Why we should write about the Crimean Tatars

Russian authorities’ detentions of Crimean Tatars continue. But as the annexation becomes the new normal for international audiences, how can the press raise awareness of the community’s plight?

Maxim Edwards
12 January 2018


Vedzhie Kashka, interviewed in “Opening the road home”, a documentary about her life filmed for the ATR Crimean Tatar TV channel in 2015. Image still via YouTube / ATR. Some rights reserved.

Last month, the face of Vedzhie Kashka, an 83-year old Crimean Tatar woman, hit social media. Kashka, a veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement and contemporary of Andrey Sakharov, passed away in a Simferopol hospital on 23 November. Kashka had suffered a heart attack after Russian security services raided a local cafe, arresting Crimean Tatar activists who had met with her — on murky charges of an embezzlement case allegedly involving Kashka’s family. Across the Black Sea peninsula and beyond, Crimean Tatars were incensed. Thousands gathered at her funeral in a show of sorrow and defiance.

Detentions of Crimean Tatars, who number around 10% of the region’s population, still continue. Nearly four years have passed since Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, and Crimean Tatars have proven the most sceptical of Russian rule — an attitude informed by their mass deportation to Central Asia by the Red Army in 1944.

Many keep their heads down and their mouths shut. As activist Abdureshit Dzhepparov, whose son disappeared in September 2014, put it: “Crimean Tatars can get used to how things are in Crimea now. So long as we don’t speak, don’t argue and don’t think.”

While Moscow tightens the screws on its new acquisition, it’s time for editors and journalists to reflect on how best to raise awareness of the Crimean Tatars’ plight — and of the place of vulnerable minorities throughout the press.

Out of press, out of mind?

It’s easy to berate the media for not paying enough attention to the Crimean Tatars. Articles decrying the lack of media attention to a worthy cause can often be matched by a list of articles from international media on said “unreported” issue. The question, then, is not who cares, but who cares enough to click beyond the headline.

Recent years have seen western readers encounter the names of unfamiliar minority groups about whom they ought to care. Rohingya, Yezidis, Crimean Tatars — every day brings a litany of horrors to scroll through, in ever-deeper detail, and these three groups feature prominently among them. And as we can barely remember yesterday’s clickbait, the urge to urge readers simply “not to forget” seems more tempting than ever.

Yet any good journalist knows that theirs is a game of show and tell — tell a story well, and the gravity of its message will percolate through. At the very least, it’s a better approach than berating your readers for their supposed callous indifference. A sad truth of human rights journalism is that when confronted with these iniquities in the press, the average reader has no idea what they can do to stop them.

For readers in the west, it’s understandable. In the case of the Crimean Tatars, the culprit is the faraway, potent Russian state. Crimean Tatars’ history of multiple exiles is intricate, and hence difficult to render into a soundbite. As European readers are confronted with renewed political and economic instabilities in their own states, their indifference could be better termed exhaustion.

Then there’s the “Ukraine fatigue” gripping politicians, policymakers, editors, journalists and readers alike. The war that rages in the country’s east no longer shocks anybody — but that war is still underway, and it’s far from frozen.

The most obvious reason to care about the Crimean Tatars is that annexation of their historic homeland violated international law and tore up the Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Yet this wasn’t a worrying enough precedent for some journalists, who now refer to Crimea as the first step in Moscow’s alleged plot to rebuild a Russian Empire.


A mosque in the Crimean Tatar village of Livadki, Crimea, 2016. Photo (c): Sergey Malgavko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

The problem with this framing (“if it’s Crimea this year, it’ll be Latvia the next”) is that after a while, time passes, and Putin’s tanks aren’t on your European doorstep — not in Germany, not in Poland, and not in Estonia. The concern starts to seem like alarmism, and then hyperbole, breeding distrust. Such slippery slope arguments can easily have diminishing returns — and be self-defeating for activists and journalists regularly documenting human rights abuses.

But until (or if) those tanks do appear, two other worrying trends that link the fate of the Crimean Tatars to Europe’s headaches of here and now: Islamophobia and right-wing populism.

Extremists under the bed

Ever since the war on terror started, repressions against suspect minorities are even less likely to raise outrage — particularly if those under scrutiny happen to be Muslim. In China, Uighur dissidents have been smeared by association with violent Islamist extremists, as have Rohingya in Myanmar.

Combine the Russian authorities’ famously elastic definition of “extremism” with widespread fear of violent extremism by Islamist radicals, and you have the perfect precedent for harassing the Crimean Tatar community. As some human rights observers note, it’s becoming a way for local security officials to make a name for themselves.

Furthermore, there are indications that the peninsula is becoming a testing ground for some of the FSB’s more extensive surveillance operations — which could easily become applied across the rest of the Russian Federation. Moscow has brought in experts in “counter-extremism”.

