Crimean Tatars in the Vortex of War: A Decisive Moment for the Nation

This article, written by TDC Author Alina Horbenko, was originally published by Diplomaatia magazine and International Centre for Defence and Security.

Crimean Tatars are Eastern European Turkic people, who – along with Karaites and Krymchaks – make up the indigenous population of Crimea, as well as one of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine. Crimean Tatars have experienced the ‘Russian world’ in full since the peninsula was occupied by Russian troops in 2014. What was done to Crimea and its residents in distant and recent history, and what is happening there now?

Annexations, Recognitions, and Deportations

Russia harassed Crimean Tatars at different times in history. Back in 1771, during the Russo-Turkish War, the Russian army invaded the Crimean Khanate, and the Tatars were forced to conclude a so-called alliance treaty. Russia unilaterally declared the Crimean Khanate an independent state entity. According to historian Bohdan Korolenko, the whole process was preceded by “forcing the Tatars to make peace,” and executions were common.

In 1783, the peninsula was annexed by the Russian Empire – in a way very similar to Russia’s present-day ‘recognition’ of its puppet states in eastern Ukraine. Most Crimean Tatars (about 300 000 people) left their homeland and settled within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian government introduced benefits for immigrants from the north, trying to colonize and ‘Russify’ the peninsula. Yet, in 1897, Crimean Tatars still constituted the majority of the local population (36%), with Russians being the second largest nation (33%).

In 1944, massive deportation was conducted by the USSR after the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs had accused Crimean Tatars of treason, collaboration, and defection. (Even though collective punishment was prohibited under Article 50 of the Hague Convention of 1907 “On the Laws and Customs War on Land.”) As a result, the demographic map of the peninsula was drastically changed, erasing the Crimean Tatar population to zero percent according to the Soviet census of 1959. Unlike some other deported peoples who returned to their homeland in the late 1950s, Crimean Tatar were deprived of this right – formally until 1974 but in fact until 1989. The mass returns had not begun until after 1989.

Since gaining independence, Ukraine has constantly contributed to Crimea’s development. According to former Minister of Resorts and Tourism of Crimea Oleksandr Liiev, the Ukrainian government invested 32.6 million US dollars in 2013 (against 5.4 million US dollars put by Russia in 2014).

Hostile Elements

Since 2014, Crimea has witnessed constant intimidation and harassment, searches, arrests, politically motivated sentences, and the disappearance of people without any fair and public trial. Crimean Tatars have been treated by Russians as “unreliable elements” that should be silenced or removed.

Since 2014, Crimea has faced a demographic catastrophe and ‘passportisation.’ To assimilate the population, Russia resorted to ‘importing’ the Russian military, special forces, and ‘loyal’ Russian propagandists to Crimea. In the meantime, ‘disloyal’ citizens were forced to flee.

According to Mustafa Dzhemiliev, one of the leaders of the Crimean Tatar national movement, from 600 000 to 1.5 million Russians moved to Crimea as of 2021, while 30 000 Crimean Tatars were forced to leave the peninsula. Such policy of colonisation and extrusion of “hostile elements” was used in Russia’s interest during a so-called referendum in Crimea in 2014. The Russian majority was called to prove to the international community that the peninsula was “original Russian land.”

Absent Russian citizenship, one cannot get a job, use medical services, open a bank account, buy a credit card, sell a house, or get a license plate. Even remaining in Crimea for non-Russian citizens is problematic: if they do not receive a foreign residence permit, they may be regarded as displaced persons and thus deported.

Defendant of the Bakhchisarai “Hizb ut-Tahrir case” Rustem Seytmemetov, Seytumer Seytumerov, Osman Seytumerov sentenced to 13, 17, and 14 years of imprisonment in a high-security prison. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

Religious persecution

Since 2014, Crimea has been deprived of freedom of speech and belief. Muslim communities, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are under permanent pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church. Official data shows that at least 2 220 religious organisations representing at least 43 denominations had been present in Crimea before the occupation, whereas as of the end of 2020, there were 907 organisations and about 20 denominations.

As Chairman of the Istanbul Association of Crimea Celal İçten says, “Crimean Tatars are currently being persecuted in Crimea and cannot properly pray. Even if a booklet with the most basic religious information is found in a Crimean Tatar home, they can be arrested on terrorism charges,” he explains.

Furthermore, Crimean Tatar political prisoners in pre-trial detention centres are persecuted on religious grounds – e.g., they are placed with non-Muslim cellmates who put pressure on them. Chairman of the Board of the CrimeaSOS NGO Oleksii Tilnenko adds that “those who adhere more or less to their religious beliefs […] are very often malnourished” because “they cannot consume the diet offered to them.”

