In the Crimea, the only Crimean Tatar TV channel has stopped broadcasting based on Russian authorities’ refusal to renew its license. The station, ATR, which broadcast in the Tatar language to what officials say was an audience of 4 million people in Crimea and beyond, went off the air on April 1, 2015.
The closing of ATR caused a new wave of suspicion among the masses and the expert community both on the Crimean Peninsula and beyond. It is not just the TV channel. The question has a wide meaning: what are the regional consequences of the policy adopted by the Russia-affiliated authorities now in charge?
TV Channel as a Symbol
ATR was and remains to a high extent a symbol of revival of the Crimean Tatars.
The people were deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944 and actually acquired the right and possibility of returning home only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1991 the Crimea became part of independent Ukraine. All these 20 years were not easy for the indigenous people of the Peninsula. Only recently, the Crimean Tatars more or less regained their footing. The appearance of the TV channel, on the one hand, was the result of the development and strengthening of the national movement, but, on the other hand, it had strong influence on the intensification of the process of ethnic and religious self-determination of the Tatars.
The pivotal role of ATR is noted by the deputy chief editor of “MK,” one of the largest Russian newspapers, Ayder Mudzhtabayev. According to Mudzhtabayev, the contribution of the TV channel to the revival of the Crimean Tatar language as a language of high culture, science, and literature is difficult to overestimate. Until recently, it mostly remained the language of everyday communication, and mostly used among the older generation of the Crimean Tatars. The youth commonly was losing the language of the ancestors.
Last year, ATR pursued rather soft information policy, trying not to cause excess attention of officials while showing readiness for a compromise. It was clear that such a significant resource, which in the days of accession of the Crimea to Russia kept a generally critical line, was unlikely to remain the same as before. But the hope that an adequate solution will be found remained.
ATR, whose professionalism is not denied even by its enemies, was created by a big Russian businessman, Crimean Tatar, and an influential social and political activist, Lenur Islyamov. He is known to the broad masses for being initiator and producer of the movie “Haytarma,” dedicated to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
The first months after the Russian accession of the Peninsula, Islyamov held a post of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Crimea. His task included solving the problems of his people in a new environment and representing the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people before the authorities of the Peninsula and Moscow.
However, the period when Crimea was allowed to define its own domestic policy ended rather quickly. As the crisis over Ukraine was deepening, flexibility in approach was becoming less. Islyamov was removed from his post. A year later the TV channel was closed.
The deprivation of ATR’s license caused negative reaction in Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In response, the Russian authorities declared that the procedure was carried out in accordance with the law, which the European representatives can personally verify.
Press Secretary of the President of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, said that the case is under the jurisdiction of the judiciary and the head of the state does not interfere in it.
Meanwhile, the head of Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation, Ravil Gaynutdin, urged to keep the TV channel. He warned against hasty decisions and warned about possible negative consequences. The concern was also expressed by the former head of Council for Human Rights, Ella Pamfilova.
Earlier to the ATR problem, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drew worldwide attention to the Crimean Tatars. During personal meeting in winter of 2014 Vladimir Putin assured him that the rights and freedoms of all inhabitants of the Peninsula, including ethnic minorities, will be fully guaranteed.
Many Russian and foreign experts, out of anxiety, tend to talk about the emergence of hotspots of low intensity threats in the Crimea.
The Crimean Prosecutor's office cautioned the Majlis of the Crimean Tatars several times against extremism.
The leader of the Crimean Tatars and former head of the Majlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is denied entry to his historical homeland. In fact, this leader who gave life to the struggle for the return of the Crimean Tatars, is repeatedly deported. Similar decision was taken in respect of the current head of Majlis, Rifat Chubarov. In addition, some leaders of organizations who are staying in the Crimea are exposed to pressure.
Commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in May 2014, almost prohibited, took place under administrative and police restrictions and not in the center of Simferopol where they were usually used to be held before, but at the cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The participants were surrounded by members of the security and secret services. On the top of all that, officials seem to be willing only to work with Crimean Tatar representatives that are easy to deal with.
Resonant murder of Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar activist who was abducted in Mar. 2015 and found dead 13 days later, has not yet been cleared. Tatars believe that this is done consciously. The father of three young children was taken by three men in military-style jackets during a peaceful protest in Lenin Square, Simferopol, Ukraine.
About a year prior to Ametov’s murder, precisely in late Feb.2104, escalations against Crimean Tatars.
Crimean Tatars were refused a quota of representation in the government that had been openly promised. Their place and role too have not been arranged in the new constitution of the Peninsula, despite all assurances. Instead, statements by officials were issued about the necessity of taking over the land occupied by the Crimean Tatars for public needs.
Pressure upon activists of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and their families and at the same time on all who are suspected of collaboration with this organization is increasing. Until recently, it acted in the Crimea legally, since HT in Ukraine is not considered extremist and is not forbidden unlike Russia. Danger is threatening all Islamic organizations, including even the official muftiate, and religious activists.
The deputy head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Crimea, Seyran Arifov, explicitly says that mosques and communities have already obtained lists of the forbidden literature and organizations. Searches and arrests began. Many Crimean Tatars were compelled to leave the Peninsula.