In April 2014, Viktor Palagin was appointed head of the FSB on the newly-occupied peninsula. Palagin had worked as security services chief in Bashkortostan since 2008, where he was known for his battle against “extremism” and crackdown on the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Between 2004, when Russia banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir, over 160 people have been sentenced in Russia for their ties to it. These cases are often conducted in secret, with secret witness testimony, and carry increasingly long sentences on the basis of questionable evidence. It’s important to note that while the Russian security services do deal with genuine cases of terrorist plots, they are also liable to fabricating them — particularly when it comes to smearing dissidents.

From late November, the Russian authorities have detained Crimean Tatars in the cities of Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol and Sevastopol, accusing them of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Over 100 Crimean Tatars protested the arrests, holding solitary pickets to avoid draconian regulations against mass political protest. They held signs with the words “My people are not terrorists”, and were soon bundled into passing cars by the security services. Over 60 have been fined by Crimean courts (the picketers are facing a fine of over a million roubles). The trial of the alleged “Yalta cell” begins in the Russian city of Rostov this month. Among them is the activist Emir-Husein Kuku.


“Crimean Tatars are not terrorists” After a new round of arrests of Crimean Tatar “extremists” in Bakhchisaray in early October, 100 Tatars across the peninsula came out to hold one person pickets in protests. Source: Crimean Solidarity / Facebook. Some rights reserved.

These arrests have met with a muted response in Russia. Ivan Zhilin, Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent in Crimea, tells me that Russian readers are generally not interested. “When Russian media cover detentions of ‘radical Islamists’ on the peninsula, the average viewer associates the problem with Crimean Tatars in general, as they’re the only Islamic community on the peninsula,” he explains.

“There are some brazen cases: after the detention of 20 Crimean Tatars in the village of Kamenka on 21 February 2017, Russian media declared they were ‘saboteurs’. Actually, they were accused of an administrative offence for ‘violating regulations on holding public demonstrations’,” Zhilin tells me. “The Zvezda TV channel even illustrated a news brief about these detained Crimean Tatars with shots of suspected ISIS members arrested in Moscow in December 2016.”

Whether a concerted effort or not, this signalling has a clear audience, whether in Russia or the west. Knowing little about Crimean Tatars other than that they are Muslim, viewers will see the charges as plausible — and their concern could run dry.

A peninsula of “real people”

Much has been written about the European right’s indulgence of Russian foreign policy — not least the events of March 2014 in Crimea. Germany’s AfD party, newly buoyed after successes in Bundestag elections, openly supports this territorial revisionism. In October 2017, Czech president Miloš Zeman suggested that Russia should retrospectively compensate Ukraine for the loss of the peninsula. Austria’s far-right FPӦ even calls for an explicit recognition of the annexation.

These motivations are usually opportunist, playing on political support from the Kremlin and the fact that the annexation irritates all the usual suspects for whom their voters have nothing but contempt. In right-wing echo chambers, Russia is also seen as fighting the good fight against “liberal decadence”. Much as Crimea became a fetish for Russian “national rebirth”, so has it become an example of boundless possibility for reactionary populists across Europe. And one mustn’t forget that it’s not just Europe’s populist right which finds sanctions against Russia a tedious obstacle to restoring business as usual.

While Putin is not obviously “populist”, it seems to me that some of the more indulgent reactions to the annexation are uniquely suited to European nativist populism — particularly where minorities are concerned. Across Europe, parties speaking for “real people” (theirs to define) seek “real victories” — victories hitherto denied them by the vestiges of liberal democracy. They sneer at its quaint concern for procedure, for the rights of electoral losers and political minorities. They, and only they, determine the limits of the political community. “It’s time for The People have power for once,” they cry, on behalf of silent (or silenced) majorities.

The political context was different, but the populist logic was much the same in Russia. In the KrymNash frenzy that followed the annexation of Crimea, “reunification” was portrayed by its loudest cheerleaders as having been stymied by not by liberal democracy, but “artificial” Soviet gerrymandering in favour of minorities.

To many Russians, Crimea has become a Russian peninsula in a Russian sea, and minorities have to know their place. For a land with such classical pretensions, modern Crimea is also one of the most Soviet outposts imaginable — where the physical and political presence of ethnically cleansed Crimean Tatars testify against the sinless moral certainties of its becoming “Russian”.

As their rights gradually get stripped away, economic hardships bite and the euphoria wanes, disgruntled real people in Crimea may discover that they’re gradually excluded from that category. And the least “real” of all were the Crimean Tatars, who boycotted the referendum from the start.

Your tragedy, your turn

Given the current tense atmosphere on the peninsula, I asked Crimean Tatar journalists based in Kyiv, and other journalists who work in Crimea, how we can show — rather than simply tell — our readers about the fate of the Crimean Tatars.

“Crimea is basically an information black hole,” begins Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis.* “It is broken off from the journalistic world, as no journalist can count on working in Crimea without knowing that they won’t come under the scrutiny of the Russian security services. As such, I don’t see any huge tendency from international journalists to try and go to Crimea and cover the issue there.”


