Moscow's Crimean Tatar problem

In defiance of Russian rule, Crimea’s Tatars last month ignored a ban on marking the 70th anniversary of their deportation by Stalin, but such defiance is unlikely to be allowed to continue… на русском языке

Ildar Gabidullin
19 June 2014

For the first time in over 20 years, Crimea’s Tatars were forbidden from holding a memorial rally, to mark the 70th anniversary of their deportation by Stalin. The ban on any mass gatherings until 6 June, was signed by Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s interim head of government, who expressed concern that any potential unrest connected with the anniversary would disrupt the peninsula’s tourist season.

The Crimean Tatars’ mass deportation, on Stalin’s orders, is the most tragic chapter in their history. On 18-20 May 1944, about 230,000 people were expelled from their homeland and sent to Siberia and Central Asia, thousands of miles away; more than 100,000 of them died en route and in exile. This historical wound is still festering, and the new Crimean authorities have now rubbed salt into it.

Any potential unrest connected with the anniversary would disrupt the peninsula’s tourist season.

The ban was reinforced by the appearance in Simferopol a few days before the anniversary, of numerous squads of riot police and prison vans, which went on to carry out ostentatious training exercises on the city’s main square. Despite this, and to no one’s surprise, the Tatars stuck to their intentions of holding mass rallies. The authorities, however, had an extra surprise for them – during the rally, helicopters flew low above the crowd, their noise drowning out the speeches and prayers of the speakers.

Life in a new country


A ban on demonstrations, riot police, helicopters swooping low – this is the Crimean Tatars’ introduction to Russia, to the realities of life in the country to which they have been annexed, a process bitterly opposed by the Mejlis, their main representative body. The Tatars did not exactly enjoy a high standard of living under Ukrainian rule, but that is not what was important to them. 'Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are brothers.' Commemorating the 1944 deportations. Kiev, May 2014. (c) Demotix/Oleg Pereverzev

‘What we care about is freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the freedom to hold rallies and other gatherings,’ says Nariman Jelal, Mejlis Deputy Chair. ‘and from what we see in the media, these freedoms aren’t particularly respected in Russia. Things are easier, freer, in Ukraine.’

‘Look how Tatarstan is developing; the Crimean Tatars should follow their example’ - Vladimir Putin.

Moscow cannot promise anything like this freedom, as is clear from its actions on18 May. What it is attempting to do instead is to woo the Tatars with prospects of economic benefits, using Tatarstan as an example (on orders from the Kremlin, this Russian republic even acted as intermediary in trying to entice its fellow Tatars over to Moscow’s side).

‘Look how Tatarstan is developing, I really admire it, it’s way in the lead’, Putin told Crimean Tatar representatives at his first official meeting with them, promising them mountains of gold. ‘The Crimean Tatars also have a chance to be leaders not only in Crimea, but in Russia.’

Exiled leader of the Mili Majlis Mustafa Cemilev during a press briefing in Kiev, May 2014

This meeting with Putin was held on 16 May (the day when the ban of rallies was announced), and attended by just two representatives of the Mejlis. One of them, Remzi Ilyasov, known for his loyalty to Moscow, was labelled a ‘traitor’ on Tatar activist social media, for meeting with Putin, and the Mejlis also announced that he had not asked for its approval to attend the meeting. The Aksyonov administration has also appointed him a deputy Speaker of the Crimean parliament, again without any reference to Refat Chubarov, the Chair of the Mejlis. Exiled leader of the Mili Majlis Mustafa Cemilev during a press briefing in Kiev, May 2014. (c) Demotix/Danil Prikhodko

‘We’ve been trying for a long time to recruit Remzi Ilyasov to an active role in parliament and government,’ said Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov. ‘We are busy working on a mass of new legislation, and we feel it would be wrong not to have people from the Mejlis involved.’

What is obvious from all this manoeuvring, however, is that Mejlis representatives are far from unanimous in their political views, and that Ilyasov and Chubarov have become ideological opponents. It is significant that Ilyasov stood for election as head of Mejlis against Chubarov in October 2013, and lost to him by a mere 12 votes in a poll of 240. The Crimean authorities have been quick to exploit this rift, no doubt making the loyal Ilyasov an offer he could not refuse, and thereby creating the impression of a Mejlis presence in the Crimean government.

Mejlis and Firka

The two representatives of the Mejlis were not the only Tatars at the meeting with Putin; there were also delegates from factions opposed to its stance of refusing to kow-tow to Russian rule. The pro-Russian Milli Firka (‘People’s Party’), headed by its Chair Vasvi Abduraimov, was also represented. Abduraimov is well known to viewers of Russian TV, from his appearances in support of the 16 May referendum on Crimean unification with Russia (which was boycotted by most Tatars).

‘These so-called representatives of the Crimean Tatar people don’t represent their people in any way.’

It is significant that, despite the desire among Mejlis leaders for a meeting with the Russian leadership, Putin’s first wish was to meet their political opponents, who have very little support in their community. As Crimean Tatar journalist Aider Muzhdabayev wrote, ‘These so-called representatives of the Crimean Tatar people don’t represent their people in any way. The Crimean Tatars, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], have been insulted and trampled by your puppets. And these ‘meetings’, at this moment, are a mockery.’

The divergences between Milli Firka and the Mejlis were clear even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Mejlis supporters backed the EuroMaidan, and Refat Chubarov spoke on the platform there, in favour of Ukraine joining the EU, whereas representatives of Milli Firka were on the side of Yanukovich and the Anti-Maidan.

Leader of the Milli Firka Vasvi Abduraimov in Sochi during a meeting with Putin, May 2014.

