Jul 07, 2016

Crimean Tatars: Russia’s Crushing Campaign of Fear and Repression

Photo Courtesy of: Adam Jones 2016 @Flickr

Since Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014, the indigenous Crimean Tatar population is the target of a systematic campaign of suppression at the hands of the Russian occupiers. Scores of Tatars flee from the area; an estimated 15.000 to 30.000 of them have already sought refuge outside their ancestral homeland. While the Russian ‘authorities’ had initially promised to refrain from targeting Crimean Tatars, as soon as it became clear that the latter would not support the illegal annexation, Russia embarked on a strategy of expelling Crimean Tatars (by means of suppression, harassment and the perpetration of human rights violations), dismantling their representative bodies, and curtailing their religious and cultural freedoms.


Below is an article published by The Telegraph: 

The knock on the door came at 7.30am and the brutal interrogation lasted for almost eight hours. After being taken from his home in Crimea to a police station, Weldar Shukurdiyev was threatened and assaulted.

“Two men were beating me,” he remembered. “There were constant threats: they said they would make me eat the Ukrainian flag. Every five minutes somebody would enter and shout more insults.”

Mr Shukurdiyev is a Crimean Tatar, one of the original inhabitants of the Black Sea peninsula. Two years after Russia seized their historic homeland from Ukraine, the Tatars are now the target of an escalating campaign of repression mounted by their new overlords.

The suspicion of them is based on a painful truth: no-one has a more viscerally powerful reason to oppose the return of Russian rule over Crimea than the Tatars. Like most of his brethren, Mr Shukurdiyev was born not in Crimea, but in what was then the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.

His father was among 210,000 Tatars deported from Crimea in the penultimate year of the Second World War. In the space of three days from 18 May 1944, every last Tatar – man, woman and child – was rounded up in towns and villages across Crimea and herded onto sealed trains, which transported them for 2,000 miles to the barren steppe of Uzbekistan.

This mass expulsion, amounting to Stalin’s vengeance for the Tatars’ alleged collaboration with Nazi invaders, was commemorated in the unlikely setting of the Eurovision song contest in Stockholm in May. Jamala, a Ukrainian performer of Tatar origin, won the prize with “1944”, a song about her ancestors’ tragedy.

The Tatars lived in exile in Uzbekistan until the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the survivors and their descendants to return to Crimea. No sooner had they come home than the Soviet Union collapsed and Crimea found itself part of independent Ukraine. At a stroke, the Tatars experienced liberation, of a sort, from Russian rule.

But the reprieve lasted only 23 years before Russia returned and Crimea was, in Vladimir Putin’s triumphant phrase, “reunited with the Motherland”.

Since then, more and more Tatars have fled a climate of fear and repression in Crimea, seeking safety elsewhere in Ukraine. A people who endured mass deportation 72 years ago are now suffering a slow-motion – and less cruel - version of the same phenomenon.

How many Tatars have fled Crimea since Mr Putin reclaimed the territory in March 2014 is unclear. In all, as many as 100,000 people have left the region for the rest of Ukraine, according to SOS Crimea, a Kiev-based charity.

Of those, a conservative estimate suggests that 15,000 are Tatars; the real figure may be closer to 30,000. Even the lowest number would imply that at least one Tatar in every 20 has left Crimea since 2014. So it is that displaced Tatars are, in effect, enduring a second exile from Russian rule.

Mr Shukurdiyev was arrested and interrogated on 16 May last year [2015] – a significant date because the authorities suspected him of planning a rally to mark the 71st anniversary of the Tatar deportation two days later.

By this time, he was already well known to the occupying power: two months earlier he had been detained for parading with the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine in honour of the birthday of Taras Shevchenko, the poet and author regarded as the father of Ukrainian literature.

After suffering the eight-hour assault in the police station, Mr Shukurdiyev, 41, was arrested on five more occasions for daring to oppose Russian rule. He now lives in the safety of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

But, even after his ordeal, Mr Shukurdiyev is determined to return to Crimea. “Yes I will go back,” he said. “It’s an obligation, a debt, I’m obliged to go back. I can’t leave my homeland.”

Today, the Café Crimea in the heart of Kiev serves as a haven for many Tatars. On the walls hang pictures of the pristine beaches, mountains and fields of their lost homeland. Just outside is Independence Square, universally known as the “Maidan”, where a popular revolution swept away Ukraine’s last pro-Russian leader in February 2014, leading Mr Putin to take revenge by seizing Crimea.

Here, Tatars gather to talk about what they have left behind. “My parents and relatives are still in Crimea,” said one customer in the cafe, who asked to be named only as Elmaz. “They say it’s like a return to the Soviet Union. They cannot say anything. There are kidnappings of Tatars. For example, if your neighbour does not like you, he might go to the police and give your name.”

Elmaz, 37, voiced her reluctance even to visit Crimea. “Under Ukraine, of course there were problems. But at least we could breathe freely with no fear,” she said.

Russia’s policy towards the Tatars has passed through two distinct phases. In the early months of the occupation, the Kremlin took a conciliatory approach, promising there would be no discrimination and negotiating with members of the “Mejlis”, the Tatar representative body in Crimea.

But when it became clear that Tatars would not accept Russia’s presence – and only a handful were prepared to be co-opted as supporters of the Kremlin’s supremacy – conciliation was abruptly replaced with repression.

Once again, the Tatar leaders have been forced into exile, not in Uzbekistan but in Kiev. In April, the “Mejlis” was banned, supposedly because it had been taken over by Muslim “extremists”.

