In March 2014, Russia illegally took control over Crimea and annexed it to its territory after a heavily criticized referendum. Since then, the situation of the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous population of the peninsula who had already suffered a full-scale deportation under the Soviet Union in the 1940s, significantly worsened. They face serious and systemic discrimination, far-reaching curbs to their religious and community rights, and several people have been disappeared and even killed.
Photo courtesy of Nikolai Vassiliev@flickr
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people who inhabited and governed Crimea until 1783. Subsequently part of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, the whole community was deported to Central Asia in 1944, where it was forced to remain until the 1980s. Neither the Soviet Union, nor its successor state the Russian Federation, has ever apologised for this deportation, whose consequences are still very much visible: once back in Crimea, the Tatars suffered discrimination and poverty, even when Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine in 1991.
In 2014, the Tatars spoke strongly against the referendum that precipitated the Russian annexation, and refused to participate. It is estimated that around 0.5% of the community of around 300,000 people cast a vote.
Before the referendum, Russia promised that the Tatars were going to be treated fairly and equally to the rest of the population of Crimea. The State would protect them, Crimean Tatar would become one of the official languages of the peninsula, and the community would have a quota for representation in local government. But the Russian authorities kept none of these promises. Indeed, the situation of the Crimean Tatars significantly worsened. Religious extremism and state security have been used as pretexts falsely to legitimize persecution of the Tatars, whose Muslim religion makes them an easy target.
The community was not allowed to celebrate the commemoration of the deportation by the Soviet Union on 18 May, or the National Flag Day on 26 June, and arsonists targeted their mosques five times, with no arrests made.
The authorities also targeted the Mejlis, the highest representative body of the community, searching its members’ offices, freezing their bank accounts and ultimately closing the building. They also dismantled a charity foundation that provided funds to the community. Two of the most senior Tatar leaders, Mustafa Dhzemilev and Refat Chubarov, were barred from the peninsula after they attended an international event abroad, and now live in exile, in contravention of their rights to a family life.
The Crimean Tatars’ mass media, which include ATR, their main TV channel and the Avdet newspaper, are now seen as ‘enemy’ or extremist media, with their news frequently censored and journalists targeted, especially following reports on the community’s unfair treatment.
Enforced disappearances are also causing grave concern: this has been reported on a number of occasions since the Russian takeover. At least 19 Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists have been disappeared or abducted in the last few months, with at least two of them subsequently found dead.
Russian authorities and police forces refuse to cooperate when Tatars claim discrimination or request investigations into the crimes perpetrated against them. Most of these offences remain unpunished, and the authorities have not implemented any mechanism to improve protection for the community.
The combination of all these elements has produced a situation that is comparable to the tragedy of the Soviet deportation in the 1940s. This time the population is not being forcibly ejected, but the Russian crackdown on the Tatars’ culture, religion and position in society, as a means of intimidating the population and punishing opposition, may well render the Crimean Tatars’ community untenable. Only 25 years after their return, the Tatars might once again be forced to leave behind their ancestral land, traditions and history.
Attached to this article is a presentation by Ms Aishe Memetova, a representative of the Crimean Tatars, who intervened at the side-event organised by UNPO at the UN Minority Forum, on 26 November 2014.
Also attached to this article is a briefing note prepared by UNPO on the situation of the Crimean Tatars.