Crimean Tatars mark the 1944 anniversary of their mass deportation to Central Asia. Kyiv, 18 May 2017. Eskender Apselyamov, a 23-year old Crimean Tatar, went missing without a trace on 3 October 2014. He was one of several Crimean Tatars to disappear following the annexation. Photo (c): NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

I put Chubarov’s words to Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabayev of ATR, a Crimean Tatar TV channel which relocated to the Ukrainian capital in 2015. “Western standards of journalistic ethics can simply no longer be practiced in Crimea, nor in Russia,” he begins. “You can turn up with the purest intentions and try to report properly, finding and quoting different opinions. But when people are terrified for their physical safety — from the highest leaders of the Crimean Tatar national movement to the ordinary guy who runs a cafe — what variety of opinions can you quote?”

“Journalism in Crimea is like George Bernard Shaw visiting the White Sea Canal,” he concludes. “They’ll stage a song and dance for you, you’ll be told what the authorities want you to hear, and anybody critical you interview will be at danger once you leave.” Muzhdabayev is convinced that the reliable sources who can be safely interviewed are no longer in Crimea — they’re Crimean Tatar refugees who have fled the peninsula for mainland Ukraine. While their information may not be first-hand and can become quickly outdated, he explains, they are able to speak more freely.

Gayana Yuksel of the Crimean News Agency strongly disagrees, adding that one can always find people in Crimea who will speak out, whatever the risk. Taras Ibragimov, one of the few Ukrainian journalists to still work on the peninsula, nods in agreement. “There are still brave people over there,” Ibragimov adds, “it may just take longer to find them.”

We could mention the activists of Crimean Solidarity, a support group for those harassed by the police and security services since the annexation. This grassroots organisation, founded in April 2016, posts direct testimonies of detentions, searches and arrests of ordinary Crimeans on its Facebook page.

“It’s a deep, deep mistake to say nobody can work in Crimea properly,” contends Tamila Tasheva, director of the humanitarian NGO Crimea SOS, over coffee in a Kyiv cafe. “As a rule, we’ve told activists when they work with us to be very careful about the terminology they use, so that they don’t give the occupying authorities a pretext to slam Article 280 [for ‘extremism’] or 282 [for ‘separatism’] of the criminal code on them.”

“Ukraine fatigue is real,” begins Emine Dzheppar, Ukraine’s presidential press advisor in her Kyiv office. “In terms of media attention, it’s like a matryoshka doll. First comes Ukraine itself, then Crimea. And nesting at the very bottom are Crimean Tatars.” The Ukrainian foreign ministry and Dzheppar’s team have sponsored a new Twitter campaign #CrimeaIsBleeding, and has streamlined the process for foreign journalists to report from the occupied peninsula. Dzheppar’s message is simple: “Come and see”.

“Can you write a good story about Crimean Tatars without visiting Crimea? Sure,” suggests RFE/RL’s Ukraine correspondent, Chris Miller. “But going there lends legitimacy to a report, no matter how in-depth your research — and you can’t take stock of the oppressive feeling Tatars talk about unless you visit.”

For an editor, achieving this balance of legitimacy and ethical reporting is doubly complex. Reporting from Crimea is expensive (involving visa fees, long waits on the border, and a large detour for Russian journalists wanting to obey Ukrainian law). It simply isn’t the kind of reporting which well-intentioned and poorly-funded freelancers can do. Of course, as Die Zeit’s Alice Bota discovered in the Donbas, Russian authorities can simply refuse you entry and then berate your covering the situation from afar as “non-objectivity”.

In this spirit, deputy speaker of Crimea’s parliament Yefim Fiks has another solution: he wants every foreign journalist visiting the peninsula to sign a statement. They’ll have to promise to “write the truth” when they go home.

Towards two dimensions

In Crimea today, the power asymmetry between the Crimean Tatars and the authorities who rule them cannot be starker. But that fact is the beginning, not the end, of responsible and effective coverage of repressed minority communities.

We do not do minorities a service by finding it too easy to write about their troubles. It is perfectly possible to distinguish between victimiser and victim without producing one-dimensional caricatures of the latter. This is exactly what much well-intentioned reporting on minority rights tends to reproduce, along with all the cliches of popular ethnography.

Don’t exclusively interview easy-to-access community leaders, and do try to understand the dynamics within the community before taking all such claims to leadership at face value.

Do not conjure up irredentism and insurrection in every sign of inter-ethnic tension (such speculation from abroad can actively harm minority communities).

Forgo metropolitan sneering about “petty ancient hatreds” and investigate the dynamic, evolving, and socioeconomic aspects of inter-ethnic tensions.

Let your interest in minority rights inform your work in your own countries, regardless of political expediency — know the story of the Chagossians as well as the Circassians (and don’t forget about the latter, as many media outlets appear to have done since the 2014 Sochi Olympics).

Last but not least, one of the most important contributions human rights journalism can make is to provide more public information about how persecution happens and is normalised. The abuse of legislation, farcical charges and tactics of police raids need to be out in the open. If the nuts and bolts of repression are in the public arena, readers can fit together trends for themselves — a pushback can begin.

And if we want to address the tragedy that has befallen the Crimean Tatars, we must at least find a new way of telling their stories.

*Lamiya Adilgizi contributed to reporting for this article in Prague.

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