Leader of the Milli Firka Vasvi Abduraimov in Sochi during a meeting with Putin, May 2014. CC Presidential Press & Info Service

It is fair to assume that in the coming months, Moscow is going to pointedly ignore the Mejlis, and present Milli Firka as the voice of Crimean Tatardom, which will be yet another major strategic error in the Kremlin’s relations with this community.

‘Moscow is going to pointedly ignore the Mejlis, and present Milli Firka as the voice of Crimean Tatardom’

Integration by any means

Moscow has no lack of experience in building relationships with its ethnic minorities: take the peoples of the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Buryatia – it has had a strategy for each one. But Artur Khaziyev, Editor-in-Chief of the European Tatarstan blog site, believes that this does not mean any of these models will necessarily work for the Crimean Tatars.

‘Moscow is in a completely new situation here, one in which its tried and tested strategies won’t do. I think that the Kremlin will initially attempt a ‘Caucasian’ model, where the federal centre controls a region through the personal loyalty of local leaders and elites, but with elements of a ‘Tatarstan’ model (trying to win the loyalty of the Crimean Tatars by improving their living conditions – legalising the plots of land they have squatted, and the houses they’ve built there, for example).’

But Khaziyev also thinks that Moscow might choose the worst possible scenario, and simply ignore the wishes of the Tatars, who make up just 12% of Crimea’s population. ‘This strategy could only be peacefully carried out with the tacit agreement of the peoples concerned, and in the case of the Crimean Tatars that will obviously not be forthcoming. So we can expect the Tatars to be forced into acquiescence, which might involve serious mass infringements of their rights, both collective and individual – the growth of aggressive anti-Tatar nationalism, the demolition of their houses, discrimination against them by administrative and law-enforcement bodies, and a general destabilisation of the peninsula.’

We can expect serious mass infringements of Tatar rights, both collective and individual

Milli Firka flyer announcing an event commemorating Crimea's union with Russia.

Despite Putin’s earlier decree on the official rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars (the pretext for their deportation in 1944 was their alleged collaboration with German occupying forces in 1942-3), and his flattering remarks at their meeting, the peninsula’s new pro-Moscow leaders are already showing signs of an aggressive attitude towards members and supporters of the Mejlis. Mustafa Jemilev, the organisation’s former leader, has been effectively banned from returning to Crimea, and Public Prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya has served a statutory warning on Refat Chubarov for ‘extremism,’ and threatened to ban the Mejlis as an organisation. Some members have also been subjected to police searches of their homes. Milli Firka flyer announcing an event commemorating Crimea's union with Russia. Photo courtesy of milli-firka.org

The Mejlis, remembering the Tatars’ previous treatment at the hands of the government in Moscow, is also concerned about this possible scenario, and a return to repression for its people. ‘The Crimean Tatars need to integrate themselves, and not be integrated by somebody else,’ says Deputy Chair Nariman Jelal. ‘We believe that the conditions for this can only be formulated at a meeting between the Mejlis and the Russian Government, or, more precisely, with Vladimir Putin himself.’

How the Tatars are to be integrated in the coming months and years will probably depend on the results of this meeting – if it ever takes place.

Why is Turkey silent?

At the start of the Crimean crisis, not only the Crimean Tatars, but also outside observers, expected a resounding response from Turkey to the prospect of any infringement of Crimean Tatar rights. But intervention from Ankara boiled down to a few meetings between Jemilev and Turkish officials, and some critical comments by the country’s Foreign Ministry; and Ankara’s tepid support brought no tangible results.

In any case, political life in Turkey is currently more focussed on its internal affairs than its foreign policy. The government’s central concern is its loss of popularity after last month’s mining disaster that left 301 miners dead. At the same time, however, Ankara cannot completely ignore the Crimean Tatars’ aspirations, since Crimean Tatars make up a considerable proportion of its electorate. Various sources put the size of the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey at between 500,000 and a million members. Moreover, if people whose ancestors emigrated to Turkey from Crimea at different times are included, the figure is 5m-6m, although a majority of these have become assimilated and think of themselves not as Crimean Tatars, but as Turks of Crimean Tatar descent. Significantly, a large number of the conservative and (Turkic) nationalist part of the population is keen to see Ankara getting closely involved in the Crimean Tatar question, and defending the interests of their Turkic brothers and sisters.

The Turkish Government’s main concern is its loss of popularity after last month’s mining disaster

There is just one problem. Russia is one of Ankara’s key economic partners. ‘Turkey will make some effort to support the Tatars,’ wrote Tatarstan political analyst Ruslan Aisin on Russia’s TVRain site, ‘but it doesn’t have a lot of leverage with Putin, so we need to concentrate on developing closer Turkic cultural connections. I think that it will be possible to bring the Crimean Tatars onto Turkey’s side, and that Russia will also make them an offer that they will find difficult to refuse.’


Clearly, the Crimean Tatars can expect little support from Turkey, let alone the West. Mustafa Jemilev’s idea that Crimea might somehow return to Ukraine is also less than convincing. The Mejlis now looks as though it might be willing to meet Putin’s envoys half way; its leader Chubarov recently made an official visit to Kazan, where he signed an agreement on cooperation with Tatarstan, and had a meeting with its president Rustam Minnikhanov, who is effectively acting as Moscow’s representative in this matter. But any agreement between the Crimean Tatars and Moscow cannot be an exclusive one, for this might encourage other ethnic groups to demand special treatment as well. Not for the first time in their history, the Crimean Tatars find themselves living in a ‘new’ country; now they must try to adapt the old ways to the new rules.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData