The uncertain future of the Crimean Tatars

Taniec tatarski (Tatar's Dance). Juliusz Kossak painting - Wikipedia.jpg

As reports of kidnapping, intimidation and criminal investigations into Crimean Tatars continue to emerge from the peninsula, the future of this Turkic minority looks uncertain. Русский


Dmitry Okrest
27 February 2015

‘In short, the situation in Crimea is like this: there are proper people, and then there are the ‘blacks’ – that’s us – and they need to be weeded out,’ says Zair Smedlya, a leading figure in the Qurultai, the elected council and highest political authority of the Crimean Tatars. The Qurultai meets only once every two years, and meanwhile delegates its powers to an elected 33 member executive, the Mejlis. But Moscow, unlike Kyiv, doesn’t recognise this body.

Smedlya is currently involved in defending Tatars who have been charged with participating in mass rioting in 2014 during and after the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian military. The annexation of Crimea by Russia is widely seen as a huge step back for the Crimean Tatars, who won the right to return to their homeland only in 1989, long after Stalin ordered the NKVD to deport them to Central Asia en masse in 1944. Despite winning moderate self-autonomy and property rights after Ukraine became independent in 1991, the achievements of the past two decades are now precarious at best. Reports of kidnapping, intimidation, and criminal investigations continue to emerge from the recently-occupied peninsula.

Life in the balance

As Smedlya reports, the situation for the Crimean Tatars hangs in the balance.

‘My neighbours recently asked me: “Why are you building a house for yourself? They’ll only throw you out again.” It was just the same when we came back from Uzbekistan. But our children have never encountered this attitude before. And now people are saying that there’s no bread in the shops because the Tatars boycotted the unification referendum.’

Smedlya at a rally in a traditional fez. Image by Dimitry Okrest. All rights reserved

Life on the sun-scorched peninsula has become distinctly more difficult since March 2014. No more so than for Smedlya, who, with a traditional fez atop his head, clutches a copy of the Russian Federation Constitution and a briefcase filled to the brim with documents. Defending the Tatars detained in connection with mass rioting requires an intimacy with Russian court procedure and the criminal code. 

On 8 February 2015, for example, one person was arrested for his part in the Euromaidan clashes of a year ago – he is accused of attacking members of the Crimean Berkut riot police. On the same day, another man was arrested for attending a rally on 26 February 2014 in Simferopol, the administrative capital of Crimea – the third person to be arrested in connection with this case. February-March last year was the height of the ‘Russian Spring’, when Crimean Tatars clashed with demonstrators outside the local parliament building, trying to impress their views on the deputies inside. While Crimean Tatars broadly align themselves with Kyiv in deference to the emancipatory power of post-Soviet independence, their opponents – also Crimean residents – believe Russia has their best interests at heart.

Two people died in the crush, and a year later, ethnic Russian residents of Crimea’s capital still shudder at the memory. ‘I asked a Tatar friend to escort me home, and asked him, quite seriously, “How far will this go?”’,’ says Svetlana, who doesn’t want to give her last name. ‘His answer was: “Don’t worry, we won’t butcher you, we’ll just rape you.”’ Svetlana had known this man for many years, but has not spoken to him since. The majority of Crimea’s ethnic Russian and Armenian residents told a recent survey of their horror at the Tatar demonstration, and call Vladimir Putin a ‘peacemaker’ in response.

Fear of Russia

The Tatars’ explanation for this mass mobilisation is their own fear of Russia, which deported the majority of them in 1944. According to official Soviet history, after the Red Army’s retreat from Crimea in 1941, local Tatars deserted from their divisions in droves, and the civilian population welcomed the German invaders with flowers.

When Soviet forces retook the peninsula in 1944, 190,000 Crimean Tatars, alongside 40,000 Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians living in Crimea, were accused of collaboration with the enemy and transported in freight wagons to Central Asia. A similar fate befell several Caucasian ethnic groups – Ingush, Karachai, Chechens and Balkars – as well as Russian troops who had been taken prisoners of war. Hardly reported in the press, the deportation was followed by the erasure of Crimean Tatar toponymy – the names of Tatar villages were changed to standard Soviet clichés, and Tatars were rarely mentioned in the press for over 40 years.

For Smedlya, Crimean Tatar history has always been written by dilettantes, quoting a legal formula in justification: ‘When lawyers write “the peoples of Crimea”, they include all sorts of ethnic minorities in their list of indigenous groups. But Armenians have their own national state, Armenia. Bulgarians have Bulgaria. And Russians’ roots are in Russia. There are only three peoples indigenous to the peninsula – Karaites, Krymchaks and Crimean Tatars. They call us a minority, but this is the result of Russian imperialism. Catherine the Great won Crimea from the Ottomans in the 18th century, settling it with Russians and other nationalities sympathetic to Russia. Eventually they outnumbered the Tatars, and Stalin completed the process by deporting us.’ Smedlya recently trampled a portrait of Stalin underfoot during a Communist picket – not even the police could save the ‘Great Leader’ from this public retribution.

