Staunton, December 3 – Both before and after the Anschluss, the Crimean Tatars have been the most consistent opponents of the illegal Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula that is their homeland. As a result, the occupation authorities have treated them badly, radicalizing a fundamentally pragmatic group rather than intimidating its members.
In a 5800-word survey of what the Russians have done, Ilya Azar, a Meduza.io journalist, says Russia has treated the Crimean Tatars as if they were restive North Caucasians, something the Crimean Tatars say “isn’t necessary” because “we are not mountaineers,” can’t be bought off with money as some Chechens were, and must be treated with dignity if Moscow expects cooperation.
But if Russian officials continue to behave otherwise, the situation could get out of hand. According to Lilia Bujurova, “if Russia is interested that there will be a mobilized ethnic group in Crimea and which will consider itself an enemy of Russia,” it will find out what that means “when Russia weakens” and this group can act on behalf of its nation.
The current generation may not be passionate about taking such actions, but “a passionate one will come to replace it,” she said. But if Russia treats the Crimean Tatars with respect, then the nation will respond in kind and might even protest against the restoration of Ukrainian power on the peninsula if that should happen in 20 to 25 years.
Since the occupation began, Russian officials in Crimea have failed to stop if they are not in fact implicated in a wave of kidnappings and disappearance, have blocked the return to Crimea of two of the most important Crimean Tatar leaders, have banned meetings, attacked the Mejlis, and conducted innumerable searches for illegal literature, drugs, and weapons.
None of these things has led most Crimean Tatars to change their view that acknowledging that Crimea is now part of Russia would be an act of betrayal. Instead, these actions have infuriated most, reduced the possibility of any cooperation, and radicalized many Crimean Tatars, especially the younger ones.
Some Crimean Tatars, either out of careerist considerations or out of a belief that they have no choice but to cooperate, are doing so, but most are holding back. The one institution that has gone over to the Russian side as it were is the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), which is rooted in the Russian tradition of religious governance rather than in the Crimean Tatar.
Initially, Azar says, some Crimean Tatars hoped that the annexation of the peninsula would open the way for the restoration of a national republic for them. After all, there are many national republics in the Russian Federation and none in Ukraine, and some of those republics have a titular nationality which forms, as the Crimean Tatars do, only a small fraction of the population.
But Russian officials were not willing to make any concessions in this regard, and Putin’s promises of aid to help the Crimean Tatars overcome their deportation have proven hollow. Instead, Azar says, the occupation authorities have tried to buy loyalty, something that doesn’t work with the Crimean Tatars.
The Russian authorities have also sought to undermine the authority of Mustafa Cemilev, the longtime leader of the Crimean Tatars. They have banned him and his successor from entering Crimea, and they have tried to bend him to Russia’s will by arresting his son and promising the latter’s release if Cemilev goes along.
Had the Russian actions against him and the community been less blunt, they might have been more effective, Azar suggests. On the one hand, some Crimean Tatars do not agree with the radical pro-Ukrainian position Cemilev has adopted. And on the other, some do not blame Russia for all that has happened, given that Kyiv was not prepared to do much for them until after Crimea was occupied.
Moreover, as Bujurova says, the Russian authorities have shown that they have no respect for the Crimean Tatars and are ready to repress them. “For people in Russia,” she says, “apparently this has become the norm, but for us it is something unaccustomed. In Ukraine, people could express their point of view.” Now, they risk repression.
And Russia is creating a new group of angry Crimean Tatars: former government employees. When Crimea was controlled by Ukraine, 15 percent of government jobs there were held by Crimean Tatars. Now, only three percent of them are Crimean Tatars. Moreover, Crimean Tatars have been fired from various jobs simply because they are Crimean Tatars.
The occupation authorities have tried to undercut the Mejlis by forming an alternative Crimean Tatar organization, the Kyyrym; but it has few supporters and even the Russian occupation officials with whom Azar spoke say that “it has no chance” of achieving what its organizers hoped for. “Today, there is no alternative to the Mejlis.”
The occupation authorities are now promising that they are working on “a fundamental law” about the Crimean Tatar language, but most Crimean Tatars are skeptical and fear that they will see many of the 15 Crimean Tatar language schools they opened in Ukrainian times closed as a result.
The situation in these schools is already dire, Dilyara Seyitveliyeva, the sister of Mustafa Cemilev says. One reason is that the authorities will not allow children to use the textbooks that they had been using. She said she was grateful to “little uncle Soros” for them, but now the books he gave can’t be used “because they were published in Ukraine.”
All this is intensifying the alienation many Crimean Tatars feel with regard to Russia and the occupation. Changing their feelings will take time and a different approach by the occupation authorities. “Imagine,” one Crimean Tatar told the journalist who was visiting from Latvia, that “tomorrow, the Finns came and said they’ve held a referendum and now this is Finland.”
“Would you in that event immediately become a patriot of Finland?”