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“I’ll definitely go back to Crimea”

Ilmi Umerov, a veteran Crimean Tatar activist, was recently released from Russian custody after facing “separatism” charges. I spoke to him about repressions in Crimea, his plans and the future of the occupied peninsula. RU

Petro Poroshenko (right) greets Crimean Tatar activists, political prisoners and Deputy Chairmen of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Akhtem Chiygoz (centre) and Ilmi Umerov (left) in Kyiv on 27 October, after their return from Turkey. Photo (c): Mykhailo Markiv / Zuma Press / PA images. All rights reserved.
In September, a Russian court in Crimea jailed the two deputy heads of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar parliament. Akhtem Chiygoz was given eight years for “provoking civil unrest” outside the region’s parliament building in February 2014 [a full month before the peninsula’s formal annexation - ed.], and Ilmi Umerov got a two-year term for “incitement to separatism”, due to his stating on a Crimean Tatar TV channel that Crimea was part of Ukraine and denouncing the 2014 annexation.

At the end of October they were, however, unexpectedly released on the orders of Vladimir Putin and flown to Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan supposedly personally intervened on their behalf. Anton Korolyov, an independent journalist living and working in Crimea was already talking to Umerov about an interview for oDR before he was freed. Korolyov recently caught up with him in Kyiv.

“You realise that Chubarov and Djemilev have abandoned you?”

oDR: You and Akhtem Chiygoz were handed over to the Turkish authorities in something reminiscent of a secret services operation, although as I understand it, the original idea was to take you to mainland Ukraine. So what happened?

Ilmi Umerov: I was totally unaware of the plan. The fact that our trials were very high-profile, and we were both deputy heads of the Mejlis, evidently played a part. The position of the UN, the EU and leaders of major countries also played a background role, as did the Turkish President’s meeting with Putin. I knew about that. At a press conference in early October during his visit to Kyiv, Erdoğan had announced, “You can expect results”.

Two high-ranking FSB officers told me that the Turkish and Russian presidents had agreed to pardon me and Chiygoz

Two weeks before we were handed over to Turkey, I was visited in prison by people from Moscow, two high-ranking FSB officers, who told me that “the Turkish and Russian presidents have reached an agreement about a pardon for you and Chiygoz. There’s only one formality to be gone through: you have to request a pardon, in writing”. I refused categorically, and they started trying to lean on me: Akhtem, they said, had written one. They were trying to fool me. “You realise that Chubarov [head of the Mejlis] and Djemilev [its former head, now a member of the Ukrainian parliament] have abandoned you?” they asked. “You’ll be behind bars while they’re swanning around in Kyiv, travelling the world and drinking expensive coffee. Just think about the effect on your health”. I didn’t agree to anything, and didn’t have any further contact with them.

How did your handover to the Turkish authorities go?

A few days earlier, I had started suffering from hypertension and was taken to the Bakhchisaray District hospital. On the morning of 25 October I had a visit from the Federal Prison Service, whose official asked me to go with him to look at a “rehabilitation order” — he told me I would then be returned to the hospital. So I was taken, escorted by doctors, to [Crimea’s capital] Simferopol. But then they drove me, not to the Prison Service building but to the airport. At that point I got scared — I’d been lied to and I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Sometime later, we boarded a plane, where there were a dozen or so plainclothes police officers. As I walked down the aisle I saw Akhtem at the back. I was told not to talk to him or even look in his direction. On my way to the toilet I managed to say hello to him, but got told off immediately and threatened: “It’s only because of your age and state of health that you’re not lying now face down on the floor in handcuffs [Umerov is 60 - ed.]. You committed a serious offence”, my “minders” told me.

Activists from Turkey’s large Crimean Tatar diaspora protest against violations of human rights on the occupied peninsula, Istanbul, October 2015. Photo CC-by-SA-2.0: İstanbul Kırım Derneği / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

After an hour, we took off and landed in Anapa, on the Black Sea Coast, before refuelling and flying to Ankara, where we were met by people from the Turkish side and the local Crimean Tatar community. On the same day, we met the Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey and a day later, the Turkish president himself. We asked Erdoğan to help release Ukrainian political prisoners, and in particular the film director Oleg Sentsov, [currently serving a 20-year sentence for terrorism in the “Polar Bear” prison colony in northern Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug – ed.].

You’ve been away from Crimea for more than a week now, although you always stressed that you had no intention of leaving your homeland. How do you feel about this?

