The Tatars, who have a 400-year history in Crimea, are increasingly marginalized, forced into exile or living under oppression at home, without enough support from Moscow or Kiev, or global attention to protect their rights as an indigenous people, according to NGOs.

Crimean Tatars chant slogans as they rally in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: AP

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More than two years after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, questions still persist over a segment of the population that few Western scholars or analysts mention anymore: the Crimean Tatars. As the confrontation between Russia and the West grows, many nations have turned their attention elsewhere – to the conflict in Syria and the migration problems within Europe. The world risks failing to recognize a very real problem with both Crimean Tatars in exile and those who remain in Crimea.

Seventy-two years after a tragic episode during World War II when more than 100,000 ethnic Crimean Tatars perished during a massive Soviet deportation, human rights abuses are still a problem for Tatars.

In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in almost immediate retaliation against the revolution in Ukraine that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. It was the first such seizure of sovereign territory on the European continent since World War II. Today, Crimea’s annexation is seen by Kiev and the West as one of two egregious and perpetuating Russian offensives on Ukrainian soil, the second being the ongoing armed conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine, which shares a border with Russia.

Since the Kremlin retook Crimea, Tatars seem to face discrimination and oppression, according to the accounts of Crimean Tatars and numerous human right activists. Last year, the Russian government refused to license the official Tatar broadcast news channel, ATR, forcing it to cease operations. In April, the Kremlin accused the Mejlis, the representative governing body of Tatars, of extremism and later banned the group’s activities. Its former chairman, Mustafa Dzhemilev, now lives in exile in Kiev — a fate of many Crimean Tatar activists.

And after two years, the world’s attention is no longer turned to the problem of Crimea, let alone to the rights of its indigenous people.

“There’s a kind of tragedy fatigue,” said Christina Paschyn, director of The Struggle for Home, a 2016 documentary film that recounts the history of the Tatars to present day. With other pressing issues like the war in Syria and international terrorism, “what would be somebody’s interest to step up and help [the Tatars]?” she asked.

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Part of the problem is that the Tatars are a small ethnic minority in Crimea, accounting for only 13 percent of the population. Ignorance often veils awareness of their plight, particularly in the international sphere.

“I do sometimes get questions about how [the Tatars] fit in overall in Islamic fundamentalism,” said Paschyn, who hopes her film challenges this stereotype. “Islam really can coexist with democracy and Western liberal values because that’s what the Tatars exactly are.”

The Tatar voice is not represented in the Russian media. Less than a month after the annexation, an allegedly rigged Kremlin-sponsored referendum found that an exorbitant 93 percent of voters supported Crimea’s secession from Ukraine. But the Tatar community in exile says otherwise. “It should be said that nothing honest happens in Crimea,” said Tatar film director Ahtem Seytablayev at a silent protest last March in Kiev commemorating the second anniversary of the annexation.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Crimea is and always has been an inseparable part of Russia, “Crimea did not belong to Russia since time immemorial,” Paschyn said. Nor was the peninsula the Ukrainian land. Long before Russia or Ukraine, “Crimea belonged to the Crimean Tatars.”

A Crimean Tatar man prays at a mosque in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. Photo: AP

A Turkic Muslim people, today’s Tatars are descended from the Crimean khans, who ruled the autonomous Crimean Khanate from the 15th to 18th centuries. It was in 1783 when Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula to provide the Russian Empire with a warm water port.

“That’s why 2014 is considered the second annexation, not the first,” said Ayla Bakkalli, who represents the Tatars as an advisor to the Ukrainian Permanent UN Mission on Indigenous Matters and as the U.S. representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis.

The echo of devastation is a strong blow to the families that only were able to return home two decades prior, at the end of the Soviet Union.

“They feel like displaced people in their own country,” said Tamila Tashaeva, co-founder of CrimeaSOS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Tatars forced into exile since Crimea's annexation.

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Born in Uzbekistan, where Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin expelled the majority of Tatar deportees, Tasheva knows the Tatar plight personally. She moved back to Crimea with her family when she was five years old, but now finds herself struggling in the same fight that her parents and grandparents experienced years before.

The Tatars' relationship to Ukraine

While Tatar relations with Ukraine were never perfect, many of them supported the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 and found shelter after the annexation in the Ukrainian cities of Lviv, Kiev and Kherson. For the first time, the Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko officially recognized the population as indigenous and the 1944 deportation as genocide.

