What Challenges Do Crimean Tatars Face Under Russian Occupation?

March 27, 2024
The plight of the Crimean Tatar population under Russian occupation reveals a long history of persecution, ethnic suppression, and ongoing violations of their rights.

UkraineWorld spoke with Tamila Tasheva, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in Crimea, about Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, their current state, and what Ukraine and the international community can do to assist them.

The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslims who have lived on the Crimean Peninsula since the 12th century. They established their own state, the Crimean Khanate, which was dismantled by the Russian Empire in 1783.

Subsequently, the peninsula underwent colonization, resulting in an artificial alteration in the ethnic makeup of the population.

Therefore, when we talk about Crimea today, we understand that the Russian Empire colonized the territory for over two centuries, followed by the Soviet Union, and now by the present-day Russian Federation.

Currently, Crimean Tatars account for approximately 15% of the population, while Russians make up approximately 60%, a demographic imbalance caused by historical colonization and ethnic policies enforced by Russia.

Since the occupation of Crimea in 2014, in particular, following the full-scale invasion in 2022, Russian authorities have infringed on the rights of the non-Russian population, particularly the Crimean Tatars, through politically and ethnically motivated persecution.

Why is Russia doing this to the Crimean Tatars? It is attributed to their perceived disloyalty as a result of knowing who their real enemy is, resistance to the occupation, and historical memory of past persecutions.

This led to the killings, enforced disappearances, and imprisonment of Crimean Tatars, many of whom are facing charges of extremism and terrorism under Russian repressive laws.

Among the 214 individuals persecuted by the Russian authorities within "Crimean cases", 135 are Crimean Tatars.

The Crimean Tatars' cultural heritage is under threat. For example, the Bakhchysarai Khan's Palace, a unique monument to Crimean Tatar culture and history, is being rebuilt under the pretence of "reconstruction." Its cultural code and values are being destroyed.

After the full-scale invasion, the Russian authorities, in violation of international humanitarian law, conscript the local population of the occupied territories into their army. Crimea is no exception, as Crimean Tatars are subjected to forced mobilization.

This has become one of the reasons why Crimean Tatars are increasingly leaving the territory of Crimea. Entire families are departing. We refer to this process as "hybrid" or "quiet deportation."

If the Stalinist regime committed genocide in 1944 by deporting Crimean Tatars, loading them into freight cars, and transporting them from their homeland to Central Asian countries, Crimean Tatars have been driven out of Crimea since 2014 through persecution, repression, and forced mobilization.

The world does not witness ethnically motivated persecution

There are clear indications that the persecution of Crimean Tatars is driven by ethnic motives, a position strongly endorsed by the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar people's representative body.

Despite this, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) dismissed Ukraine's claim of ethnic and religious persecution of the Crimean Tatar population as part of Ukraine's lawsuit against Russia for violating the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The ICJ also overlooked the non-resumption of the Mejlis' operations in occupied Crimea. The Mejlis is more than just a non-political entity; it serves as the representative body of the entire Crimean Tatar nation.

The Mejlis's prohibition on functioning is directly linked to ethnically motivated persecution, and Russia continues to officially label it as an extremist organization.

Religion as a propaganda tool

The Russian authorities exercise authority over the information landscape and institutions that influence people's minds in both their own country and the occupied territories. Consequently, religious institutions are only permitted to operate with strict supervision.

Within the Crimean Peninsula, the Religious Administration of Muslims of Crimea (RAMC) oversees Islamic religious affairs, which are now effectively under the thumb of the FSB and the occupation administration of Crimea.

The process of subjugation began with the persecution of muftis in 2014-early 2015. Prior to aligning with the occupier's ways, Crimea's chief mufti, Emirali Ablaev, and his family faced persecution and the threat of losing their authority.

Parallel religious institutions, such as the Tavriya Muftiate, were established. Mosques funded by and subordinated to the local population were handed over to this Muftiate. Consequently, the chief mufti agreed to collaborate.

Currently, all other views on Islam and its various branches are suppressed. Calls have been made to take measures against ten mosques that are not under RAMC jurisdiction. The RAMC has been transformed into a tool for propaganda.

Crimean Tatar language oppression

Prior to 2014, there were approximately 13 schools in Crimea that taught in Crimean Tatar. That is, every subject was taught in this language. Now there is none.

De jure, Crimean Tatar schools exist. However, Russian is widely used as the language of instruction. There are a few textbooks in Crimean Tatar in schools, but they are insufficient and are not used in the classroom.

What does Ukraine do to support the Crimean Tatars?

In Russia, there is no concept of the rule of law, and therefore no right to a fair trial. It also brought this to the occupied territories.

As a result, Ukraine does not recognize the occupying authorities' jurisdiction over Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, viewing cases under their control as legally invalid, and those persecuted there as political prisoners.

As all those persecuted are civilians, Ukraine faces difficulties in including them on exchange lists. First, there is no one to exchange them for because Ukraine does not take Russian civilian hostages. Second, international law forbids the exchange of military personnel for civilians.

Thus, there is a significant problem with releasing Ukrainian civilian hostages and political prisoners, particularly Crimean Tatars.

The occupying authorities' forced imposition of Russian citizenship on Crimean residents complicates the release process, as Russia refuses to release individuals it considers to be citizens.

However, the Russian occupation authorities consider people who did not receive Russian documents to be Russian citizens.

This is exemplified by the cases of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, who were tried as Russian citizens despite not having received Russian documents in 2014.

In this context, Russians continue to persecute Crimean Tatars, including those who live outside the peninsula.

For example, consider Leniye Umerova, a young woman who travelled to Crimea in 2022 to see her father. She was the only one on the bus without Russian documents, and thus, illegally detained due to her not having a Russian passport. She has now been accused of espionage and faces many years in prison.

With an increasing number of civilian hostages held by Russia, Ukraine lacks adequate tools to protect them. We can only help by sharing information so that these people are not tortured or forgotten.

What can other nations do?

There are few options for assistance in this situation. However, Ukraine is making every effort to engage with the international community.

The names of Nariman Dzhelyal, Leniye Umerova, Server Mustafayev, and other civilian hostages, including non-Crimean Tatars such as Vladyslav Yesypenko and Iryna Danilovych, are frequently mentioned by high-ranking officials at various summits, including the Crimean Platform summit, and in various resolutions.

While there is a consistent effort to highlight these individuals and emphasize the importance of their release, the extent to which this influences Putin remains uncertain.

Putin is reluctant to release these individuals as it would imply an acknowledgement of their political persecution, which he may interpret as a sign of weakness.

International mediation, particularly by Turkey and Gulf states that support the release of all prisoners and deportees, including Crimean Tatars, is critical in resolving this urgent matter.

The aforementioned countries have joined the fourth point of Ukraine's peace formula (the release of all prisoners and deportees).

After the major release in September 2019, with the active participation of President Zelensky (when prisoners of war, including sailors captured by Russia in 2018, and a number of political prisoners, including Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and Idem Bakirov, were released), there were almost no cases of civilians being released. After the full-scale invasion, it practically stopped.

Tamila Tasheva, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in Crimea