In the summer of 2014 an unknown individual threw Molotov cocktail into the mosque in Simferopol and drew on it a fascist graffiti. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Simultaneously, vandals crushed the Muslim cemetery in the capital of the Crimea. On the eve of Eid al-Adha, the central mosque of the city of Saki was burned; in the first days of the holiday another attempt of arson of a different mosque was made.
All this awakens in the mind of the Crimean Tatars worst memoirs and fears. First of all, the fear of a new deportation, which lives in each of them.
Conversations, rumors, suspicions of this account have been circulating among Crimean Tatars from the very beginning of the events in the Peninsula. The people are outright alarmed and are expecting any turn in their difficult fate.
Constantly, reports are being received from different places of the Crimea that someone was "politely asked" to leave work, someone was asked about the price of his home by his neighbors since "you will anyway have to go," and someone was attacked by pro-Russian activists and so on. Not all of them, fortunately, are confirmed. But important is people's mood.
Actions of regional officials are perceived by many Tatars as national humiliation, resulting is a growing number of refugees. Ukrainian press writes about thousands of Crimean Tatars having left the Peninsula. The numbers can be disputed, but the fact cannot be denied.
The Regional Factor
Moscow has taken a strategic decision to turn the Crimea — first of all, of course, Sebastopol — in a kind of fortress, major naval base.
Mass media write about placement of a nuclear weapon there. In this regard, the local authorities were put to the task to solve the problem of the Crimean Tatars, whose loyalty causes questions. Details of how it can be implemented were, probably, left to the decision of the administration of the Peninsula.
To be on the safe side, Victor Palagan, the former head of the Federal Security Service in the Republic of Bashkortostan (Turko-Muslim region in the Volga region), was sent. There he was remembered for the campaign against "Islamic extremists," particularly HT, and nationalists. Now he held a similar position in the new subject of the Russian Federation.
The Crimean authorities went the shortest and, as it seems to them, the simplest and most effective way: bans, expulsion, threats, and pressure. Laborious, thoughtful work, in forming a flexible strategy for relations with the Crimean Tatars, the tiny people, require much time, efforts, competence and, therefore, are interesting to very few people.
Experts do not rule out even that someone has consciously taken the line to destabilize the situation. Crimean Tatars are being provoked for inadequate and sharp actions. This gives justified excuse in the eyes of the central authorities to use the harshest measures to suppress discontent and any disagreement with the policy of the Crimean authorities.
There are also other assessments of the situation. Thus, one of the Muftis of Ukraine, Said Ismagilov, who knows well the situation in the Crimea, expressed fears that the Crimean authorities may try to play the card of "Crimean Tatar extremism" in order to cover up their failures.
Now, the press write a lot about business and economic problems in the Peninsula. The new region has big problems in water supply, transportation, recreational infrastructure, and electricity. In addition, prices for many products soared due to deficit, not to mention corruption, crime and such "trifles," as idle or poorly performing banks.
The Crimea has faced crisis not only because of sanctions and falling oil prices, as the whole of Russia, but also for its own specific reasons. The Peninsula depended on tourism. Because of Crimea’s change of status, the Ukrainians, who used to make up to 70 percent of tourists, did not arrive last year. There is also no influx of Russian tourists, mainly because of huge transport problems.
"Terrorists," "traitors," "wreckers," and "associates of Banderovites," according to Ismagilov, can be very convenient for the Crimean administration. It is possible to shift easily the blame for all failures on them, and at the same time to request additional financing from Moscow for fighting against the "powerful" threat. It is a usual practice in the Russian North Caucasus.
National Activism of a Special Type
The Majlis manages to keep its supporters, including youth, from radicalism; and it remains the most influential organization of its kind. Orientation for nonviolent upholding of own rights, civil activity, and self-defense by masses is accepted without reservations so far. The mufti of the Crimea, close to the Majlis, Emirali Ablayev, says in connection with the situation: "If one of our mosques is burned, we will construct ten new mosques, but we will by no means fall for provocations."
Crimean Tatars show an example of national activity of the European type. There has not been such practice in Russia for a long time or has never taken place. There was a post-Soviet national-separatism, Caucasian jihadism, bureaucratic nationalism, extreme Nazism, and imperial national statism; but national movements of European type are lacking here, by the way, even by ethnic Russians.
Development of the situation depends on the wisdom of the local authorities, first and foremost. Yes, the Crimean Tatars are focused on the European type of public activity, but their stock of anti-extremism durability can be estimated as smaller, than, say, in Tatarstan (the Turko-Muslim region on the Volga), but larger than in the North Caucasus. And if security officers and the political administration of the Peninsula head for exacerbation of confrontation, different kinds of excesses cannot be ruled out at deterioration of political and economic conditions.
Of course, the Crimean situation cannot be compared with ones in Dagestan or Ingushetia where for many years serious clashes have not stopped. But the rise of the degree of instability and radicalism to the level of Karachay-Cherkessia or even Kabardino-Balkaria, where terrorist activity persists, is quite possible.