Putin’s Soviet ‘therapy’ for Crimea

Soviet-style tactics of intimidation and harassment of pro-Ukraine activists and Tatars in Crimea co

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea in mid-August [EPA]

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin the events known variously as land grab, annexation or reunification of the Crimea were about “therapy” for a deep trauma, “a wound inflicted on our people as the result of the dramatic schism of the twentieth century”.   

This explanation attempting to justify a clear breach of international law was given at an address to members of the Russian State Duma in Yalta, Crimea on August 14. Journalists were swift to report his supposedly “conciliatory tone” and declared intention in eastern Ukraine to “do all in our power to ensure that this conflict is stopped”.  Since the speech was made just hours before UK journalists saw a column of armed personnel carriers and other heavy military technology crossing from Russia into Ukraine, scepticism is warranted. 

Putin was, however, cautious even in his rather vague historical references to “civil war”.  He was much less circumspect in his annexation speech on March 18, when he left no doubt that the trauma he was referring to was the break-up of the USSR and the fact that Ukraine and Russia are now separate states. 

In recent weeks Moscow’s denials that it is supplying arms and mercenaries to the militants, including the Buk surface-to-air missile system that downed Malaysian airline MH17 seemed to be for the record only. The militants have openly boasted of Russian reinforcements, and former Russian top figures such as Alexander Borodai and former Russian military intelligence officer Igor “Strelkov” Girkin have been replaced by the former security chief of another unrecognised pro-Russian republic Transnistria, Vladimir Antyufeyev, its former vice president Alexander Karaman and others. 

With the death toll rising and Russian support unabated, many analysts have suggested that the west may try to secure an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine by agreeing to some kind of compromise on Crimea. In view of this, it is worth considering what the first six months of Russian occupation have brought many Ukrainians, including the overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars.

A Soviet-style show trial

Crimean Tatars know trauma very well.  Their experiences both in Tsarist and Soviet times made them profoundly anxious of ending up under Russian rule. In any case they and many other Ukrainian nationals, including some ethnic Russians, regard themselves as Ukrainian and have no wish to change that. 

In the first month after Russian soldiers seized government buildings on February 27, it was mainly paramilitary pro-Russian units who suppressed open opposition to the annexation. This has now become government-enforced.  A number of measures carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) together with the occupation authorities are aimed at silencing dissident voices and deterring others from speaking out.

Four Ukrainian nationals, all active in peaceful protest against the annexation, were arrested in May and taken to Moscow where they were accused of plotting “terrorist” attacks in Crimea on Victory Day, May 9. No attacks took place although all four men were arrested after the date the “plot” was allegedly planned for. 

Ukrainians divided over separatist rebellion

One of the “suspects”, Oleg Sentsov, is an internationally renowned film director and a single parent of two children. The FSB claims that he, as a member of the ultranationalist Ukrainian Right Sector group masterminded a terrorist plot with three young accomplices, are patently absurd.

It is also ridiculous to claim that left-wing activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, another “suspect” in the case, is a member of the far-right movement.  The only “evidence” in the case appears to be “confessions” from the other two suspects – Gennady Afanasyev and Alexei Chirny.  Since Sentsov and Kolchenko have both said that they were tortured, there is good reason to believe that those confessions were given under duress.

All of this is disturbingly reminiscent of Soviet show trials of dissidents. Like various nationalist groups in Soviet times, “Right Sector” has been systematically demonised by the Kremlin and Russian media.  A Russian survey found that it was mentioned more than any other organisation except the ruling United Russia Party. This is exponentially more than in Ukraine, where the Right Sector presidential candidate gained less than 1 percent support in the May 25 elections – demonstrating the political irrelevance of the group.

On the sideline of the trial, the staff of a Crimean art centre were recently summoned; it appears they are suspected of involvement in the “plot” because they allowed the centre to be used for a first aid course. Afanasyev organised the course because of the increasing violence against opponents of annexation. This, the FSB appears to find sinister and considers proof of a conspiracy. 

Four other activists, also outspoken opponents of annexation, have simply disappeared, and the authorities are basically refusing to take any measures to find them. 

They are also doing nothing to investigate the murder in March of Crimean Tatar Reshat Ametov who was abducted in broad daylight while holding a lone picket in protest outside the Crimean parliament building.

Systemic intimidation

Initial assurances from Russia that Tatar rights will be upheld failed to elicit support from the community for Crimea’s cessation; after the Tatar Mejlis called on their compatriots to boycott the March 16 referendum, trouble was brewing. In late April the veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev was banned from Crimea for five years.

This ban came on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population. Two days before the traditional remembrance events in the centre of Simferopol – usually attended by up to 50,000 – all public gatherings were cancelled throughout Crimea. 

Huge numbers of Russian riot police and soldiers made sure that no gathering was attempted. Military helicopters watched over the small gathering that succeeded at the outskirts of Simferopol and Bakhchysaraj.

In May, the recently installed Crimean authorities said a peaceful protest over the ban on Dzhemiliev was “extremist” and gave the head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, a formal warning. In early July he was also banned for five years from his homeland.  Ismet Yuksel, director of the Crimean News Agency and adviser to the Mejlis on relations with Turkey, has just been issued a similar ban. Yuksel is a Turkish national but has lived in Crimea for 20 years. 

These measures are not a new practice. It was common in Soviet times for people who could not be imprisoned without international scandal to be banished from the country.   

Since May there have been frequent searches of Crimean Tatars’ homes and an increasing tendency by the FSB to treat all devout Muslims as “extremists”. Dzhemiliev has reported that FSB officers quite openly watch over mosques and searches have been carried out in Muslim schools and clerics’ homes. It was reported on August 16 that administrative proceedings have been brought against the director of one school after a book included on Russia’s list of banned literature was discovered.  This act is clearly aimed at intimidating the Muslims and showing them what the authorities and FSB can do. 

Russia’s list is enormous and its understanding of “extremism” has long been questioned by international NGOs. Yet the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Crimea has felt compelled to put together a list of literature now prohibited

One of the last remaining independent media in the Crimea, TV Chornomorska was effectively shut downat the beginning of August; Crimean Tatar programmes on the state-owned Krym have been dismissed.

Shevket Kaibullaev, the editor-in-chief of the Mejlis’ newspaper Avdet, was summoned by the prosecutor on June 3 and issued a warning over material which supposedly constituted “extremism” and stirred up inter-ethnic tension. The prosecutor deemed the words “annexation” and “Russian occupation” to be extremist.

In view of all these repressive measures, one cannot but wonder: Is the use of bans, arrests and official harassment Putin’s understanding of historical “therapy”? Or is it the resurrection of Moscow’s Soviet-era ways against dissident voices?

Halya Coynash a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.