The government continues to provide financial aid towards cultural preservation to Tatars in exile. It also endorsed a Tatar-initiated blockade of goods crossing the border from Russia, a power blackout in 2015 and the formation of a military battalion earlier this year. Tatar public figures now play a role in Ukrainian politics, including Dzhemilev, who is a member of the parliament. But some experts and Tatars argue that Ukrainian aid is too little, too late.

“People who left Crimea sell their things in [mainland] Ukraine to finance their lives, but that’s not enough to live on,” said Katya, a young mother at the protest who fled Crimea with her infant child (she did not give her last name). “I almost want to cry of shame that our country does almost nothing. There is no compensation,” she said.

Katya, a Crimean Tatar refugee at a silent protest in Kiev. She left home with her infant child and now lives in Kiev. Photo: Natasha Bluth

“They stepped up to the plate too late to save anything — to create any real significant changes,” Paschyn said of the Ukrainian government.

“At the same time, it’s unfair to blame Poroshenko’s government for Ukraine’s previous failures,” she added. “There’s only so much they can do because they no longer have Crimea.”

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According to Bakkalli, bringing Ukraine into the conversation is itself problematic since both Ukraine and Crimea are victims of the conflict with Russia. “Why is the focus on Ukraine?” she asked. “Ukraine did not deport the Crimean Tatars. We don’t look to point a finger at Ukraine.”

Crimean Tatars, no longer welcome at home

While almost 20,000 Tatars have fled Crimea since 2014, thousands remained; some lack the means or mobility to resettle, and others simply refused to abandon their homeland a second time.

“Most of the young people I know that spoke English left,” said Barbara Wieser, a 2009-2013 Peace Corps volunteer in Crimea and treasurer on the board of directors at the International Committee for Crimea, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness about the historical and cultural aspects of the Tatars.

“They don’t want to live in Russia, they want to live in the West and Ukraine is leaning towards the West. Because they speak English, it is more possible for them to do that,” she added.

But their parents “just came back 20 years ago under really difficult circumstances and really struggled to rebuild their lives there,” she added.

As recently as August, the Russian Federal Security Service incarcerated former deputy Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks.

Crimean Tatar refugees at a silent protest in Kiev, two years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Photo: Natasha Bluth

“There’s really no rule of law there,” said Weiser, who flew to Crimea in September to visit friends. On her trip, Weiser observed a visible militarization since the last time she traveled to the peninsula just two years ago. She said the police set up a barricade to intimidate Tatars who attended a daytime festival in front of a mosque.

“You never would have seen that before,” she said. “All these old women and kids were there.”

Paschyn conveyed a similar account of repression and fear mongering. “A lot of my contacts there say they’re afraid to speak out now because of what could happen to them,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, the Tatar community is fighting back. Though in exile, ATR now broadcasts out of Kiev. Many of those who left Crimea now advocate and protest openly for their community, like those who participated in the silent protest. And this May, an ethnic Crimean Tatar by the stage name Jamala, won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ukraine with the song “1944,” which tells the story of the Tatar deportation through her grandmother’s experience.

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Still, Paschyn said, “the problem is there's all this awareness but international governments aren’t doing more at all to help the situation.”

Building global awareness

Although most of the world does not recognize the annexation of Crimea and condemns the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, global powers are apprehensive to push Russia to the point of exacerbating already poor relations. In May, Paschyn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, urging the Obama administration to revise its sanctions against Russia, now set to expire in January. 

However, the European Union and other governing bodies are skeptical that more sanctions will help, especially because of Russia’s influence on major security issues like the war in Syria. Others argue that aiding Crimea and Ukraine is a lost cause. Corruption still paralyzes governmental reform promised two years ago in the revolution.

“There is a fear of where the money is going to go, where the weapons are going to go, are they going to be used properly, and how will Russia retaliate,” Paschyn said. “No one wants to go to war with Russia.”

Without global interest, “I don’t think [the Kremlin is] ever going to be willing to relinquish Crimea,” she said, adding that “I don’t think anybody’s naive enough to think this is going to be solved in the next few years.”

But that doesn’t mean the Tatars are giving up hope. Through the pain, Tatars are voicing their story more than ever before. “The subject of Crimea will never be forgotten,” film director Seytablayev said at the protest. “We will all return to Crimea, we will all return to our motherland. We don’t have any other option.”