The problem of the Crimean Tatars has been complicated by a number of complex social and political issues, including the question of whether the well-known public organization of this ethnic minority should be really deemed an “extremist structure”.


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

For a very different take read: "The plight of the Crimean Tatars"

The Ukrainian crisis remains one of the key problems on the current international agenda. Although the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the challenges for the Minsk Agreements (which aim at resolving the conflict) attract the most attention, there are still problems related to Crimea - not just the status of the peninsula, but also the problem of ethnic minorities and, specifically, the life of the Crimean Tatars.

On Nov. 15, the Third Committee of  United Nations General Assembly voted for a resolution on Crimea, proposed by Ukraine, with 73 delegations supporting the document, 23 rejecting it and 76 abstaining. In the document, Ukraine describes Russia’s policy in Crimea as an “annexation” and calls on the Kremlin to cancel the Apr. 26 decision of Russia’s Supreme Court, which recognized the Mejlis, the influential organization of the Crimean Tatars, as an extremist structure.

Actually, it is not the first document adopted by international organizations that denounces Russia’s policy in Ukraine. For example, on Feb. 4, the European Parliament approved a project on the human rights situation in Crimea, in particular, of the Crimean Tatars. Likewise, the EU and the U.S. experts and politicians regularly conduct round tables and discussions on this topic, with the media raising the problem very frequently.

Remarkably, Russia, lambasted by the West, is reluctant to participate in such debates and this produces an impression that the Kremlin is implicitly guilty by default. Moscow focuses on promoting its agenda, which primarily adds up to justification of “Crimea’s incorporation” instead of addressing problems of integrating Crimean Tatars into the Russian community. This question is not so simple, as it seems to be presented in international resolutions and reports of numerous human rights organizations.

Indeed, with the “incorporation” of Crimea, Russia inherited a broad range of inter-ethic problems facing the peninsula. The Ukrainian authorities have been trying to resolve these problems for the two decades. Among these challenges is the problem of establishing harmonious relations with the Crimean Tatars, which account for about 12-13 percent of Crimea’s entire population.

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Given the tragic history of the Crimean Tatars, who survived Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s deportations and could not return to their homes for decades, such inter-ethnic tensions are natural. The events of the 20th century shape the identity of today’s Crimean Tatars to a great extent.

Under Ukraine, Crimean Tatars had to shoulder the burden of the Soviet trauma and projected their unfavorable attitude not to Kiev, but to post-Soviet Russia, the historic successor of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that Moscow denounced Stalin’s purges and repressions. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself admitted the fact that in his Crimean speech that Crimean Tatars, like other indigenous people of the Soviet Union, had to face “brutal injustice.”

One also should not forget about the fact that, historically, Russia and the Ottoman Empire (which included the Crimean Khanate until it became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century) have been perennially at loggerheads. It also makes the current relations between Crimean Tatars and Russia even more complicated. One should also take into account the fact that Kiev fueled historic trauma, fears and stereotypes about their Soviet past to counterbalance pro-Russian separatism in Crimea.

Crimean Tatars are divided in their views on Russia

However, if one talks about the current challenges of the Crimean Tatars, one should keep in mind that their Mejlis, one of the most prominent and influential organizations on the peninsula, is not the only one that can convey the interests of the entire ethnic group of Crimean Tatars. In short, they do not have a monopoly on power. 

It was during the perestroika era that the Crimean Tatar movement succeeded in the partial resolution of their key problems: repatriation, or return to their home. However, there were contradictions within the Crimean Tatar community — between the so-called Organization of the Crimean Tatar National Movement and the National Movement of Crimean Tatars, which were headed respectively by Mustafa Dzhemilev and Yuri Osmanov (who tragically passed away in 1993).

Before the Kremlin retook Crimea, Dzhemilev and the Mejlis faced opposition from such organizations as Milli Firka as well as the Crimean Tatar Bloc. Moreover, there was no unanimity within the Mejlis, which also includes “an opposition group, which doesn’t agree with its policy,” said the Crimean Tatar Bloc’s leader Edip Gafarov in 2007, long before the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.   

During the presidential tenure of pro-Russian politician Victor Yanukovych, the opposition was competing with the Mejlis in Ukraine’s Presidential Council of Crimean Tatar Representatives, which was created in 1999. 

And the second Maidan that started in December 2013 and the overthrow of Ukraine’s fourth president predetermined the attitude of the Crimean Tatar movements toward Russia’s policy in Ukraine and Crimea. The Mejlis leaders were very much against the change in the peninsula’s status. In fact, they supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Yet, some Crimean Tatar campaigners, including Gafarov and others, supported Moscow. Moreover, the preparation to the Crimean referendum revealed that the Mejlis was divided in its attitude toward Russia, with some its representatives having expressed their readiness to cooperate with Moscow.   

Paradoxically, the Mejlis, which was the key outpost of Kiev on the peninsula, was not officially registered in Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice. The Ukrainian parliament recognized  the Mejlis as an official executive body of Crimean Tatars on March 20, 2014, only after Russia retook the peninsula. 

