Crimean Tatars — fishbone in Moscow’s throat

Crimea SOS 18.05.2015

Regime and motives have changed, but again, same as 70 years ago, the Kremlin is trying to solve the Crimean Tatar problem with force.

It is forbidden for Crimean Tatars to mourn on May 18. On this day 71 years ago all Crimean Tatars, 20 % of Crimea’s population, were forcedly deported to Central Asia under a questionable pretext, resulting in death of tens of thousands of people. Moscow’s regime and political environment have significantly changed since then, but again the Crimean Tatars are sticking in Moscow’s gizzard.

The Crimean Tatars got a chance to return home only in 1989, and in 2001, according to the results of Ukrainian census, 245 thousand of Crimean Tatars (more than before the deportation) constituted about 10 % of peninsula’s population. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself. Some experts say that persecution and harassment of Crimean Tatars in the last year is a modern form of deportation.

Exactly a year ago Crimean authorities have banned a rally to honor the memory of deportation victims. At that time the decision looked absurd, since the Crimean Tatars have been gathering to mourn the dead every year. This year though there is nothing surprising about the ban – it is a natural part of Russia’s oppressive state policy.

By exerting administrative and moral pressure on the Crimean Tatars, by depriving them of their land, self-government, media in their native language, opportunities to honor their traditions and even freedom of speech, Russian authorities are forcing the Crimean Tatars to leave Crimea, or at least intimidate and silence them.

Though the Crimean Tatars are a minority in Crimea, their position is very important for Russian authorities. It is a lot more complicated to build Kremlin’s rhetoric around “indigenously Russian Crimea” and “obtaining historic justice”, when the Crimean Tatars, Crimea’s indigenous population, oppose the annexation. Moreover, the Crimean Tatars are the only significant social group that is not willing to accept current status quo. If Russia is able to crush the Crimean Tatars’ resistance, it will shore up its position in the conflict. In order to broadcast a lovely image of united Crimea in Mother Russia’s loving arms Moscow needs to silence the talk about persecution and injustice and force the Crimean Tatars to recognize the annexation.

Moscow needs fake smiles to show the world universal happiness and prosperity – an achievement of Putin’s Russia, — not resistance heroes and martyrs, who will attract criticism and provoke a firm response from the West. Therefore, this “hybrid deportation” uses threats, humiliation and bans instead of forced resettlement.

So far Russian pressure has not yielded the desired result. Unable to subdue the Crimean Tatars, Moscow is trying to diminish the influence of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, an executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatars, and Crimean government in exile, which is being formed now, and put forward their own parrotlike political puppets to lead the Crimean Tatars. Despite that, the influence of true Crimean Tatar leaders is unflinching. For the Crimean Tatars, words of Mustafa Dzhemilev, a dissident and former Chairman of the Mejlis, who has served about 15 years for his anti-Soviet activities, weigh more that all the promises and threats of Russian state apparatus.

Judging by the increasing number of arrests and searches, there will be no stopping to Russia’s pressure. In the last 70 years pressure techniques have changed significantly, but Crimean Tatars, who have already lost their home and got it back once, are not giving up.

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When last year Crimean authorities banned Crimean Tatars from holding annual mourning events dedicated to the anniversary of deportation on May 18, Crimean Tatar community was shocked. This year these events were banned again, but it doesn’t surprise the peninsula’s indigenous people any more – the society has changed too much in the last year.

Having returned to Crimea and had a period of quiet life, Crimean Tatars were hoping that persecution and administrative pressure have become a thing of the Soviet past. But the occupation of Crimea by Russia’s armed forces, along with the referendum that violated all the norm of international law and subsequent annexation of the peninsula have brought this past back.

Currently there is “a carrot and a stick” situation in Crimea: on one hand the new authorities are trying to appease the population of the peninsula and to create a semblance of a flourishing society; on the other hand, they are mopping up the media landscape and persecuting people, who openly disagree with the party line. Crimean Tatars are the largest and the most cohesive group of dissidents in Crimea, and that is why pro-Ukrainian news outlets publish so many reports about the extra attention law enforcers are paying to one or another Crimean Tatar.