Media freedom

Freedom House reports that the number of media outlets in Crimea has been reduced by more than 90% under the 2015 reregistration process overseen by Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media). Meanwhile, Russian authorities have restricted access to Ukrainian television and other media outlets. This led to significant degradation of the freedom of speech on the peninsula.

Russia also shut down the ATR Crimean Tatar TV channel. Due to the stance of the channel’s editors and journalists – aimed at impartial reporting of the events in the occupied territories, including human rights violations – Russian authorities repeatedly threatened to close the broadcaster. In January 2015, the channel’s server was seized from the local office. Hence, since 17 June 2015, ATR has been broadcasting from Kyiv.

In addition to manipulating the media space, Russia also uses other methods of propaganda. The occupation administration issued a decree to conduct school lessons about “heroes of the special operation,” “friends and enemies of the Russian Federation,” and “advantages of contract service in Russia”. Students and public sector employees were forced to participate in pro-war rallies to promote mobilisation; teachers were forced to write statements to authorise withholding part of their salaries to support the war.

Search for Internal Enemies

Since 2014, Crimea has been living in the atmosphere of a search for “internal enemies.” Such strategy was also used by Russia in times of the USSR to divert the population’s attention from economic and social problems. The Noman Chelebidzhikhan volunteer battalion, Hizb ut-Tahrir (an international Islamic political party recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia yet legally operating in many other countries), and Jehovah’s Witnesses were blacklisted; its members were accused of extremism, and so were the members of Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar Parliament.

Russia widely employs anti-terrorist laws to justify its barbarous actions against certain communities. Remarkably, the Noman Chelebidzhikhan volunteer battalion, formed in 2016, was recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia only in June 2022, after the beginning of the full-scale war. Little evidence is needed for such designation – simply being a Crimean Tatar who shows disloyalty is enough. These anti-terrorist laws embolden Russian security forces to detain people absent any proper legal grounds, on a mere suspicion of “terrorism.”

De-tartarisation and Russification

Since 2014, Crimea has been subjected to continuous forced de-tartarisation and russification. On a global scale, this process started in 1783 when Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate. Russians instantly began renaming the Crimean settlements towns in the Russian manner. For example, in 1784, the village Kurman-Kemelchi was destroyed and burnt down by the Russian troops, and another village, Krasnohvardiyske, was founded on its site. The historical Crimean toponym was erased, along with the physical damage to the village and the annihilation of its residents. In the Soviet times, many more historical toponyms were wiped away from the map. Only a few cities – a few exceptions – did not lose their Crimean Tatar roots. These are Bakhchysarai, Dzhankoi, Inkerman, and Kerch.

In 2014, de-tatarisation and russification were taken to a new level. Head of the Crimean Tatar Resource Center Eskender Bariiev recalls that before the occupation, there used to be 16 schools and 384 classes in Crimea with the Crimean Tatar language of instruction. In 2021, there were only 119 such classes left. There is a ban on the Crimean Tatar language in state institutions: during hearings, Crimean Tatars are constantly escorted out of the court for speaking in their native language that is equated to a “violation of regulations.” This is a deprivation of a fundamental right to participate in a court hearing.

Crimean Tatars face bans on, and harassment for, commemorating the anniversary of the 1944 deportation on 18 May. On this day, numerous events such as rallies, thematic lessons in schools, and public presentations take place throughout Ukraine. In Crimea, annual mass events used to take place, such as a mourning rally in the centre of Simferopol. After the occupation in 2014, those manifestations were restricted; now, all related activity must be coordinated with the puppet Russian authorities.

Russia tries to destroy Crimean Tatars’ identity in every possible way, even when it comes to cultural sites. The Bakhchisarai Khan’s Palace, a unique example of Crimean Tatar architecture, has been almost destroyed by the barbaric “restoration works.” In particular, in early 2022, a large crack appeared on the wall of the secular building of the Palace resulting from engineering miscalculations and negligence on the part of the restorers. In December 2022, Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko appealed to UNESCO to pay attention to the destruction of the Palace, claiming that Russia’s strategy was to erase historical memory.

The Khan’s Palace is part of the Bakhchysarai Museum Reserve in Crimea. UNESCO said this historical monument is being not renovated but “intentionally destroyed and damaged by large-scale illegal works.” Photos: Alexei Konovalov/TASS/Getty Images

Following the 2022 Invasion

The situation has escalated. New detentions. New disappearances. New politically motivated sentences. Since 2022, the entire Russian policy has come down to aggressive propaganda against Ukraine meant to discredit the Ukrainian army and create an image of the “enemy image.”