The fact that the Tatars happen to be Muslims has given Russia an excuse to disguise heavy-handedness as counter-terrorism. In recent months, mosques have been raided across Crimea, with ordinary worshippers being searched, questioned and often detained.

Said Ismagilov, the “Mufti” who leads Ukraine’s Muslim minority, keeps track of the repression. Of the 17 “Madrassahs” - or Islamic colleges - in Crimea, 16 have been shut down, he said.

Meanwhile, Russia has applied its censorship laws to its occupied territory, resulting in the prohibition of certain Muslim texts, including some – but not all - Russian translations of the Koran. “This book is banned in Crimea,” said Mr Ismagilov, holding up a compilation of the sayings of the Prophet. “And this is also banned,” he added, pointing towards a Russian version of the Koran.

Mr Ismagilov spoke in the safety of his office in Kiev. Had he been in Crimea 500 miles to the south, simple possession of these green volumes would have exposed him to arrest by the security forces.

“From the beginning, they gave instructions on what books should be destroyed, like in Europe in the Middle Ages,” he said.

The last “Madrassah” in Crimea, meanwhile, allows the occupying power to approve its staff and curriculum. Most of the Turkish scholars who previously taught at these colleges have been compelled to go home. “Russia would like the Muslims in Crimea to be under their influence,” said Mr Ismagilov. “They are willing to have Islamic educational and cultural centres – but only under Russian control.”

Mr Ismagilov fears that censorship is being employed to place more pressure on the Tatars. “They are using this tactically,” he explained. “They can plant one of these banned books in a mosque and then police can come and arrest people.”

Mr Ismagilov has no doubt about Russia’s ultimate objective. “They want Crimea to be a military zone and they are trying to force as many Tatars as possible to leave Crimea,” he said.

The exiled leaders of the Tatars agree with this bleak assessment of Mr Putin’s intentions.

Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the now illegal “Mejlis”, has lived in Kiev since the occupying authorities banned him from Crimea in July 2014. Sitting in his home in the capital, he described how the stubborn opposition of the Tatars to Russian rule had spoilt Mr Putin’s plans.

“He wanted to show a beautiful picture to the West that Crimea gave itself to Russia,” said Mr Chubarov. “But the Tatars were the only ones who were openly and organised against it. Because of the Tatars, one piece of the puzzle was missing. We didn’t allow Putin any chance to paint his appealing picture – and he’s not going to forgive this.”

Since the occupation began, Mr Chubarov said that 22 Tatars had disappeared into the hands of the Russian police or the FSB security service, of whom four have turned up dead. Hundreds more have “experienced searches of their houses or visits to their houses,” he said. “This happens almost daily.”

The security forces often surround mosques after Friday prayers. “If someone doesn’t have documents or if there any doubts, they can be arrested. They can take 100 or 120 people on a single visit,” said Mr Chubarov.

He is filled with foreboding about the Kremlin’s goal. “Russia wants to take the Tatars out of Crimea,” said Mr Chubarov. “Stalin thought the Tatars were like spies on his territory – and Putin thinks the same.”

If that is the aim, Mr Chubarov is troubled by the crucial question: how far is Mr Putin prepared to go? Back in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, Mr Chubarov was visited by a procession of worried Western ambassadors.

“They all asked me ‘is it possible to do the same in Ukraine?’ And I said ‘no, Ukraine is not a small country which can be attacked like Georgia’. Then look what happened in 2014," he said. “After this, I never say ‘no’ about what Russia might do.”

Mr Chubarov’s predecessor as chairman of the “Mejlis” is now in exile for the second time. As a baby of six months, Mustafa Dzhemilev was one of the passengers on board the trains laden with Tatars that left Crimea in 1944.

As he was sent eastwards to the arid wastes of Uzbekistan, his father was a Red Army soldier on the frontline against the Nazis. Even while the elder Mr Dzhemilev fought the Germans, his wife and children were being driven from their homes by the very army in which he served.

Mustafa Dzhemilev grew up in Uzbekistan, where he campaigned for the rights of the Tatars and condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, paying the traditional price of dissent in the Soviet Union by spending 15 years in prison.

When the Tatars were finally allowed to return to Crimea, he became their titular leader until his retirement from the chairmanship of the “Mejlis” in 2013.

Only a month after Russia reoccupied Crimea, Mr Dzhemilev, now 72, was banned from returning to the territory. His second exile began, this time in Kiev.

“I was told that Crimea was Russian now - and I could not enter Crimea,” he recalled. “We are the indigenous people of Crimea and we don’t recognise the occupation. It’s very important for Putin, but he can’t change our minds. The number of collaborators he could recruit with threats or money isn’t increasing, because the collaborators are themselves feeling isolated.”

During the brief conciliatory phase of the Russian occupation, Mr Dzhemilev had two phone conversations with Mr Putin. But today, he has no illusions about the intentions of the occupant of the Kremlin. Mr Putin offers the Tatars a simple bargain: to “keep silent or leave Crimea,” said Mr Dzhemilev.

Week after week, reports arrive of detentions, disappearances – and even some killings. “There are kidnappings and murders,” added Mr Dzhemilev. “People are not sure it won’t happen to them.”

The exiled leaders of the Tatars urge their people to stay and cling on to their homeland. They point to the weight of international pressure on Russia, including the Western sanctions biting deep into the country’s economy, and promise that the occupation will not last forever.

Yet Mr Dzhemilev acknowledged that many of his fellow Tatars were still tempted to leave. “The ‘Mejlis’ asks people to stay in Crimea, to wait for the occupiers to go,” he said. “But the people say ‘nobody can guarantee our children won’t be kidnapped’. The situation is that sad.”