the matter did not end there. Thousands of local Cemilev supporters rallied on 3 May to show their disgust. Working with unusual lightning efficiency the police were issuing summons to some protesters to appear in court the very next day for allegedly committing an administrative offence. Many were fined. Crimean courts imposed total fines of an equivalent of USD 20,000 in over 50 cases.

Cemilev has complained that Tatars are feeling pressure from Russian security services. An auditing commission of the Crimean Tatar Qurultay, a self-styled assembly, demanded that the Majlis call off its representatives from the Crimean bodies of power, which, said  the commission, are “openly hostile” toward Crimean Tatars. And in early May the Kremlin-appointed prosecutor of Crimea, Nataliya Poklonska, delivered a warning to the current leader of the Majlis, Refat Chubarov, about the unacceptability of conducting what she described as extremist activity. A request for the warning to be delivered in the Crimean Tatar state language was rejected. Poklonska then gave a verbal warning that non-compliance would lead to the Majlis being liquidated and its activities banned. The refusal to give the warning in writing made the decision harder to appeal in court. What followed was a ban, issued on 16 May on mass rallies, till 6 June. Its real target was a mass rally set for Simferopil on 18 May to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars and other minorities from Crimea.

Ukrainian Crimean Tatar journalist Osman Pashayev was in for a rude awakening. He was detained by the so-called Simferopil self-defence while covering the rally. Pashayev and his companions were beaten and robbed whilst in detention. He was detained on his way to the rally. Two military helicopters were keeping an eye on proceedings from the heavens. By the middle of May the Kremlin-backed authorities were subjecting Crimean Tatars to mass searches of homes on the pretext of searching for terrorists. The squeeze continues. The next target of Moscow’s wrath was an old favourite, language. Sevastopil education official Nataliya Zhuravlyova confirmed in early June that the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages would be taught in Sevastopil’s schools only on request. The situation is dire for Cemilev’s people. He has admitted that thousands of Tatars have been forced to emigrate to western Ukraine due to the situation in Crimea.  “According to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 8,000 people have left Crimea to date, and this is primarily Crimean Tatars,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio on 10 May. Mustafa Cemilev says Crimean Tatars do not intend to give up their legal rights and will oppose the occupation of the peninsula. They will have to. After all, for the elderly, all these events are merely a reminder of the Stalinist deportations of the 1940s. For the Kremlin it is business as usual.

Peter Dutczyn
for Ukraine Crisis Media Center