Integration of Crimean Tatars

Still, the question of the Crimean Tatars’ integration into Russian society became one of the key priorities of the Kremlin ever since the "incorporation" of Crimea. The Constitutional Commission on the Crimea Republic’s Fundamental Law included political campaigner Lentun Bezaziev.

He was a member of the Autonomy’s highest representative body and chaired the Crimean Tatar’s Representative Council under the Ukrainian President. The Crimean Constitution signed on April 11, 2014 coined the term “multinational people of the Crimean Republic” and declared the Crimean Tatar language as an “official language” alongside Ukrainian and Russian. This constitutional norm allows for introduction of legislative acts that will develop the concept further and ensure linguistic equality.

On April 21, 2014 Putin signed a decree, “On measures to rehabilitate Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Crimean Tatar and German peoples and provide state support for their revival and development.” According to this document, the plan was to come up with a separate program for Crimean economic development up to the year 2020, taking into account measures to promote national, cultural and spiritual revival of these people.

At the same time, as Vice Speaker of Crimea’s State Council Remzi Ilyasov claims, “Ukraine unfortunately did not adopt any laws aimed to revive the Crimean Tatar people and create necessary conditions for its revival and preservation on their homeland.”

Yet, political declarations and their implementation in practice do not always coincide. Unfortunately, Putin and the prominent leader of Crimean Tatar National Movement Mustafa Dzhemilev were not able to establish good personal ties. After their talks on March 12, 2014, Dzhemilev did not stop his efforts to move the “Crimean question” to the international agenda.

On the contrary, he reinvigorated his efforts. Later he repeatedly called on American and European politicians to launch a UN peacekeeping mission in Crimea and ignore the results of the March 16 referendum. Besides, he repeatedly met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to persuade Ankara to help Ukraine to protect its territorial integrity and contain Russia.

An irreconcilable confrontation between Dzhemilev and Mejlis had an impact on the further dynamic of Russia’s official relationship with the Crimean Tatar movement. Almost from the very beginning, Russia placed its stakes on marginalizing Dzhemilev, Chubarov and their supporters and creating alternative structures that will be loyal to the new leadership.

Moscow made several steps: Putin met with the delegation of Crimean Tatars in Sochi on May 16, 2014, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the deportation.

A number of prominent Crimean Tatars came to power. Ilyasov became the vice speaker of the Crimean State Council, with Zaur Smirnov appointed as the chairman of the State Committee for International Relations and Deported Citizens. Edip Gafarov became head of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, while Ruslan Balbek was appointed as the deputy chairman of Republican Ministerial Committee (2014-2016) and a member of the Russian State Duma since 2016.

Confrontation with the Mejlis

However, the confrontation with the Mejlis still remains a complicated problem for the Kremlin. And the key question here is not who heads it (Dzhemilev or Chubarov) or who is now banned from entering Russia. The key question is whether or not the population supports the Mejlis.

This question is quite ambiguous. The regional government focuses on restrictive measures. On May 16, 2014, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation, Sergey Aksenov, as acting head of the Republic’s government at that time (then he became a Head of the Republic), prohibited mass rallies in Crimea to avoid any incidents against the backdrop of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Yet, one cannot ignore the confrontational logic on the other side as well. This was most evident during the campaign to boycott the elections to Russian government bodies or the so-called “energy” and “civil” blockade of Crimea in 2015. Dzhemilev many times publically called on others to boycott a conscription campaign among Crimean Tatar youth to join the Russian army. At the same time, the Spiritual Board of Crimean Muslims - headed by Crimean Tatar Emirali Ablaev since 1999 – fiercely criticized the Mejlis-led blockade of the peninsula.

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The problems of Crimea’s population, including the Crimean Tatars, became part of Russia’s public agenda. For example, at the Oct. 14, 2014 session of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Kremlin was criticized for the actions of the Russian authorities and law enforcement forces on the peninsula. Prominent Russian journalist and historian Nikolai Svanidze denounced the Kremlin’s approaches toward Crimean Tatars and focused on human rights violations.

Such debates between the authorities and liberals are very important, at least because they present the problem in a broader perspective and frame it within the context of “security and stability versus dialogue and human rights.” Both narratives are very important and both Putin and Svanidze were persuasive in their assessment of the situation in Crimea.

Yet, these agendas exist in two parallel dimensions without contradicting and crossing each other. Taking into account the history of events in the North Caucasus, Russian expert Aleksey Malashenko warns against tough persecution of the opposition.

“Experience shows that religious radicalism starts to show itself when relations between the Muslims escalate,” he wrote.

To sum up, in 2014 Crimea became a key factor that determined Russia’s position on the global scene. Maintaining these achievements over the short term and long term depends on how efficiently the authorities resolve the problems facing the peninsula.

The promotion of Russian civic identity among the Crimean population, harmonization of inter-ethnic relations and integration of Crimean Tatars into Russian society are among the top challenges to be addressed. While this process cannot be easy, it also cannot be seen from merely a “black or white” perspective.