European Affairs

Russia, having formally annexed Crimea after a hastily-held referendum on March 16 in which 97% of voters reportedly opted to join Russia, has issued an ultimatum. Crimeans, since 1991 citizens of independent Ukraine, will by default become Russian citizens by April 18 unless they declare that they wish to remain Ukrainian. But there is a sting in the tail if they decline Russian citizenship. "We will lose our right to vote and serve in government. We will become foreigners in our own land," he says.

This is not be the first time that Crimea's Tatars, a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim nation, find themselves in straits. In May 1944, Soviet leader Josef Stalin forcibly deported hundreds of thousands to Central Asia, many to Uzbekistan, after accusing them of collaborating with invading forces from Nazi Germany. In their place came Russian migrants. "They took our land and our houses," says Djemilev. Descendants of those settlers make up 62 percent of the peninsula today, which made the annexation a swift and fairly seamless affair as the Crimean Russians backed it. Ethnic Ukrainians make up 23 percent of Crimea's population, the Tatars 14 percent – or 300,000 people. There are at least five million Tatars living in south-central Russia. While the latter share the same ethno-linguistic roots as their Crimean cousins, they have had a different history, and today tend to align more with Russia. There are, in addition, several million people in Turkey with Tatar ancestry.

Djemilev has lived a remarkable life. His family was forced to relocate to Uzbekistan when he was a baby during Stalin's deportations. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars still live in Uzbekistan. As a teenager, Djemilev began campaigning for the right of Crimean Tatars to return home. By the 1980s he had been put in prison by the Soviet authorities six times for his peaceful campaign and been subject to hard labor. When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, he released Djemilev within a year. Gorbachev gave permission to exiled Crimean Tatars to return home, which Djemilev did.

The Tatars first settled in Crimea in the 1200s. By the 1400s they had created their own state, called a khanate, led by Haci Giray. In the 1470s, Ottoman Turks conquered Crimea but allowed to the Tatars to govern their affairs autonomously. As late as the 1700s, the Tatars made up 90 percent of Crimea's population. The decline in their fortunes started after Russian Empress Catherine The Great annexed Crimea in 1783. During the Crimean War (1853-56), Tatars were pressured to leave by the ruling Russians. Like what occurred with the 1944 deportations, this was justified under the accusation that the Tatars had sided with the enemy, in this instance with Britain and France. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a surprise move, transferred Crimea from being part of the republic of Russia to the republic of Ukraine. Khrushchev's motivations for doing this remain unclear, although the consequences for the Tatars were limited as Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union was peacefully dissolved in late 1991 – an event Putin has called 'the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century' - Crimean Tatars became Ukrainian citizens.

Under Ukrainian rule, the Tatars set up their own parliament called the Mejlis, which is elected every five years. "Our Mejlis is the only building that is flying the Ukrainian flag today," Djemilev notes. While the Tatars enjoyed autonomy, there were tensions too, especially with the Crimean Russians who dominated Crimea's autonomous parliament in the capital Simferopol, as Tatars continued to move home from their exile in Central Asia.  The most sensitive topics between the Tatar, Russian and Ukrainian communities were language rights and access to land and housing. Djemilev says of life under Ukrainian rule:  "No matter what people say about Ukraine, it was much more democratic than Russia," adding, "It will be hard to get used to the stench of the authoritarianism of Putin's Russia."

In the near-term, however, an overt Kremlin clampdown on Tatars looks unlikely. "Russia has a large Muslim and Tatar minority, which is subject to strict controls on religious activity. President Putin wants to make it clear to these groups that he is not just interested in protecting Crimea's Russians and is not discriminating against other Muslims," says Catherine Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Cosman recounts how Putin tried to get a meeting with Djemilev to bolster support for the March 16 referendum. Fearing that Putin would use the meeting for propaganda purposes, Djemilev declined the encounter, opting for a 30-minute phone-call. "Crimean Tatars are in gravest danger from militias and extreme Russian nationalist groups who may be given free rein," Cosman says.

However, it is the ethnic Ukrainians that remain in Crimea who are probably the more vulnerable of the two communities right now. Mutual resentment between Ukrainians and Russians is at an all-time high following the annexation. When Djemilev was asked if the Tatars were persecuted for speaking their language in Crimea, he responded: "If you are on a public bus and start speaking Ukrainian, you are more likely to be abused [by the Crimean Russians]. If you start speaking Tatar, Russians will look around to see if there are any other Tatars before they abuse you – they don't want to get a bloody nose." The USCIRF's Cosman says after Stalin's death made possible their return to Crimea, there has been a very strong sense of solidarity and peaceful activism amongst Crimean Tatars.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who align with the Patriarchate in Kiev – as opposed to the Patriarchate in Moscow – are seeing their churches forcibly closed in Crimea. So too are Evangelical Protestant communities. Sergey Rakhuba, President of Russian Ministries, an Illinois-based evangelical Christian organisation, says this is happening in the security vacuum that the annexation has created, with Ukrainian police having left and Russian police yet to establish themselves. In response, the Crimean Tatars have suggested that Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals to hold services in their Mosques, notes Rakhuba, who is of Ukrainian origin.

About 20,000 refugees from Crimea – Tatars and Ukrainians – have fled the peninsula for western Ukraine, including the head of the Kiev Patriarchate, Rakhuba says. Cosman notes that the letter 'x' has been marked on the doors of Crimean Tatars who publicly opposed the annexation "in disturbing echoes of their mass deportations by Stalin." And a 38-year Crimean Tatar, Reshat Ametov who was filmed participating in a silent protest Simferopol on March 3 was "disappeared" after the protest, his body discovered on March 17 showing signs of torture.

The Tatars have been widely admired for having pursued their political goals using peaceful mean. But given their worsening situation, there is a risk of radical Tatar groups growing stronger. "These groups do exist," Djemilev admits, asked about the possibility, while pointing to opinion polls that show 82% of Tatars support the constitutionally-oriented model of autonomy embodied in the Mejlis, with only 11% opposing. 

In response to Russian annexation, what should the world do? Djemilev calls for tough economic sanctions to be levelled against Russia - including refusing to buy Russian gas and oil. "That will make a difference. It will be expensive for the west – but if you don't spend it now, you will spend ten times more later on because of Russian aggression."

Brian Beary is author of the recent book “Separatist Movements: A Global Reference,” which has a chapter on the Tatars in Crimea.