Political prisoner factory

Crimea’s political life has practically faded away. Ukrainian political parties no longer work there, and newly created local branches of Russian parties refrain from any public activities. The only political institution, except for the ruling United Russia party, to routinely attract media attention is Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.

According to Refat Chubarov, the Chairman of the Mejlis, Russian law enforcers have visited homes of every single member of the Mejlis. They have searched the homes of Nariman Dzhelyalov, the First Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis, and Ilmi Umerov, the former Head of Administration at Bakhchysarai Raion. Abduraman Egiz and Dilyaver Akiev, two members of the Mejlis, have been both interrogated at great length. Meanwhile Ahtem Chiigoz, the Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis, has been held in custody since January 29 – he has been charged with organizing mass unrest at the time, when Russia had not yet invaded Crimea.

“He was openly told that he was to change his behavior and rhetoric. Moreover, they expected a public demonstration of loyalty from him. Chiigoz refused and was punished to make an example for others,” Chubarov said. “Common people are afraid of pogroms, the society has become sullen, and there is an atmosphere of fear and distrust”.

Military and tourism region

Meanwhile the economic life of the peninsula is wildly unstable. Tourism industry, a traditional source of income for Crimean Tatars, has been hit the hardest.

Former Crimea’s minister of tourism Alexandr Liev says that prospects for tourism industry and entrepreneurship on the whole in Crimea are vague. “Under a totalitarian regime only certain sectors of entrepreneurship can develop – it depends on regime’s plans for the region. Russia has only one plan, to turn Crimea into a military base, and is quickly implementing it. When you are creating military bases, there is no need for business, except, perhaps, for farming to supply the military with certain kinds of food,” Liev says.

According to his estimates, more that 70% of small and medium enterprises on the peninsula are on the verge of bankruptcy and will probably die away.

Development of other sectors of economy is hindered at the moment – sanctions and imperfections of legal environment are scaring the investors away. Even the Russians note the low investment attractiveness of the region. “Currently I am confidently estimating it [the investment attractiveness] as very low, since it is not clear for investors how refined the legal base is. How formulated certain tax breaks and preferences for investors in the region are,” Vadim Prasov, the Vice President of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia, said during a practical conference of the Association of Independent Hoteliers of Crimea.

Significant increases to salaries and pensions in the first months of occupation have considerably strengthened the position of new authorities, but the prices increased as well, while raises for a lot of categories of public servants were cancelled in early 2015. Prices of food, rooming and utilities have increased the most. Crimean authorities are not planning to increase salaries and pensions, since there is not enough money in the budget. Crimean budget needs 5.5m rubles more to pay salaries and benefits, and additional funds can be obtained via a special procedure, Crimea’s “minister of finance” Vladimir Levandovskiy has told Krym Media news agency.

Undesirable culture

In the last year – from the previous Memorial Day to this one – Crimean Tatars have been suffering from both political and cultural persecution. A decision not to grant Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, whose owners declared preserving the Crimean Tatar language and culture its goal, a broadcast license was the hardest hit. A children’s Crimean Tatar TV channel Lale was closed as well, since it was a part of the same media group.

Rustem Skibin, Crimean Tatar ceramic artist, says that Crimean Tatar cultural organizations on the peninsula have come under pressure, and authorities are trying to cultivate an opinion that Crimean Tatars are a part of Russian people. Skibin also notes that Crimean officials and just pro-Russian Crimeans tend to omit the “Crimean” part, when talking about Crimean Tatars, in order to erase the difference between two absolutely diverse peoples. Authorities may even refuse to register organizations with Crimean Tatar names, forcing registrants to rename them, he added.

Because of these conditions many Crimean Tatar cultural figures, including Skibin, have moved to mainland Ukraine. Artists feel the need for freedom more strongly than others.

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