In recent years, Crimea and Donbas have become sore points of Ukraine. Attention is also focused on these problematic regions in the political agenda of the world. Security in Europe is not possible without the cessation of the Russian aggression and without the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The leaders of the leading European countries demonstrated support for the return of Crimea and Donbas under Ukrainian control once again at meetings with the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky during his first foreign visit. In particular, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions against Russia will not be lifted until the restoration of the Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea. But the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky has urged those who advocate the lifting of sanctions against Russia to visit Donbas and to look at the changes in annexed Crimea. According to the Ukrainian president, the peninsula has turned from a tourist region and a natural pearl, as it was until recently, into a “real military outpost”.
Opinion discussed the changes in the realities of modern Crimea, in particular, in the life of the Crimean Tatar people, which occurred after the Russian occupation with Tamila Tasheva, the coordinator of the public organization Crimea-SOS.
After the occupation, Crimea turned into a military outpost. And the militarization of the peninsula is only growing. Permanent military drills – declared and undeclared, missile shootings and landing operations occur. Over the past 18 months, Russia, as also evidenced, in particular, by the data of the American satellite surveys, has significantly built up its forces, the S-400 systems, the number of troops and improved base of Soviet times. There are more than 8 dozen aircraft and helicopters, the Black Sea Fleet was replenished with 10 ships – surface and underwater. They can carry a cruise missile “Caliber” in the Russian Crimea. Consequently, it extends Russia’s military influence far beyond Crimea and the entire black sea region. The presence structures of the FSB and the new body – Centre for Combating Extremism – is also increasing. In the end, the consciousness of the Crimeans is getting militarized, a lot of paramilitary Cossack-type formations, various “young army squads” etc. are formed. Any holiday turns into a militaristic performance, in which even children are involved. There are monuments that perpetuate the annexation of Crimea by Russia, glorify the “green men”, cherish the cult of the external enemy – first of all, Ukraine. Crimean Tatars, as the least loyal group of the Crimean population, which initially did not recognize the Russian occupation, acquire an image of extremists and terrorists.
There is information in the media that the practice of denunciations is reviving in Crimea. For example, the security services force some of the Crimean people to make the lists of the Tatars they communicate with. Does it mean that the traditions of 1937 are revived?
Perhaps it is an exaggeration. But the image of such “fascists’ helpers” who met the German invaders with bread and salt, goes on since Soviet times. It is even actualized by Russian propaganda. The attempts to marginalize the Crimean Tatars in the eyes of the entire Crimean society have intensified. Therefore, all those so-called “criminal cases” allegedly on “extremism” and “terrorism”, all those methods of intimidation are aimed at separating the Crimean Tatars into a special “unreliable” group. It creates an illusion that if you are not Kirimli, you are all right and nothing will happen to you. But it is an illusion. Recently they began to pursue those people who were the apologists of “the Crimean spring” as well.
Can we indeed talk about change in the views of this stratum of the population?
Rather about a certain disappointment. Dissatisfaction with economic difficulties, social and environmental problems. And it happens despite the fact that Russia has been spending billions in Crimea. People start to take to the streets, express their discontent in social networks. They are also being suppressed. Therefore, what the Pro-Russian part of the Crimeans sought in 2014 when they chose Russia, now starts to play against the entire population. Which was by no means unanimous in the Pro-Russian sympathies. Now there is no opportunity to protest freely about the actions of the so-called Crimean and the Russian authorities.
There are constant searches, arrests of the Crimean Tatars – repressions, in general, performed by the Russian law enforcement structures.
In General, since the beginning of the annexation of Crimea, more than 200 political criminal cases were initiated. Most of them are against the Crimean Tatars. Half of the defendants in the cases are in prison, most of them are also the Crimean Tatars. They are accused of the alleged extremism or terrorist activities. By the way, international law prohibits the introduction of the legislation of the occupying state in the occupied territory. So the anti-terrorist legislation of the Russian Federation is used to suppress dissent among the Tatars, according to which anyone can be brought to criminal responsibility. The tools of the Russian repressive machine were worked out in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan. Now, most criminal cases in the Crimea are related to the activity of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in the territory of the Russian Federation. Let me remind you that this organization is not banned in Ukraine and there was not a single terroristic attack behind it, not to mention any illegal activities. And the pressure goes on in the extrajudicial field: according to the UN, 42 people became the victims of abductions from 2014 to 2018 in Crimea, 12 of them are missing, one was found dead.
Of course, none of those who repress are punished?
