On May 18, Crimean Tatars will mark the 70th anniversary of Surgun – the day of mourning commemorating Joseph Stalin’s deportation of more than 230,000 Crimean Tatars to Siberia and Uzbekistan as punishment for their alleged collaboration with the Nazi occupation. More than 100,000 of the deportees perished in the process.
Today, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peninsula’s indigenous people are once again faced with the same dilemma.
First, a few facts about the current predicament of Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group whose historic homeland has suddenly been annexed by Russia.
On March 15, a day before the so-called referendum on the status of Crimea, a 39-year-old Tatar named Reshat Ametov was found dead after missing for several days. His body carried clear signs of torture: His head was wrapped with Scotch tape, and his legs were shackled.
His family said he had participated in protests against the seizure of the regional parliament by an unknown armed group, which Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted was a Russian special forces unit. Police loyal to Moscow registered his cause of death as a traffic accident, but almost all Crimean Tatars heard the signal: Disloyalty to Russia would come at a price.
On March 31, a 14-year-old Tatar boy was beaten up by two Russian passers-by for speaking on the phone in the Tatar language. The incident occurred in the wake of calls by some Russians to discourage the use of the Tatar language and deport them again.
On May 6, a member of the Crimean Tatars’ self-governing body was beaten by Russian “samooborona” militants in Simferopol after they stopped his car and demanded to see his documents. He refused to follow their orders, arguing that they were an illegal armed group, acting on behalf of Crimea’s new rulers and using intimidation tactics to frighten and subdue their opponents.
More recently, veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzemilev, a Soviet-era dissident who spent 15 years in prison and survived several hunger strikes, was twice denied entry to Crimea. Again, Russian “self-defence groups” prevented him from returning home.
Those incidents caused Dzemilev to describe the situation in Crimea as a “Russian-style democracy” characterised by total arbitrariness.
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At the beginning of its Crimean campaign, Moscow actually attempted to pacify the Tatars to show the world that its intentions were peaceful, doing everything to buy Tatars’ loyalty or at least their silent acquiescence.
But now, as the world has seemingly accepted – if not recognised – the annexation of Crimea, Moscow enters a new phase in pursuing its Crimean policy. Now, its aim is to shatter the Tatars – especially their main political body, the Mejlis. The Russian political system is moving now in the direction of ruling out any dissent countrywide, but in Crimea especially.
Crimean Tatars, though largely neglected by Ukrainian authorities in the past 20 years, nevertheless enjoyed a relatively wide range of freedoms in dealing with Kiev. They were allowed to pursue their own goals within Ukraine’s political system without being subordinated to it. But in Putin’s Russia, they simply have to forget it – the question isn’t whether they will become obedient, but when.
Moscow has already shown it will take a tougher stance on Crimean Tatars unless they start collaborating with the new authorities. Rustam Minnikhanov, the Putin-friendly president of Tatarstan – another Tatar enclave in Russia’s Volga region – has said the time for negotiations is coming to an end, and that the Mejlis would lose the opportunity to resolve Crimean Tatars’ problems with the Russian government.
Psychological pressure is also on the rise. Several reports have claimed that if Tatarstan fails to influence Crimean Tatars in favour of Russia, Moscow will turn to another loyal Muslim leader, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, and engage his devoted armed guards to “change” Tatar minds in Crimea. Although those reports are rather speculative and may have been leaked with the purpose of frightening people, Kadyrov’s rhetoric on Crimea remains quite militant and aggressive.
All this is a harsh reality for Crimean Tatars, especially for the younger generation, who were raised in a different environment. Many of them now refuse to accept Russian rule, think about emigration, or issue calls to resist the oppression.
So in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of their deportation by Stalin, Crimean Tatars now confront a new dilemma – whether to accept absolute Russian dominance or leave their homeland – to which they fought for so many years to return.
Rim Gilfanov is the director of Radio Free Europe’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. His writing focuses on ethnic and religious minority issues.