It is very painful to witness a small nation’s struggle to live freely turn into yesterday’s news, especially when the nightmare of brutal repression they are enduring continues to worsen. Tragically, that is the situation today confronting the Crimean Tatars, a small Muslim community with a venerable history whose aspirations for autonomy have been crushed by Russia since its military takeover of their homeland, the Crimean Peninsula, in February 2014.
Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea triggered international sanctions. In the ensuing five and a half years, however, the tragic plight of an estimated 250,000 Crimean Tatars hanging on in their homeland under relentless Russian pressure, seems to slide ever farther from the world’s consciousness. Now President Trump is proposing to let Russia back into the G-7 next year; a gesture, which if it transpires, would undercut wavering international pressure on behalf of the Crimean Tatars.
I have a personal connection with the Crimean Tatars which goes back to a series of trips I made to Crimea during the years 2004-2012. I fell in love with the majestic beauty of the Crimean coastline and mountainous back country, reminiscent of Big Sur, California, but with a rich overlay of ruined castles and fortresses going back to the ancient Greeks, Genoese, and Ottoman Turks. In a lovely valley in the heart of Crimea, I visited the medieval town of Bakhchisaray, centered around a sumptuous palace that was once the seat of power of the Crimean Tatar Khanate , which ruled the peninsula and much of southern Ukraine from the 15th-18th centuries.
A History of Persecution
Crimean Tatar independence ended in 1783 when Russian Czarina Catherine the Great conquered Crimea and began a process of forced Russification of the peninsula that drove tens of thousands of Tatars to emigrate to Turkey and delivered a majority Slavic population by the late 19th Century. This tragic process culminated on May 18, 1944, when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin abruptly exiled the entire population of Crimean Tatars from their homeland—some 200,000 souls or 25 percent of the total population of Crimea—on the false charge of having collaborated as a community with Nazi Germany, which had occupied Crimea from 1941-43. The Soviet secret police forced Crimean men, women and children into boxcars to endure horrific 1500-mile deportations to various points in Central Asia and Siberia during which an estimated 46 percent of the total population died of starvation or disease.
Then, miraculously, 50 years later, after the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars were able to return to their homeland, then part of newly independent Ukraine. There, they created autonomous institutions like the Mejlis (Council) to run their communal affairs. By 2014, the Crimean Tatar population had risen to 277,000— nearly 13 percent of the total population, along with 68 percent ethnic Russians, 16 percent Ukrainians, and about 2 percent Armenians, Jews and other minorities.
However, there was widespread, sometimes violent, resistance to the return of the Tatars, especially by militant nationalists among the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. Those nationalists also were prime suspects in a series of anti-Semitic hate crimes during the three years preceding the February-March 2014 Russian takeover. Jews and Tatars in the peninsula joined forces in demanding that local authorities take a stronger stand in denouncing and apprehending criminals who scrawled swastikas and hateful graffiti on mosques and synagogues and desecrated both Jewish and Crimean Tatar cemeteries.
Efforts at Reintegration
In my then-position as Muslim-Jewish Director at the New York based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, I worked to publicize the warm friendship then existing between Crimea’s Jews and Muslims, and their joint stand against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. I made repeated trips to Crimea to meet with leaders of both communities, including Mustafa Dzhemilev, the living symbol of Crimean aspirations for freedom who had been imprisoned for more than 20 years during Soviet times.
While there was understandable concern on the part of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians that returning Tatars would demand the return of their homes, most of the returning Tatars found alternative housing, including in hardscrabble, newly constructed neighborhoods outside the main cities. The Tatar version of Islam was decidedly moderate in expression and the Mejlis managed to work productively with Ukrainian authorities. There was hope that solutions to ethnic tensions would be found going forward.
Unfortunately, things moved in a different direction. The local Russian population became ever more radicalized and nationalistic—no doubt with the support of Moscow. In the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, Russian troops (without insignias) seized Ukrainian military installations around Crimea. A rigged referendum followed in which 97 percent of the population voted to become part of Russia.
The Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum despite thinly veiled warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Dzhemilev that there would be consequences for the Tatar community if they refused to cooperate. In contrast, with a few brave exceptions, members of the Jewish community abrogated their previous support for the Crimean Tatars and, like the rest of society, voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexation.
Widespread roundups of Crimean Tatar activists began and several of those who disappeared into custody later were confirmed to have been killed.
Widespread roundups of Crimean Tatar activists began almost immediately, and several of those who disappeared into custody later were confirmed to have been killed. Many of the top Crimean Tatar leaders including Dzhemilev and Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov, who had gone abroad to rally support in the immediate aftermath of the Russian takeover, were refused permission to return.
Human Rights Watch identifies 63 members of Crimean Tatar activists as having been charged by Russian authorities with supposed association with Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), a controversial pan-Islamist movement that is banned in Russia as a “terrorist” organization. In fact, the majority of those arrested have been activists associated with groups like Crimean Solidarity, a loose association of human rights lawyers, relatives, and supporters of victims of political repression.
“Russian authorities seek to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists.’ They are using terrorism charges as a convenient tool of repression.”
Commenting on the arrest of 24 Tatar activists earlier this year by Russian security forces, which tortured four of them, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Russian authorities seek to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists.’ The Russian authorities in Crimea are using terrorism charges as a convenient tool of repression.”
However, neither the Mejlis, which was banned by Russia as a supposed terrorist organization in 2016, nor any other prominent Crimean Tatar organization, including Hizb-ul-Tahrir, advocates violence.
Meanwhile, increasingly over the past several years the Russian FSB has conducted a series of raids on Tatar religious schools; placing onerous restrictions on the religious literature that can be used in the mosque. The authorities have also banned public observance by the Crimean Tatar community of the somber May 18 anniversary of their deportation in 1944.
Two years after the Russian takeover, I brought two Crimean Tatars leaders to Washington to speak to think tanks, State Department officials, and Jewish and Muslim organizations. However, after Russia outlawed the Mejlis, it was no longer safe for them to travel to the U.S. or even maintain communication with me.
More than 20,000 Crimean Tatars have left Crimea since 2014 for exile in Ukraine, Turkey, and other countries. Nevertheless, the majority appear committed to hanging on and maintaining their presence in the homeland, even if they must accommodate to repressive Russian rule for the foreseeable future. Having returned home against all odds in the 1990’s, they are determined not to be forced into exile again.
The United States, European Union, NATO have vigorously condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but among Muslim nations, only Turkey, home to a large Crimean Tatar diaspora, has done so, although Turkey’s level of concern over the issue appears to have noticeably tailed off as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has drawn closer to Moscow on issues like Syria. Other Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and Egypt, have said little on Crimea.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued a statement immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, asserting, “Any recurrence of the past suffering of the Crimean Tatars who were expelled from their homeland in Crimea in the 20th Century should not be allowed,” but it appears not to have followed up since then.
The principal Muslim nations have shown they are all too ready to overlook massive violations of the human rights and religious freedom of small Muslim peoples when the violators of those freedoms are powerful countries like Russia and China.
Clearly, as in the case of China placing a million or more Uighur Muslims in “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang, the principal Muslim nations have shown they are all too ready to overlook massive violations of the human rights and religious freedom of small Muslim peoples when the violators of those freedoms are powerful countries like Russia and China, with massive diplomatic, and economic and, in the case of Russia, military involvement in the MENA region.
For my part, I can only salute the courage and integrity of my Crimean Tatar brothers and sisters and urge the world not to forget them. Their tragic fate, to have been overtaken and repressed a second time by the same nation that committed genocide against them only 75 years ago, is a horror with few parallels in the modern world.