Of course. It is important to say that the Russian Federation and its law enforcement agencies are not even trying to prove any involvement in extremism or terrorism. Even before joining Hizb ut-Tahrir. In many of the cases, people who generally have no relation to this organization are involved. But it doesn’t matter. We can give an example of the detention of 4 Crimean Tatars in November 2017. They, veterans of the national movement since the Soviet times, who had a direct relationship to the Mejlis, were accused of allegedly extorting money from a citizen of the Turkish Republic. Now all the charges have collapsed. Moreover, the citizen of Turkey has witnessed that he owed money to Vedzhie Kashka indeed, the distinguished woman who was the companion of Andrei Sakharov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, who had been demanding the return of her people to their Fatherland for 40 years after the deportation. However, the Russian security forces arrested the activists, and Vedzhie-Khanum died during this special operation. We can give an example of Enver Bekirov. He is a disabled person with diabetes, without one leg, who was traveling in the winter of 2018 to his elderly mother in Crimea…
He also underwent heart surgery…
Yes. He was wrongfully detained and accused of storing and distributing ammunition. But he could not carry 12 kg of TNT, he is charged with, even physically. It is obvious that the case is made up. Now this man is actually sentenced to death because people with such diagnosis cannot be in the places of deprivation of liberty. There are many other examples. In particular, how the Crimean Tatar human rights defenders are detained for, in fact, human rights activities. But again, they are accused of extremism, terrorism, involvement in the banned “Hizb ut-Tahrir”, and the like. For example, Server Mustafayev, a very famous public figure, the founder of the movement Crimean Solidarity. The last, and, probably, the flashiest fact in this row was on March 27 this year. Then, more than 30 houses in the Simferopol district were searched. After it, 23 people were detained and accused of the involvement in activities of the party Hizb ut-Tahrir. These are the biggest mass searches accompanied by habitual violations: lawyers weren’t allowed to detainees, some students who were in the Tatar residential district at 5 o’clock in the morning for the unclear reasons appeared to be witnesses. The Russian occupation authorities are trying to deprive one part of the Crimean Tatars of any opportunities for political resistance. Another one is simply squeezed out of Crimea. We call it hybrid deportation when Kirimli are not put in freight cars but squeezed out of the native territory by various provocations.
And in return, they want the loyal population from the Russian Federation to settle there?
Yes, the processes of changing the demographic composition of the Crimean Peninsula after the annexation in 2014 are becoming more active. This is about the same strategy that was under Catherine II, during the first occupation. The leaders of the Crimean Tatar people, in particular, Mustafa Dzhemilev, have long sounded the alarm about this. Even by rough estimates, there are about half a million people brought from Russia since 2014. This changes the demographic situation fundamentally.
And it happens despite the fact that experts prove that Crimea is catastrophically overpopulated. The peninsula can withstand a maximum of 1.5 million inhabitants, and now the unofficial figure reaches 2.5 million.
In fact, the information about the relocation is kept in close secrecy. Forced change of the demographic composition of the occupied territory is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention of 1949. Therefore, the data is carefully hidden. I have already mentioned half a million Russians that were brought in, as Mustafa Dzhemilev and other politicians and public figures said. Our compatriots who come from Crimea say that the figure is actually higher. Experts assume that there are about 850 thousands and up to a million immigrants. In such a case, any re-referendum on the fate of Crimea would be illegal. That is why we are talking about the creation of the national-territorial autonomy within the Ukrainian State. And the working group under the previous president of Ukraine has already developed amendments to article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine.
We have mentioned the overpopulation of Crimea, which attracted large environmental problems, particularly water scarcity, salinization of soils. But perhaps the most acute, the most painful problem for the Crimean Tatars even in Crimea as part of Ukraine was the shortage of land. And how is it now?
Now the situation is even more difficult than it was. In general, there is a tendency when the land of the Crimean Tatars is simply seized. For example, in 2013 and at the beginning of 2014, the village councils officially allocated plots for construction, but in 2015, the occupation authorities began to cancel the previous decisions. The Crimean Tatars faced the seizures not only of land but also property and real estate. People were evicted from their homes and the legally acquired land was taken away, which wasn’t privatized under the new Russian laws simply because of the lack of time. There were cases when the Russian occupation authorities did not accept the Ukrainian documents for the privatization of land. Now the Russian authorities are primarily trying to give land to the citizens arriving from Russia. And this is really a huge problem, however, you see it – both from the political and from the environmental side. The land is not an inexhaustible resource.
It is known that there is big closure of jobs, in particular, among teachers in Crimea now. Probably, these processes will not bypass the Crimean Tatars, will they?