Karaites and Krymchaks are Turkish-speaking peoples whose religion is Judaism, although the Karaites profess a non-Talmudic form of their faith. Together, there are roughly 1,000 Karaites and Krymchaks amidst Crimea’s population of two million. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean Khanate had seven million inhabitants. The imperial authorities in St Petersburg also actively colonised the peninsula. Now, following the return of  the Crimean Tatars after 1989, they make up 300,000 of its inhabitants. ‘We are on the brink of extinction!’ cries Zair.  ‘How can we protect ourselves? The only solution is to have our own state! There was no ethnic conflict when the Ottomans ruled us. The Khan even built a monastery. And the creation of some kind of federation of peoples would just fudge the issue!’.

‘How can we protect ourselves? The only solution is to have our own state!’

 After our meeting, Smedlya is off to yet another session in court on the question of the Mejlis office – the building has been seized by the authorities, and its deputy chairman is currently in pre-trial detention. Smedlya has also recently been questioned by the FSB, the Russian security service, in connection with an investigation into Mustafa Dzhemilev, head of the Mejlis for the last 22 years.

On 3 March 2014, Dzhemilev tried to enter Crimea, despite being banned by the Russian authorities. Two thousand Tatars turned out to greet Dzhemiliev at the newly-established border with Ukraine but were blocked by riot police, and a scuffle ensued. Several people were later detained and released only after a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reycip Erdogan – evidently at the latter’s request. The day we met, however, there was no FSB interrogation: with a new law recognising Crimean Tatar as one of the peninsula’s three official languages, Smedlya demanded to be questioned in his mother tongue and the FSB couldn’t find an interpreter in their ranks. Crimea’s legal system still functions solely in Russian.      

An abduction – and a top level meeting

The village of Sary Su came back to life only recently, as Tatars returning from their exile began to re-occupy its one-storey houses. The village’s single street, without lighting, is on the edge of the town of Belogorsk (in Tatar, Karasubazar), which, before the deportation, was almost entirely Tatar.

A Tatar village. Image by Dimitry Okrest. All rights reserved.

Now Crimean Tatars make up a third of its population. Abdureshit Dzhepparov, a 54-year-old man in a shabby sweater, meets me near the mosque as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. ‘When my son and nephew disappeared on 27 September, I was sitting drinking tea with a guest, just like I am with you today’, he tells me.

‘They had gone to visit a relative when a car with false number plates suddenly braked beside them and they were forced into it and driven away. We immediately ran to the police, who had never seen such a thing here before. People had been known to disappear, but not abducted.’ Since Crimea’s unification with Russia, 18 apparently random people have vanished – all of various ages and social backgrounds; some pious Muslims, others – not.

Dzhepparov is convinced that Islyam, his younger son, is still alive. But he has no idea whether his elder son Abdullah is. Abdullah left to study in Turkey and then disappeared. Ill-wishers claim that he went off to Syria to fight for Islamic State and stepped on a mine, but Abdureshit dismisses this story.

The news of Islyam’s abduction spread fast on social media, and the police started working more seriously on the case. Tension grew in Sary Su and, within a few hours, thousands of people from all over Crimea were crowding its alleyways. The army was also out in force, with snipers on roofs and machine gunners in jeeps. Abdureshit proposed a meeting with the peninsula’s leadership: ‘If they won’t meet us, we will go on asking them to do so. But our attitude will be different’.

Dzhepparov met privately with the Crimean head of government Sergei Aksyonov in October: ‘I told him straight out, these people came together not just out of solidarity with me – there are lots of issues that need ironing out.’ They agreed to set up a civil rights contact group made up of lawyers and relatives of people who have disappeared, and this now meets monthly to discuss these questions.

So far, the group’s achievements are modest, but significant. It has organised the issue of proper documents to returnees – which failed to happen when Crimea was under Ukrainian rule. A fine handed out to a teacher for possession of extremist literature has also been rescinded thanks to the group.After unification with Russia the police started actively hunting out and confiscating radical Islamist works which the Ukrainian authorities had considered harmless. And Dzhepparov and his colleagues have succeeded in releasing four people detained for their part in the ‘3 March case’. ‘My argument was simple’, Dzhepparov tells me. ‘I said to Aksyonov: “Russia and Ukraine are at war on all fronts, both military and propaganda. Why is Russia giving its enemies extra ammunition to use against it?” He thought about it for a while but wouldn’t budge, so I said, “Disarm your enemies on the Dnipro river – let the lads go”’.

‘We could start an insurrection today’

Sat beside a stove in his small, one-storey house, Dzhepparov believes that the abduction of his son and nephew is officialdom’s revenge for his social activism. When the Crimean Tatars started returning en masse from their exile in 1989, house prices went through the roof. Dzhepparov proposed a radical solution – a mass squat on collective farm fields all over the peninsula. And since then Dzhepparov has remained a tireless advocate for his community.

‘These arrests and abductions have been designed to provoke us – they want to trigger a reaction, to inflame everyone’s emotions’, he says. ‘The Crimean Tatar community is well aware of this and is determined not to rise to the bait – it’s a question of our basic physical safety. But they won’t stop: I spend all my time going round putting out sparks of discontent, trying to avoid a conflagration.’  I ask him whether this official provocation could set off an armed conflict, as happened in the Caucasus. But Dzhepparov doesn’t see any parallels here: ‘We are not Caucasians, we have a completely different mentality.’ He insists that when a relative disappears, a Crimean Tatar can’t imagine immediately selling his house, buying an AK-47 and joining an insurgent group in the mountains. 