My feelings haven’t changed at all. I still believe I should stay in Crimea, but at the present moment I think I should accept Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation to come to Germany and recover a little [Umerov has Parkinson’s disease and diabetes – ed.] When I return from Germany I shall definitely go back to Crimea.

When are you off to Germany?

I don’t know yet. The German embassy in Kyiv is dealing with that. I also have no idea what clinic they’ll send me to. But not to go would be unfair to Angela Merkel, who sent me this invitation at a difficult time for me, and another one after my release.

Will your return to Crimea depend on the results of your treatment?

No, I’ll return to Kyiv either way and go to Crimea soon.

Do you realise how unpredictable the consequences of your appearance in Crimea might be?

I don’t even know what was in President Putin’s order for my pardon, whether there were some conditions involved, such as a ban on my return to Crimea. Perhaps a ban has been issued in another document. I just don’t know.

Has nobody warned you in private that your returning to Crimea may not be desirable? 

No, no one has spoken to me about it at all. I know nothing about any caveat, that I stay away from Crimea. If someone had said when I was at home and in hospital that my release was conditional on leaving Crimea, I would have answered that I wouldn’t lose my country over a couple of years in jail.

“I’m going with the flow”

What do you plan to do before you’re off to a clinic in Germany?

For the moment, I’m on my first visit to Kyiv, and am very busy with interviews, TV appearances and meetings. The next step is to renew my contacts with politicians, both those I already know and any others who are interested in the Crimean Tatar issue. But for the moment, I’m just going with the flow.

You are a civil servant with a long career behind you. Your last job, which you held for nine years, was as head of the Bakhchisaray District administration. If you end up having to stay in Kyiv, would you be interested in offers of work?

That would depend on what’s offered. I was once approached about becoming deputy director of the Kherson Region administration. I refused at the time because I wanted to stay in Crimea. But now I’m 60 and registered as disabled. I’m not aiming to go back to work, but it’s theoretically possible. If I was offered a job that would be beneficial to Crimea and the Crimean Tatar people, then why not?

Crimean Tatars commemorate the tragic events of 1944, when Stalin had the entire nation deported to Central Asia. Chatyr-Dag mountain, Crimea, 2015. Photo (c): Yuri Lashov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Your trial got lots of coverage around the world. Following it closely, I noticed that the court couldn’t actually establish the fact of the crime with which you charged: a refusal to accept Crimea as part of Russia. The charge was triggered by an interview that you gave to ATR, the Crimean Tatar TV channel. How did the judge reach a guilty verdict?

To set things straight: I wasn’t put on trial because of the interview, but because of my political position and my views. I don’t recognise Russian jurisdiction in Crimea; I don’t recognise the results of the referendum on Crimea’s annexation to Russia, and I don’t recognise the current administration of the peninsula, including its judges and judicial procedures. The TV show was just a pretext. And as far as the case against me goes, it was totally falsified even before the start of the investigation. When the detectives translated my testimony from Crimean Tatar into Russian, they added the words “must be” to all my statements, intensifying what I had said and making it appear that I was calling for stronger sanctions against Russia, so that it would drop its claim on Crimea and also withdraw from the Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

I wasn’t put on trial because of the interview, but because of my political position and my views. I don’t recognise Russian jurisdiction in Crimea

The guilty verdict was based on a specialist linguistic assessment, based in its turn on an adulterated translation and falsified expert evaluation. In court, the prosecuting council asked for a suspended sentence, but the judge, no doubt prompted by the FSB, insisted on a harsher penalty [two years in a prison colony], a very unusual occurrence in a Russian courtroom. The court took no account of either the conclusions of the assessment or the inaccurate translation, and the text of the verdict read simply: “taking into account the sum of the statements given, the court has determined that there was a call to infringe the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” [Article 280.1 of the Russian criminal code - ed.].

Sergei Aksyonov, the head of the Crimean puppet government, has referred to you as a “parasite”, and called for you to hand back your Russian ID papers after you moved to Kyiv. Are you ready to meet his request?

I never asked for Russian ID papers. When I was head of the Bakhchisaray district, someone brought them to me in my office, and I only use them to get the medical care that I constantly need. It’s very difficult to live in Crimea without the right ID, so while I live in Crimea, having Russian papers is a bit of help. As for being a parasite, I spent 20 years of my life working as a Ukrainian civil servant and successful district head. Now I am a pensioner. I can’t recognise myself in Aksyonov’s statement at all.