Olha Skrypnyk, head of the board of the Crimean Human Rights Group, said that as of the end of 2022, at least 149 Ukrainian citizens were subjected to politically motivated persecution and imprisonment. Moreover, at least 15 Crimean political prisoners were transferred to Russian penitentiaries in 2022.

In April 2022, Article 20.3.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on “Discrediting the Russian Army” came into force, which enabled the authorities to prosecute persons for merely “offensive statements” with regards to the Russian military. In March 2023, at least 284 proceedings were initiated under this Article on the peninsula.

According to the CrimeaSOS’ September report, 76 court decisions were issued in cases of the alleged “discreditation” of the Russian armed forces. Among the grounds for such charges were publications on the Internet, protests, expression of opinion either privately or publicly, anti-“Z” activism, and automobile rallies.

Enforced Disappearances

Although it is hard to establish the exact number of disappeared persons, from 2014 to 2020, CrimeaSOS recorded 44 cases of enforced disappearances. 90% of victims of enforced disappearances are said to be held without charge. Other human rights violations include the torture of witnesses, poor treatment of political prisoners, lack of adequate detention conditions and proper medical care, psychological pressure during testimony, etc.

Photo: Crimean Process

For example, Iryna Danylovych, a nurse and civil activist from the town of Feodosia, was detained by the Russian Security Service (FSB) on 29 April 2022. Danylovych alleged that she was kept in the basement of the FSB headquarters in Simferopol for eight days (till 7 May) and no legal assistance was provided to her. According to the ZMINA human rights centre, she was later transferred to a pretrial detention centre in Simferopol and charged with illegally handling explosives (under Article 222.1, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code).

Under the Russian law, she faces up to 8 years in prison. In addition to psychological pressure, inappropriate detention conditions caused severe deterioration of her health. Iryna experienced terrible headaches for several months and acute inflammation of the middle and inner ear, which could lead to brain inflammation and death if left untreated. Under such circumstances, lack of access to medical care can be considered inhuman treatment and torture.

On 21 March 2023, Iryna Danylovych announced a “dry hunger strike” to draw attention to the lack of adequate treatment in the pre-trial detention centre, promising to continue until “the commencement of treatment or her biological death.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine called for her immediate hospitalisation, invoking previous cases of Konstantin Shyring and Dzhemil Hafarov – two political prisoners from Crimea who died in Russian confinement as a result of the lack of adequate medical treatment. Iryna is now one of fourteen Ukrainian journalists imprisoned in occupied Crimea.

Mobilisation and Nationalisation in the Russian Arsenal

Since 2014, Crimean youth has been forced to undergo military service in the Russian army and fined for refusing or evading conscription. It is a violation of the IV Geneva Convention as under Article 51, “the Occupying Power may not compel protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces”. Moreover, by forcing Ukrainian citizens to participate in hostilities against their own state, Russia violates Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex, Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Article 23 (h): “A belligerent is likewise forbidden to compel the nationals of the hostile party to take part in the operations of war directed against their own country, even if they were in the belligerent’s service before the commencement of the war.”

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, both official and hidden mobilisation has been on the occupant’s agenda. According to CrimeaSOS, as of the end of 2022, the Russian courts in Crimea have viewed approximately 130 criminal cases on draft evasion charges.

To encourage service, the occupation authorities in Sevastopol plan to allocate up to a thousand free land plots and other benefits to the veterans of the war against Ukraine. Enlistees from Yalta got a rent deferral from the Russian government to use city property and land for the duration of their service. Such “gifts” are a part of the regime’s general nationalisation policy and a violation of land rights. For instance, in November, more than 130 assets belonging to “foreign citizens or unfriendly states” were declared to be nationalised.

A woman holds a mock-up of an AK-74 Kalashnikov assault rifle at a mobile recruitment centre for contract military service in the Russian army, in Simferopol, Crimea April 15, 2023. Reuters/Scanpix.

Deportation, Depletion, Destruction

Since 2022, Crimea has become a hub for deportations and a warehouse of looted property from the newly occupied territories. As of January 2023, Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer at the Regional Center for Human Rights, reported the Russian invaders had deported at least 6 000 children from the temporarily occupied territories of mainland Ukraine to the occupied Crimea.

Previously, there was only one pre-trial detention centre in the Crimean capital city of Simferopol, but in the spring of 2022, a second pre-trial detention centre was opened – as some lawyers believe – specifically for Ukrainian citizens. Olha Skrypnyk states that the Russian Federation was holding at least 200 deportees from the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Simferopol as of January 2023.

Under Article 11 of the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, “the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit.” And yet, in October through November 2022, Russians had expropriated at least 20 000 exhibits from the two largest museums in Kherson Oblast: the Kherson Local History Museum and the Shovkunenko Kherson Regional Art Museum. In particular, 80% of paintings of the Art Museum were stolen and, according to eyewitness accounts, brought to the Tavrida Central Museum in Simferopol.

