Russia continues to oppress Crimea's Tatars

With the exception of Turkey, the Muslim world has been virtually silent on the Tatars' situation.

    Crimean Tatars mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea, near a Mosque in Simferopol in 2014 [Getty]
    Crimean Tatars mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea, near a Mosque in Simferopol in 2014 [Getty]

    More than two years have passed since Russia invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula. Since then, the Tatar population there remains under pressure, marginalised, and in many cases, persecuted by Moscow.

    Sadly, their plight is all but ignored, or at least unknown, by much of the world. With the exception of Turkey, the Muslim world has been virtually silent on the Tatars' situation.

    The Tatars are a Sunni-Muslim and ethnically and linguistically Turkic indigenous people of Crimea. The most recent official census carried out in 2001 found that 250,000 of Crimea's population was Tatar. Today, it's thought that the real number could be as high as 450,000.

    Crimean Tatars face pressure from new rulers

    The Tatars once ruled over one of the most powerful khanates in the region. However, ever since Catherine the Great conquered Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783, the Tatars have experienced centuries of oppression.

    Centuries of oppression

    Hundreds of thousands of Tatars left Crimea during the 1850s fearing persecution by Russia after the Crimean War.

    Vladimir Lenin didn't care for the Tatars either. After the Bolshevik Revolution, thousands perished as a result of the Moscow-orchestrated Soviet Famine of 1932-33.

    READ MORE: Putin's war on the Crimean Tatars

    Even though many Tatars fought bravely for the Soviet Union during World War II, Joseph Stalin forcibly deported more than 191,000 Tatars from Crimea to Uzbekistan in 1947. Some estimates say that as many as 45 percent died during the trek from disease and starvation.

    Today, the Crimean Tatars are under attack again. This time not by Soviet apparatchiks, but by Vladimir Putin and his henchmen.


    After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s many Tatars were finally allowed to move back to Crimea. Although many did, hundreds of thousands of Tatars still live across Central Asia and Turkey.  

    Today, the Crimean Tatars are under attack again. This time not by Soviet apparatchiks, but by Vladimir Putin and his henchmen. 

    Just this week an office of the Tatar Mejlis (a legislative body for the Tatars working to restore the national and political rights of the Crimean Tatar people) in Simferopol was vandalised - sadly, not an uncommon occurrence since the Russian occupation.

    Mejlis under attack

    Russian authorities are trying to get the entire Mejlis closed down and replaced with so-called "territorial self-government bodies", which can be more easily controlled by Russia. Furthermore, Moscow is trying to get all the Mejlis listed as extremists.

    Out of the 33 members of the Mejlis 22 are still in Crimea, eight are on mainland Ukraine, and three have been suspended from participating in the body because of their acquiescence to Russian authorities. Since some members of the Mejlis are barred from entering Crimea by Russian authorities, the meetings of the Mejlis are now carried out via Skype.

    Crimean schools received textbooks translated into the Crimean Tatar language [Getty]

    Senior figures of the Tatar community have either been arrested or banned from entering Crimea. Many more are routinely harassed by local authorities. 

    The Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz, is currently is jail.

    What was his crime? Attending a pro-Ukraine rally in February 2014.

    Among the more prominent Tatars barred from entering their homeland are Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, the current and former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars respectively.

    But closing down the Mejlis is just the tip of the Russian iceberg when it comes to persecuting the Tatars. For the past two years Russian authorities have carried out nothing short of cultural vandalism against the Tatars.

    READ MORE: Putin's Soviet 'therapy' for Crimea 

    There has been some talk about reverting many of the Turkic names in Crimea to their Greek forerunners. With a stroke of a pen, "Crimea" could become "Taurida", the ancient Greek word for the peninsula. Some in Moscow are literally trying to erase the Tatar identity in Crimea.

    Teaching of Tatar history, culture and language has been severely restricted and in some cases stopped altogether. Before the forced migration of Tatar by Joseph Stalin in 1947, there were more than 1,000 Tatar schools. Today, there are only 14.

    Those Tatar children who do not attend one of the 14 Tatar schools have no opportunity to learn their mother tongue during the week.

    The only day that Tatar language instruction is allowed is on a Saturday. The problem with this is obvious. Tatar children are like children all over the world - they do not want to go to class on a Saturday.

    All but ignored

    It is not only the cultural aspects of Tatar life that are in peril. Religious freedom is also under threat in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Many mosques across Crimea have had CCTV cameras installed and are monitored by Russian security services.

    But where is the international outcry?

    The international debate on Ukraine is narrowly focused on the fighting in Donbas. Rarely does the Russian occupation of Crimea get a mention. When it does, the plight of the Tatars is almost completely ignored.

    Vladimir Putin's persecution of the Tatars in simply the continuation of Russian policy that dates back to Catherine the Great.  

    It is bad luck for the Tatars that their homeland is the Crimean Peninsula and not the Palestinian territories - otherwise maybe the Muslim world would be more outspoken against Moscow's treatment of them.

    Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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