By Amanda Paul
September 23, 2014
Since Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, the situation of the Crimean Tatars has deteriorated significantly. They are in an increasingly perilous position with Russia and the illegal Crimean authorities engaged in a campaign of repression, persecution and harassment. The latest example took place earlier this week when the building of the Crimea Tatars' self-governing body, the Majlis, was impounded by Russia's Federal Bailiffs Service.
When Crimea was annexed by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, the oppressed Tatars fled in a mass emigration. In 1944, Stalin deported the entire Tatar population, of which some 45 percent died from disease, hunger and thirst. Most of the Tatars presently living in Crimea repatriated after Ukraine became independent and have remained staunchly pro-Ukrainian during the last two decades. The majority of the Tatar community, which numbers some 300,000 (12 percent of the peninsula's population), was horrified by Russia's invasion, fearing a return to the repressive days of the past. While Moscow launched a charm offensive promising Tatars expanded rights, this was no more than lip service. Most Tatars boycotted the illegal March 16 referendum on the “status of Crimea,” fully supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity. They also boycotted Russian local elections held on Sept. 14.
Over the last six months their freedoms and rights have been repeatedly attacked. According to a report by Amnesty International earlier this year, “Tatar activists have been detained and ill-treated by groups of armed men and, in one case, killed; The informal leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Jemiliev, was banned and prevented from entering his homeland; Scores of Crimean Tatars have been prosecuted for taking part in peaceful protests; The highest representative body of the Tatars, the Majlis, has been threatened with dissolution; Tatars are under pressure to give up their Ukrainian citizenship and apply for Russian passports.” They have also broadly prohibited the Tatars from celebrating their holidays and remembering the victims of political repressions. They are harassed by secret services and "self-defence forces" who search homes, offices and mosques. Tatar university students are being forced to apply for Russian citizenship and passports with the threat of not receiving their diplomas, if they refuse. Certain Islamic books, including school educational books, previously considered legal under the Ukrainian law, have been banned. Other senior leaders in the community such as Refat Chubarov, have also been expelled. Today, up to 8,000 Crimean Tatars have already fled to Ukraine.
Mustafa Jemiliev, who Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed as his representative on Crimean Tatar affairs in August, has reportedly been told by the Russian Federal Migration Service that he is “persona non grata.” The self-appointed “prime minister” of the “Crimean Republic,” Sergei Aksyonov, claims that Jemiliev intentionally provokes trouble, stating, “There is no doubt that this man, Jemilev, was given the task of destabilizing the situation in Crimea by his masters, Western intelligence agencies.”
Such accusations are ludicrous. Crimean Tatars are a peaceful people who have never taken up arms or engaged in extremist activity. To underline this fact on May 6, Poland awarded its first “Solidarity Prize” to Jemiliev for his ongoing contributions to peace, democracy and human rights.
A report published in July by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that none of its recommendations have been implemented in Crimea, at present under Russian occupation. All issues remain current, in particular, “harassment and discrimination against ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, representatives of religious minorities, minority groups in general, and activists who opposed the March 16 ‘referendum' in Crimea."
While this article may have focused on Crimea's Tartars let us not forget that many proud ethnic Ukrainians have also chosen to remain in their homeland, despite the fact that they are constantly intimidated, enduring crude violations of basic human rights. The attacks and persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate is a powerful example. Some priests have been forced to sign papers of cooperation with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). This is like a return to the communist era when the KGB exerted influence on clergymen. The arrest of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and three other activists who were transferred to Russia on terrorism charges is another example. This situation seems set to deteriorate and more must be done by the international community.