Since Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, the situation of the Crimean Tatars has significantly deteriorated. They are in an increasingly perilous position with Russia and the illegal Crimean authorities engaged in a campaign of repression, persecution and harassment. The latest example took place earlier this week when the building of the Crimea Tatars’ self-governing body, the Mejlis, was impounded by Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service.
When Crimea was annexed by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, the oppressed Tatars fled in a mass emigration. During 1944, Stalin deported the entire Tatar population, of which some 45 percent died of disease, hunger and thirst. Most of the Tatars presently living in Crimea repatriated after Ukraine became independent and have remained staunchly pro-Ukrainian during the last two decades. The majority of the Tatar community, which numbers some 300,000 (12 percent of the peninsula’s population), was horrified by Russia’s invasion, fearing a return to repressive days of the past.
While Moscow launched a charm offensive promising Tatars expanded rights, this was no more than lip service. Most Tatars boycotted the March 16 illegal referendum on the “status of Crimea,” fully supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They also boycotted Russian local elections held on Sept. 14.
Over the last six months their freedoms and rights have been repeatedly attacked. According to a report by Amnesty International earlier this year, “Tatar activists have been detained and ill-treated by groups of armed men and, in one case, killed; the informal leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Jemilev, was banned and prevented from entering his homeland for five years; scores of Tatars have been prosecuted for taking part in peaceful protests; the Mejlis, has been threatened with dissolution; Tatars are under pressure to give up their Ukrainian citizenship and take Russian passports or face becoming foreigners in their own land or be exported.”
They have also broadly prohibited the Tatars from celebrating their holidays and remembering the victims of political repressions; they are harassed by secret services and “self-defense forces” that search homes, offices and mosques.
Tatar university students are being forced to apply for Russian citizenship and passports with the threat of not receiving their diplomas if they don’t. Certain Islamic books, including school educational books, previously considered legal under the Ukrainian law, have been banned. Other senior leaders in the community, such as Refat Chubarov, have been expelled. Today, up to 8,000 Crimean Tatars have already fled to Ukraine.
Jemiliev, who Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed as his representative on Crimean Tatar affairs in August, has reportedly been told by the Russian Federal Migration Service that he is “persona non grata.” The self-appointed “Prime Minister of the Crimean Republic,” Sergei Aksyonov claims that Jemilev intentionally provokes trouble, stating, “There is no doubt that this man — Jemilev — was given the task by his masters, Western intelligence agencies, to destabilize the situation in Crimea.”
Such accusations are ludicrous. Crimean Tatars are a peaceful people who have never taken up arms or engaged in extremist activity. To underline this fact, on May 6, Poland awarded its first “Solidarity Prize” to Jemilev for his ongoing contributions to peace, democracy and human rights.
In a report published in July, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) notes that none of its recommendations had been implemented in Crimea at present under Russian occupation. All issues remain current, in particular “harassment and discrimination against ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, representatives of religious minorities, minority groups in general and activists who opposed the March 16 ‘referendum’ in Crimea.”
While this article may have focused on Crimea’s Tartars, let us not forget that many proud ethnic Ukrainians have also chosen to remain in their homeland, despite the fact that they are constantly intimidated, enduring crude violations of basic human rights.
The attacks and prosecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate is a powerful example. Some priests have been forced to sign papers on cooperation with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). This is like a return to the communist era, when the KGB exerted influence on clergymen. The arrest of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and three other activists, who were transferred to Russia on terrorism charges, is another example. This situation seems set to deteriorate and more must be done by the international community.
Amanda Paul is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, where she deals with the EU's Eastern Neighbourhood, Russia, Turkey and Eurasia Region. She is also a columnist for the Turkish Daily, Today's Zaman.