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The Tatar Issue in Russia’s Centre of Spiritual Unity

Written by: Miriam Yakobashvili

Crimea, Russia’s “centre of spiritual unity,” as claimed by Putin, has been inhabited by the Crimean Tatars for centuries. The ethnic group has lived on the peninsula throughout the Ottoman period as well as after Catherine II’s takeover in 1783. In an effort to Russify the region, and as a part of Stalin’s ruthless ethnic policies, the General Secretary accused the Tatars of being Nazi collaborators, thereby justifying their mass deportation to Uzbekistan in 1944. The act has been deemed as an act of genocide by a number of states, as it is predicted that nearly half of the deportees (of 200,000) died during the process. Meanwhile, Crimea was rid of the remanence of Crimean culture; Kipchak (Crimean Tatar) was banned, Tatar names scrapped, and their books and mosques burned.

​While Tatars were permitted to return to the land in 1967, many did not do so until Gorbachev’s perestroika period. It was only in 1991 that more than 150,000 Tatars returned to Crimea. Post-independence, Crimea became part of Ukraine – where the Tatars gained Ukrainian nationality and were permitted their respective legislative body (Mejlis), study of their language (Crimean Tatar), and practice of their religion (Islam).

​Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, once again turned the tide of the Tatars liberties. Stringently anti-Russian, the Tatars are one of the most notable examples of resistance to Russian occupation of Crimea. The Tatar leaders of the Mejlis, namely the exiled Refat Chubarov, called for the boycott of the March referendum regarding the status of Crimea. The boycott proved impactful upon the conscious of the Tatar population, with several heavily Tatar populated regions having a turnout of as little as 9%. These actions were demonstrative of the Tatars contempt for Russian takeover of the peninsula, setting Russian sights for silencing the Crimean minority group. 

​Since the occupation, the Russian government has aimed to dismantle Crimean Tatar structures. In 2014, Deputy Head Chiygoz was arrested on trumped up charges and held in detention for 18 months. Another Tatar activist, Ilmi Umerov, was held in psychiatric detention for his comments against Russian annexation of Crimea. Just two years later, in 2016, the Tatar parliament was termed an extremist organisation and banned from Crimea – leaving Tatars no outlet for consolidated self-expression. The rhetoric used by the Crimean so-called prosecutor “Poklonskaya,” further aimed to isolate the Tatar community from the “real Russians” of Crimea, by associating the Mejlis with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group. The act also aimed to rationalize the boycott of the referendum, with the Crimean “deputy prime minister,” Balbek, claiming that, “extremists from the Mejlis, together with radicals from the Russian-banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, have tried to apply psychological pressure, intimidating Crimean Tatars, coming directly to polling stations.” This was an “act of sabotage in the interests of Kyiv,” highlighting the narrative of Ukrainian extremism that is predominant in justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine today. The message was clear: whoever is against us must be an extremist or has been brainwashed to become one. The sentiment is further displayed in Russian repression of Crimean Tatar media outlets. In April of 2015, Russia banned the foremost Crimean Tatar news source, ATR, which was the sole news outlet targeted specifically at the Tatar population, with the broadcasting taking place in Russian, Crimean Tatar, and Ukrainian. The reason for the ban was cited as a failure to obtain a license with the Russian broadcasting company, a license the broadcasting company has yet to grant despite repeated applications.  Instead, the channel was replaced by a pro-Kremlin creation. The so-called Crimean Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, expressed his tolerance for all news outlets, stating that, “there are only restrictions for people who don’t recognize the reunion of Crimea with Russia.” 

The crackdown on Crimean Tatar history has been another prominent feature of Russia’s treatment of the population. The Russian puppet government in Crimea, banned the commemoration of the 1944 deportations on May 18th, citing the activity to induce extremist and radical activity – a further emulation of the Russian narrative of the Tatars. The discourse of Tatars as traitors, terrorists, and extremists, in turn, proves extremely effective with the Russian population. In 2004, a Russian local newspaper, Krymskaia Pravda published a survey regarding the fairness of Crimean Tatar deportations in 1944 – only 30% of college-age respondents regarded the depurations as unfair and/or criminal.  The sentiment is reflected in Crimea today; in 2021, “when a Tatar fourth-grader spoke about her great-grandfather’s deportation, the teacher told the class that Crimean Tatars were traitors and deserved to be deported.” Moreover, the diffusion of the Crimean Tatar culture is present in linguistic limitations. Since the annexation, the education system has severely restricted the ability to learn Crimean Tatar (lack of facilities, funding, teachers and demotivating students to study the language through low grades, etc.), and anecdotal stories indicate school teachers punishing and silencing Crimean Tatar children when they dare to communicate in their native tongue. 

​Crimean Tatars are an inconvenient part of Crimean history; how can Crimea be the “centre of Russian spiritual unity” if it is the historical homeland to a Muslim Turkic group that opposes any and all association with Russia? The Kremlin, however, has an easy fix to this historical hiccup – to other the Crimean Tatars and their organisations as a security threat, which aims to act as agents of Kyiv and dismantle what in the Kremlin’s eyes is rightfully Russian by erasure of Crimean Tatar history on the peninsula. To reconcile with the Crimean Tatars, would involve an uncomfortable confrontation with Stalin’s atrocities and an allowance for a non-Slavic, non-Christian group to a land that is portrayed as both. Isolating the Crimean Tatars as extremist conveniently plays into pre-existing fears and othering of Muslim minorities (i.e. Muslims in Ingushetia) in Russia. 

​With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and mass mobilisation, the topic gains a renewed layer of relevance. It is widely considered that Russian mobilisation has occurred in poorer regions of the country, with a considerable minority and Muslim populations; occupied Crimea is no exception. There are reports of the Crimean Tatar population being disproportionally targeted for mobilisation, including youth, elderly men, and those with little to contribute to the military service. Journalist, Osman Pashaev, has reported, that up to “80% of summonses for mobilization in occupied Crimea were issued to Crimean Tatars, despite them making up less than 20% of the population.” The exiled Tatar leader, RefatChubarov, has stated that, “By resolving the issue of mobilization, the occupation authorities have also taken it on themselves to destroy as much as they can of the adult Crimean Tatar population. It has signs of genocide.” Additionally, the mobilisation could also be seen as an attempt to rid Crimea of all Ukrainian supporters, as many have fled to neighbouring countries to evade recruitment.  

​Of present importance, the issue of Crimean Tatars plays a significant identitarian issue with Turkey’s alignment in the war with Russia and Ukraine. Although seen as a state who is relatively neutral in the war, especially when compared to its NATO counterparts, the treatment of Crimean Tatars remains a principal issue for Ankara. Throughout the occupation, Turkey has negotiated the freedom of Crimean Tatar political leaders and activists detained in Crimea. Most recently, Erdogan has stated that Crimean Tatars, form “a historical bridge of friendship between [Turkey and Ukraine].” This bridge seems to premise the “continue[d] support [for] the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. Common projects involving our ethnic [Crimean Tatar] kin were evaluated in detail.” Thus, Moscow’s continued attempts at erasure and vilification of the Crimean Tatars can prove to further sour its relationship with Turkey, indicating the vital (and may I add, under analysed) role that identity plays in the war. 

​The case of the Crimean Tatars is a magnifier of Putin’s wider repeated efforts to establish a docile and hierarchical society – where the ‘ethnic’ Russian Christian is at the top, while the poorer Muslim minorities are at the bottom of Russian society. For this reason, Putin will continue to diffuse and supress minority voices and further amplify the discourse of them as the extremist ‘other.’

Featured Imagery: Photograph by Baz Ratner, Reuters found on National Geographic.

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