The Crimean Platform Summit joined the investigation into looting of museums. Experts suggest Ukraine should strive to exclude the Russian Federation from UNESCO since Moscow’s actions violate the organisation’s basic principles regulating cultural property protection.

Moreover, the city of Sevastopol became the centre of grain smuggling from the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories. In June 2022, Russians admitted that grain from occupied Melitopol was being shipped to Crimea for further export. Having analysed satellite imagery and cargo documents, the Financial Times discovered that 140 000 tonnes of grain had been exported via the terminal in Sevastopol in May 2022 alone.

The Russian invaders brought the exhibits stolen from the Kherson Art Museum to the temporarily occupied Simferopol. Photos:

Environmental Terrorism

Russia seeks to deplete Crimea by all means, including by ruining its nature. Even before the full-scale invasion, military training and shooting had caused serious harm to the local environment, and so had Russian infrastructure projects: the Kerch Bridge and the Tavrida Highway. The Kremlin’s authorities in Crimea admitted to having cut down 100 000 trees and 116 000 shrubs in order to build the highway. Enormous damage was inflicted on the Black and Azov Sea areas as well. Since 2022, over 50 000 dolphins have died in the Black Sea due to Russian aggression. Warships and submarines create powerful sound signals that startle dolphins. As a result, animals cannot navigate, go blind, and hit navy mines.

On 6 June 2023, Russia blew up the dam of the Kakhovka Reservoir, thereby flooding the immediate area and causing freshwater shortages in several regions in southern Ukraine and on the Crimean Peninsula. Such a barbarous act has once again demonstrated Russian brutality, as well as its neglect of temporarily occupied territories and their population.

“There is no water supply to Crimea because the water level in the Kakhovka Reservoir is already much lower than what is required to go along the Crimean Canal. Therefore, water may not flow to Crimea for at least a year,” said Ihor Syrota, director-general of Ukrhydroenergo, Ukraine’s main hydropower-generating company.

Oleksii Danylov, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, has further emphasised that this catastrophe will halt Crimea’s development “for the next 3-5-7 years, until a new dam is built.” He believes that the restoration of freshwater infrastructure will be possible only after the de-occupation of this territory. Meanwhile, the Russian occupation administration in Crimea is trying to minimise media attention to the crisis by staying silent about its impact on the peninsula.

Seeds of Resistance

Since the beginning of the large-scale invasion in February 2022, Russia has been making use of Crimea as a springboard to invade mainland Ukraine. Once a renowned sub-tropical resort, the peninsula turned into one big military base – and a Russian checkpoint in the Black Sea. Such blatant and outrageous Russian actions, however, gave an impetus to the Crimean resistance. Albeit chaotic and sporadic rather than cohesive, it is symbolic of the Crimean people’s push against the Russians for their massive atrocities.

The first seeds of resistance have been sown and the first movements formed. Amongst them is The Yellow Ribbon which organises peaceful protests, online campaigns, and flash mobs. It makes publications in support of Ukraine, leaks Russian data, and helps adjust targets for the Ukrainian military. It also attempts to disrupt referendums in the temporarily occupied regions. As of January 30, The Yellow Ribbon had over 1 200 people in its ranks operating in the largest cities on the peninsula, including Kerch, Feodosia, Yalta, Sevastopol, and Simferopol.

In September 2022, a new underground resistance group – Crimean Fighting Seagulls – appeared; it began posting leaflets that called for the burning of military commissariats throughout the peninsula. Then, in October, the Atesh movement was formed. Its motto – “the Trojan Horse has arrived” – conveys their objective of destroying the Russian army from the inside. In February 2023, they claimed to have installed 2 000 agents into the ranks of the Russian armed forces and the Russian Guard, where they were to sabotage orders, leak information, and disable military equipment. Indeed, Atesh  set fire to barracks with Russian soldiers and blew up a segment of the railway in Crimea near the village of Poshtove.

These are clear signs of the guerrilla warfare emerging. Meanwhile, others commit individual acts of defiance: evading conscription into the Russian army, sending data to the Ukrainian chatbot eEnemy, drawing pro-Ukrainian graffiti, spreading anti-Russian slogans, etc.

Since 2014, Crimean Tatars have been plunged into the Russian world. From the very beginning, Russia has sought to remake Crimea from the inside. The Kremlin understands that everything starts with people. Some were brainwashed by Russian TV channels. Others suffered from harassment, intimidation, persecution, torture, and prison sentences. For the Crimean Tatars, this war means more than a struggle for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, justice, and peace. For them, this war is a decisive moment for their existence as a nation.

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