Posted on 12. January 2016
by Ivan Kendzor
During the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation in March 2014, little attention was paid to the destiny of the 240,000 Tatars who inhabit the peninsula. The case of the Crimean Tatars is interesting, primarily because they are one of the few groups residing in Crimea who were in direct opposition to Putin’s regime and against the occupation. To better understand the origin and current state of conflicts between the Russian Federation and Tatars, it is necessary to take a short look back into history.
Crimean Tatars belong to a Turkic ethnic group that settled in the Crimean Peninsula in the 13th-17th centuries, primarily from the Turkic tribes that moved to the land that is now known as Crimea in Eastern Europe from the Asian steppes, beginning in the 10th century. From 1449 until 1779 Crimea was the main location for Crimean Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire that succeeded the Golden Horde. In 1783, after several wars with the Russian Empire, Crimea was finally occupied by Russian Empire troops and became part of the Russian Taurida Governorate (administrative unit). By that time, Tatars constituted the biggest fraction of Crimea population.
Following the Russian October Revolution in 1917, the ethnic Tatar government proclaimed a Crimean People’s Republic. In 1919 the Crimean Republic became the stronghold for the White Army (the remaining Russian Empire Army), which retreated from the invasion of the Soviet Army. On 2 April 1919 the Crimean peninsula was finally invaded by Soviet Army and became the Crimean Socialist Soviet Republic.
The first serious danger for Crimean Tatars began after the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula from Nazi troops. During the Crimea Occupation, the German government allowed Tatars to establish self-defense battalions. This was done to create an additional force which could fight on the side of German army. Tatars were also heavily discriminated against by the local population because they didn’t resemble Slavic nationality and could not join the local partisans’ movements organised by Soviet troops.
When the retreat of German troops began, the Soviet army executed everybody who had cooperated with the Germans in some way. Tatars were no exception. In 1944, when the Crimean peninsula was liberated by Soviets, over two nights, as revenge for collaboration with German army, the whole population of Tatars (240,000 people) was deported to different parts of the Soviet Union, mainly to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The cleaning began on 18 May 1944 and lasted until 20 May 1944. Even those families whose members had fought on the side of Soviet Army were deported. The forced deportees were given only 30 minutes to take all of their important belongings. Some deportees didn’t even take anything, because they recalled the recent occupation of Nazis and had expectations to be killed soon. There were witnesses who claimed that having forgotten to deport Tatars families who lived in remote sailor villages on the Arabat Arrow, the Soviets put all those people in one ship and sank it in the middle of the sea.
The deportation was conducted in harsh conditions. Around 7,900 people died during the transportation. The living conditions in final destinations were similar to those in concentration camps. Tatars lived in special settlement camps which were surrounded by barbed wire. Tatars faced difficulties in studying at schools or universities. The Soviet Government also promoted xenophobia among the local inhabitants towards Tatars. Tatars were always subjected to humiliation and insult. Over the next decades, the conditions of living were improved, but only slightly. Tatars had raised the issue of returning back to the Crimean peninsula several times, but their petitions were always rejected. Only in 1968 were some families allowed to return back to their native regions. The rest of the Tatars were only allowed to return in the mid-80s, with the beginning of “Perestroika”.
The impact of repressions has remained a big footprint on the consciousness of Crimean Tatars to this day. Crimean Tatars became negatively oriented against the Soviet Union and consequently against the Russian Federation, who became the sole heir of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Russian Federation doesn’t recognise the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 as a crime.
After the outbreak of conflict in the Crimean peninsula, Crimean Tatars have received a lot of attention. The population of Crimean Tatars was first among others to condemn the military annexation of the peninsula. They also didn’t recognise the referendum which should have defined the territorial status of Crimea. Putin justified the Crimean annexation by claiming that his country is obliged to protect native Russians in Crimea against an “orgy of nationalists” or “right extremists” (he meant the new Government in Ukraine). Regarding the Crimean Tatars, at the beginning the new Russian authorities made a lot of promises: seats in the new parliament; financial help; language rights; rural development programs. The real purpose, however, was to create the impression to the rest of the world that after the Crimean annexation, Russia will respect the rights of national minorities who reside in Crimea, and will obey international norms. The unofficial leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev was even directly invited by Putin to discuss the situation in Crimea. But after a short period of time all these promises were forgotten.
As soon as the conflict was more or less mitigated and the international press had – to large extent – stopped reflecting on the events in Crimea, Russian authorities started to carry out precautionary measurements in order to prevent any signs of resistance from the side of Tatars. In order to threaten the local population, Russian secret police carried out searches in the houses of Tatar leaders, schools, cultural institutions and monasteries. Some books – including the works of the popular 20th century Turkish scholar Said Nursi – were banned and confiscated (as they allegedly contained extremist’s texts). On 22 April 2014 the Russian Federation forbade Dzhemilev from entering the Crimean Peninsula. The local authorities also closed the only Tatar-language TV channel in Crimea, because the administration of the channel had allegedly submitted incorrect documents. Crimean Tatars started to complain that they had become the object of insult and offense. The Tatars became virtually deprived of any chance of free speech and self-expression. During the session of the UN Committee on Human Rights on 16 March 2015 Ukraine Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights Valeria Lutkovska said: “Within a year of occupation Crimea turned into a peninsula of fear”. The leader of the Crimean Tatars Mejlis Refat Chubarov commented on the events in Crimea by stating that nowadays Crimean Tatars don’t exclude the possibility of any action from the side of the Russian Federation, even a second wave of deportation.
This destiny had touched not only Tatars, but also other ordinary citizens. Nowadays any attempts to organise protests in Crimea or in Russia are seriously punished. Any “suspicious” citizens can be put behind bars, even without any serious accusations. Casual life in Crimea has also become tougher. Due to the fact that the peninsula doesn’t have a direct land connection to the Russian Federation, the transportation of all goods and services occurs through Ukrainian territory, making it very expensive. As the result of annexation, freight traffic decreased 47% and passenger traffic decreased 67%. The Crimean economy became absolutely bankrupt. Because of the conversion of currencies from Ukrainian “Gryvnja” to Russian “Rubl”, the real value of money became extremely lower. In the year of annexation inflation reached 42%. The vast majority of contracts between enterprises in Crimea and Ukraine were abolished. Around 60% of companies were closed. Only those factories which still directly cooperate with Russia can survive.Tourism to Crimea also dramatically decreased. Before Crimea was annexed, around 6 million tourists visited annually. After the annexation, the number decreased to 3,8 million, mostly coming from Russia. The tourism sector was especially important for Tatars, who earned money by renting apartments and offering other services for tourists.
For the Crimean Tatars the life became even more complicated, because above others, they continuously suffer from the persecutions of the new Russian authorities. In my opinion nowadays there is not enough support from all parties to solve this issue. Ukrainian authorities should be doing more, and at higher political levels, to help. In particular, Ukrainian authorities should raise this problem more often internationally, including at the United Nations and with the European institutions. Ukrainian authorities should also more intensively support Crimean Tatars, by offering as much help as possible, from legal assistance to humanitarian aid. At the European level, strong mechanisms of protection of minorities should be implemented. The leaders of the European Union and other democratic countries should also emphasise this problem more, especially during their meetings with Russian officials. I believe that nowadays it is very important to show full support to the Crimean Tatars because they seem to be cut off from any signs of help. Russia intends to get rid of any unsatisfied citizens. And as long as the Crimean Tatars will refuse Crimean annexation and the establishment of new Russia authorities, Russia will see them as the enemy and will deploy any barbarian methods required to eliminate this danger.