If we talk about the public sphere, many Crimean Tatars left in 2014. A certain part remained because there was nowhere to go. People whom we call collaborators stayed on the top management positions, or, on the contrary, came to work there. As for the public sector workers, especially teachers and doctors, they are still working, but the Russian authorities are displacing some of the disloyal people. We also recorded the departure of school principals and teachers. This happened especially often after so-called “elections”. In fact, teachers were forced to be agitators. People who didn’t follow these criminal orders were compelled to leave. The public sphere as a whole, if we don’t consider the employees of the law enforcement system, the military, or the journalists that are loyal to the power, are very poor. Both doctors and teachers leave the profession, simply because it is impossible to earn for living. And if in 2014, for example, there were many allowances in medicine, since January 2015 all of them were reduced, the salary became smaller than in the days of Ukraine.
Tamila, you spoke about collaboration. Is this issue very relevant for the Crimean Tatar society? Is the percentage of people who cooperate with the occupation regime big?
If we talk about the high positions held by some Crimean Tatars – I mean the post of deputy prime minister, the employees of the ministerial level, there were only a few. Now most of them are retired or dismissed. That is, there are practically no Tatars at the highest positions. And we expected that they will be a “waste material”. These are people like Remzi Ilyasov (the deputy speaker of the Crimean “Parliament”, retired in 2018 – Opinion), Zaur Smirnov (the head of the State Committee of Crimea, retired in the fall of 2017), Edip Gafarov (from 2018 – the deputy chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea), and literally 5-6 people who went to work on the side of the Russian occupation authorities in Crimea after 2014. Emirali Ablayev (the head of the occupation “Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Crimea” since March 18, 2014 – Opinion), an unrecognized mufti, still performs the functions of the alleged spiritual leader of the Muslims of Crimea. But these are really isolated cases as for 300 thousand people. In addition, it should be said that the Crimean Tatars are very unfriendly to them. These people are “non-handshakable”. Even at the domestic level, the rejection is very serious. When one of these people comes, for example, to a funeral – which is sacred for the Crimean Tatars, or to a wedding – they do not even communicate with them. They even try to communicate as little as possible with their relatives.
What is the state of affairs with the preservation of the Crimean Tatar language under occupation? And with the development of the Crimean Tatar culture in general. How do Kirimli look into their national future?
Learning a language is a big problem now. In fact, the Crimean Tatar language is not being studied at the level at which it was studied until 2014. Until the 9th grade, the language is taught in national schools, but in an optional format. In grades 10-11 it is not even placed into the curriculum. It is worth saying that the quality of education has deteriorated. Previously, all subjects were studied in the Crimean Tatar language, and now this is not possible due to the lack of national textbooks – for example, in physics, chemistry. At the time of the Ukrainian government, such programs were developed and the textbooks were issued. But after 2014, these textbooks were withdrawn, and there were no new ones. Therefore, education is in Russian. In addition, when Kirimli ask to start a class with the Crimean Tatar language of instruction (10 applications from parents are needed), school principals often put pressure on parents to withdraw the application. So, there is a huge problem with the language. Throughout the whole Soviet period, our identity was squeezed out, there was no opportunity for the development of the language. After 2014, the achievements that appeared after the return from deportation started to be curtailed. For example, the generation of my parents did not have the opportunity to teach children, for example, to speak their native language at home. For example, I didn’t speak it. A certain segment of the language at the domestic level has been lost, so the revival of secondary and higher education is very important.
Last question. The security of the entire Black Sea region and the prospects of Kirimli as a nation are related to the termination of the Russian aggression and the liberation of Crimea. What’s next?
Historically, the entire period of the existence of the Crimean Khanate and our statehood, which was destroyed by Catherine II in 1773, the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainians lived side by side. Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes there were joint campaigns, but it was a good neighborly life with a common history. And we had common great victories. After the destruction of the Crimean Khanate by the same person who destroyed Zaporizhzhia Sich and the Ukrainian statehood, we do have a common enemy. This is from one side. Plus, we still have a lot to build together. Even during the Soviet Union, when there was a movement for the return from deportation, the Crimean Tatars had very close ties with the Ukrainian dissident movement. The Crimean Tatars have long chosen the European civilizational direction of development. And we chose to develop together with Ukraine as our native state. That is why the Crimean Tatars said a clear “no” to the Russian authorities in 2014. The Crimean Tatars choose European, Euro-Atlantic Ukraine with the understanding that we can return our land and have the opportunity to develop our language, culture and, in general, have the guarantee of our own preservation only within strong Ukraine.
Interview by Pavlo Volvach
Photo by Pavlo Volvach