“They got it wrong with the Mejlis”

The first wave of repression in annexed Crimea was targeted at politically active people and those connected with the Mejlis, which is banned in Russia. The most recent wave of arrests and detentions has been mainly linked to the Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat Islamist organisations, which are also banned from operating in Russia. What do you think of this tendency? Is it an attempt to spread distrust of Crimean Tatars by representing them as “Islamic Terrorists?” in Crimea, Ukraine, Russia and possibly even the world at large?

Definitely, that’s probably what Russia wants. But they got it wrong with the Mejlis. When you’re proscribing the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, you can expect a massive international backlash, which won’t happen over the closedown of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell and the arrest of its members. The thought behind it all was probably, “suppose it’s a real terrorist group and they are real terrorists?”

But we in Crimea know that, in the first place, Hizb ut-Tahrir wasn’t banned here when it was part of Ukraine and its activities were not illegal and in the second, there is no such organisation, because it has no structure. It had no registration documents even under Ukrainian jurisdiction, and there are no reports of them doing much besides organising rallies in Simferopol and photo sessions in the Khan’s palace in Bakhchisaray.

There is a certain global “Ukraine fatigue” around, these days; is there anything similar around Crimea? How important is the support of the international community to Crimean Tatars?

I think that Putin is assuming that this fatigue will affect Crimea too: interest will decrease and the international community in the form of the UN, EU and other bodies will resign itself to the peninsula’s current status. But in fact, attitudes to Russia will only change if it returns Crimea to Ukraine and withdraws its troops from parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Only then can we talk about loosening or withdrawing sanctions. If it doesn’t happen, there should be no discussion of it. There must only be tougher sanctions, to avoid the question being resolved by military force.

“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. Over 40 of them were bundled into cars by the security services and detained. Photo: Crimean Solidarity / Facebook. Some rights reserved.

I can’t endorse any military solution, which would mean a large death toll. There are enough people dying in Donbas already. But a lot depends on Ukraine itself: a positive result can only be arrived at if the country continues to withhold recognition from the annexation and keeps the subject, as well as the need for stronger sanctions, constantly on the international agenda, while itself taking an active role in all these processes.

Despite the high level of pressure on the Crimean Tatars from the Russian Special Services, resistance is still strong. How have people’s attitudes changed over these three years?

Recently the shock of annexation has begun to wane. You can’t say that the fear has gone: it is still present, and everyone has a strong sense of self-preservation. But people realise they need to take responsibility for their future and are conquering their fear. More and more Crimean Tatars turn up in courtrooms to support their brothers. People drop in on neighbours whose homes are being searched, engage in one-person pickets on the streets and take part in the “Crimean Marathon” to raise money to pay unjust fines. The Russians may have deported Mustafa Djemilev and Refat Chubarov, and put Akhtem Chiygoz behind bars, but people have appeared who have started actively talking about what is going on.

Crimea has now become a kind of test site for the Russian “strongmen”. What would you tell other Russian citizens about Crimea today? Why should it bother them – even those who supported the annexation?

Every people, every ethnic group has its ancestral homeland. International law regards the right to self-determination as inalienable. Ukraine must produce a law on the status of Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people and introduce amendments on Crimean Tatar autonomy into its Constitution. And Russian citizens need to realise that if Russians have Russia; Ukrainians, Ukraine and the French, France, the Crimean Tatars have their homeland as well  Crimea. Crimea’s status should be determined by the Crimean Tatar people, and what the Crimean Tatars want is autonomy within Ukraine.

It’s already clear that the situation in Crimea is unlikely to improve before the next Russian presidential election in 2018, and that Putin will continue to hold the reins of power. What does another Putin term mean for the Crimean Tatars?

In general, for Russia it means the continuation of its present course. Russians will remain in a zombified condition, the vast majority of them incapable of independent thought, independent decision-taking or involvement in their own lives. And as for the Crimean Tatars: while Putin is in charge, Russia is hardly going to give up Crimea just like that. I think that our problems will continue.

Do you agree with the people who say that Russia will continue to squeeze politically active people out of Crimea, using “hybrid” methods? And that the next group to go will be your associates, living on the peninsula?

I can’t deny that this could happen. As for myself, although I feel that I’m not beaten yet, I’m definitely on the way.

What do you think about the idea of an exchange of political prisoners between Russia and Ukraine?

It’s a much more complicated issue than just exchange. The Russian Federation is a country that takes no account of the lives of its people  it’s more important for it to exchange people for some kind of political privileges. I like the remark made by one Ukrainian politician, who said that you can only talk about freeing hostages on the day after they’ve been freed. You don’t advertise what you’re doing; you just use every possible ways and means available to the negotiation process.

Translated by Liz Barnes.



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