‘The arrests and abductions have been designed to provoke us, but we are not Caucasians’

‘If we wanted,’ Dzhepparov warns, ‘we could organise an insurrectionary movement or mobilisation this very minute. But it’s not the right thing to do.  We could also set off a mass wave of discontent, like in the old days, but the Mejlis has taken a back seat now.’ Dzhepparov’s  words are echoed by Renat, a student at the local university: ‘When things got hot last spring, the kids started to spend all their time training and honing their fighting skills, and immediately began carrying knives whenever they went out.’ Renat himself has lived for years in the town and finds the subject of inter-ethnic relations out-dated.

Dzhepparov has no time for the Tatar establishment either: ‘As for the Mejlis returning from its self-imposed isolation ... It’s been a spent force for years; it’s just become more obvious now’, he says in his calm voice. ‘It worked well when everything was quiet. But it couldn’t react quickly enough to the new situation. It could govern from anywhere – the internet is everywhere – but there isn’t anything to govern, nor anyone to take charge.'

'Dzhemilev, our supposed national leader, has now been banned from entering Crimea. But he wasn’t around munch before, either. He preferred to spend his time swanning around government offices in Kyiv, completely isolated from ordinary Tatars. And the Mejlis’ current head, Refat Chubarov, made a deal with the Russians: ‘I’ll leave Crimea, but you won’t let me!’

‘I’ll leave Crimea, but you won’t let me!’

A different strategy

‘Although the Mejlis can’t speak for all Tatars, it does want peace. But Russia hasn’t given us any sign of wanting it either’, says Smedlya. Smedlya believes that Tatar discontent is being exploited by the FSB for its own purposes, to provoke the community into open revolt. 

‘Neither the Mejlis, nor our Muslim religious authorities have called for the desecration of Christian graves when the graves of our ancestors were vandalised. At our Qurultai assemblies we have always said that this was the work of atheists: the Christian dead were not to blame. But given the inaction of the Mejlis, will our hot-tempered young people respond to other, more extreme calls to action?’

‘In the Caucasus, all you have to do to rouse a young man to insurrection is stick a cap on his head and shout “Allahu Akbar! Kill the Russians!”’, Smedlya tells me, waving his own fez in the air. ‘But here, tempers aren’t running high enough yet for that to happen.’

He doesn’t exclude the possibility that any sign of revolt might be used to justify a purge of the Tatar population, or indeed of a North Caucasus scenario where people with blood on their hands walk away with impunity. ‘You can see the same pattern in France, in Russia – everywhere’, he says. ‘The killers and the brains behind them are the same. When they murdered the journalists in Paris, anyone with a brain wouldn’t go on drawing the cartoons and provoking an escalation of the violence. There has to be a response to everything; people are fired up everywhere. Look at Donetsk: Ukrainians and Russians who used to go to the same church are now killing one another, and who knows what will happen next.’

Dzhapparov takes a more pragmatic view of the future. ‘It was naive to imagine that Russia would make special concessions to us Tatars, to be nice to us. Who have they ever made concessions to?’ asks Dzhapparov. ‘Who are we to expect anything from them? But if Russia sees itself as the successor to the USSR, it would be good to make some reparation for our deportation. If they were to compensate us for all our losses and return what belonged to us, then people would put up with a lot.’

Dzhapparov quotes the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which gives these peoples, among other things, the right to self-determination. He mentions as an example the national republics within Russia, where senior government posts are normally occupied by members of the titular ethnic group, no matter what proportion of the population they represent. ‘And it was the same under the Soviet Union: the head of each republic was always from the titular nation – Georgian, Uzbek, Latvian and so on – and his deputy would be a Russian. But there isn’t a single ethnic Ukrainian in the present Kyiv government. We now have three official languages in Crimea – Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, but why is Ukrainian one of them? What have the Ukrainians done for us? We’re fighting for our rights here, and where are they?’

At the end of our conversation, Dzhepparov takes it in an unexpected direction: ‘If we could implement even a tenth of the UN declaration, that would be enough for us. It doesn’t matter that we are only 12% of the Crimean population. In 1967, when we started drifting back from exile, we were all young men in our twenties and there were just a few thousand of us. But many of us had four or five children. In 1987, there were already 11,000 of us, and two years later there were 30,000. And we go on multiplying. Islam is becoming stronger in our community, and families are growing – my brother’s wife has just had her fifth and my neighbours their fourth. And we hope to Allah it won’t be the last. I believe that we will be in the majority in our own lifetimes. Russians will be fine here; they’ll have everything they need.'

‘And if we leave, the Russians will leave with us. That’s what happened when we returned from deportation. There won’t be any form of discrimination –where Muslims live, life is comfortable.’


Standfirst image: The painting 'Tatar's Dance' Juliusz Kossak. Image by Adelchi via Wikipedia. 

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