By Liana Fix - Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and Visiting PhD Researcher at the University of Birmingham
March 18 marks the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Within the last year, the situation on the ground has considerably deteriorated, in particular for the Crimean Tatars. After about twenty years of relatively peaceful existence in their homeland, they are once again under pressure. Contrary to what Russia promised the Crimean Tatar community, we are now seeing a crackdown on Tatar political and media organizations (under the pretext of fighting “political extremism”) and mounting harassment of Crimean Tatars. Russia’s annexation of 2014 could well become the “third tragedy” of the Crimean Tatar community – after the Russian conquest of 1783 and Stalin’s mass deportations of 1944.
Within Crimea, Crimean Tatars have been the most active opponents of the annexation, boycotting the annexation referendum en masse as well as the parliamentary elections in September, despite the pressure put onto the community in the run-up to both events. According to media reports, houses of Crimean Tatar were singled out with X-shaped marks on their front doors before the referendum, evoking memories of similar actions before the deportation in 1944.
However, the situation for Crimean Tatars has also been tense even before the annexation, not only because of the limited desire within Ukraine to make life easier for Crimean Tatars but also because of the confrontations with antagonistic pro-Russian groups. These groups pathologized the Tatar community as “extremist nationalist” and “Islamist” and continued to blame Tatars for alleged collaborated with the Nazis. Land allocation also led to tensions: starting in the mid-2000s, Crimean Tatars began to settle land without permission from the Crimean authorities, protesting the authorities’ failure to allocate land to them fairly. In response pro-Russian groups would regularly picket this land, arguing the Crimean Tatars were illegal squatters. The same pro-Russian groups whose antagonism toward Crimean Tatars was visible before 2014 were the ones who eventually facilitated Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March.
However, the Ukrainian state authorities remained suspicious of Crimean Tatars, too, and were unwilling to adopt legislation that would recognize them as an indigenous people of Ukraine – or at least, not until after Russia’s annexation.
After the annexation, Moscow initially tried to ease the concerns of Crimean Tatars by including them into the Russian Act for the rehabilitation of repressed ethnic groups. However, many other promises – for example, for political autonomy and quotas in government bodies – remained unfulfilled. The events that followed the annexation showed the true nature of the new Russian approach toward Crimean Tatars. By co-opting such rival institutions as the marginal pro-Russian Milli Firka Party, and intimidating those it sees as its biggest opponents (in particular Mustafa Dzhemilev, the former leader of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar council), Crimean and Russian authorities sought to break Crimean Tatar resistance. Last April Dzhemilev was the first to be banned from returning to Crimea (for five years). A ban on the current leader of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, followed in July. In September the Mejlis – along with a charitable foundation it runs – was raided and ordered closed on grounds that it was “never properly registered.”
Mosques and Crimean Tatar homes have also been raided in search of “weapons, drugs, and prohibited literature,” and Crimean Tatar commemorations of the Day of Deportation (May 18) were banned just days before the event, even though pro-Russian celebrations were allowed to occur. In addition, a number of Crimean Tatar activists have disappeared or been forcibly abducted, with pro-Russian paramilitary groups involved. Some were later found dead, but investigations have yielded no results. Crimean Tatar media platforms, such as the TV station ATR, have also received official and informal warnings for their allegedly “extremist activities” – for example reporting about cases of harassment and referring to the events of March as an “occupation” or “annexation.” Crimean Tatar journalists have therefore resorted to “self-censorship” in order to avoid possible arrest or forced closure, as happened to the Crimean newspaper Avdet.
Dzhemilev has described this treatment as “history repeating itself.” According to the former dissident, the authorities are falling back on the same kind of rhetoric once used by the Soviet regime to label Crimean Tatars as “anti-Soviet” and “extremist.” For the Russian and Crimean authorities, the Crimean Tatars pose the greatest potential for mobilization against Crimea’s annexation as a wellorganized and vocal community with a history of counter-authoritarian protest. The oppression campaign against the Crimean Tatars is therefore likely to continue in the future.
The international community should exert more pressure on Russia regarding its treatment of the Crimean Tatar minority. A return of Crimea to Ukraine may be unlikely in the foreseeable future, but this fact does not relieve the international community of its responsibility to pay close attention to what is actually happening on the peninsula. It is not sufficient to criticize only the defacto authorities in Crimea for their maltreatment of Crimean Tatars since it was the extension of Russian legislation into Crimea that now provides the pretexts for the raids and harassments that are currently taking place, just as Russian prosecutors and FSB agents are now involved in persecuting Crimean Tatars. Russia must comply with international human rights law, including all treaties ratified by Russia, such as the European Convention on Human Rights.
First and foremost Russia must ensure access to Crimea for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission and to allow the establishment of a permanent OSCE presence to operate and report on the situation. Secondly, OSCE participating states should convene informal and open Permanent Council briefings on Crimea with representatives from civil society and other international organizations to report on developments and discuss international responses. Thirdly, the UN Security Council should adopt a Chapter VI resolution, urging the de facto authorities of Crimea and Russia to implement the recommendations in the reports on Crimea by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine and the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights.
Forgetting about Crimea and the fate of the Crimean Tatars means implicitly acknowledging Russia’s claim to the region. Instead, the international community must demonstrate to Russia that its arbitrary interpretation of international law regarding Crimea has long-term consequences. We are not yet in a post-Crimea phase.
This blog post is based on a policy paper published in December 2014 by Liana Fix and Eleanor Knott for the German Council on Foreign Relations: https://dgap.org/en/think-tank/publications/dgapanalyse-compact/crimea-time-pressure-not-acceptance