Crimea’s Tatars, a largely secular Muslim minority of about 300,000 people, are suffering a great deal because of their resistance to Russia’s occupation of their homeland.
Following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Russia assumed control over public and religious life, as well as the press, in the peninsula. In particular, the Kremlin has exerted its authoritarian grip over the Tartars, by shutting down many of their media outlets and leaving the community with only one municipal newspaper and children’s magazine. According to a fact-finding mission carried out in June-July 2015 by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of thirteen Tatar-affiliated news outlets that existed before Crimea’s annexation, only a few have received permits to operate from the Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media in Russia. Media outlets in Russia must register with Roskomnadzor in order to operate.
Following the report’s release, the CPJ issued a letter addressed directly to President Vladimir Putin, in which the organization highlighted the various incidents of restrictions and censorship against media in Crimea, including violations against Tatar Crimean outlets. The crackdown on Tatar media has had severe implications for the peninsula’s ethnic minority. Following the start of the Russian occupation, the head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, the supreme representative and executive body for Crimea’s Tatars, called for peaceful resistance. But, thanks to the rapid deterioration of freedoms of expression and the press, it has been difficult for journalist and activists to deliver information vital to maintaining this resistance and opposing Russia’s control over the peninsula.
Media censorship is not, however, the only strategy the Russian government has used to oppress Crimea’s Tatars. As my colleague Evelyn Crunden reported last year, new laws were passed, which restrict freedom of religion for the Tatars. From targeting mosques and public schools to removing Islamic literature, including the Qur’an, from Tatar homes, the fight against Islamic extremism was the pretext for the laws’ passage. The Kremlin insists that radicalization, rather than opposition to Russian occupation, is the real reason for Tatar resistance to Russia.
In fact, however, tensions between Tatars and Russia go back several decades. In 1944, Joseph Stalin ordered Crimea’s entire Tatar population deported to Central Asia, for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. According to the Soviet leadership, around 20,000 Crimean Tatars were voluntarily fighting with the Germans against the Red Army. However, the Soviet government did not just merely send suspected German collaborators and their families into exile. Instead, it deported innocent women, children, disabled people, Red Army veterans, and Communist Party members without exception. The events of 1944 remain, perhaps, the most tragic chapter in the history of the Crimean Tatars.
As Crunden also noted, last year, Crimea’s Russian-backed authorities prevented the Tatar community from commemorating the 71st anniversary of this deportation. Authorities cancelled the annual celebration march, in order to “depoliticize” and draw attention away from the event, as reported by RTVi. According to Ilmi Umerov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the commemoration is sacred for Crimean Tatars. “We never used this day to speculate, and had a variety of events to remember the tragedy. The march was the most important part of the annual commemoration events. I think that the current authorities just do not want the Tatar people to gather in the same place,” he said in an interview with RTVi.
Many governments and leaders have condemned Russia’s oppression against the Tatar community. Most recently, the European Parliament in Strasbourg overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Russia for its treatment of the Crimean Tatar population. But international condemnation and economic sanctions imposed against Russia, after its annexation of Crimea, seem to have very little influence on the Kremlin’s policies toward the peninsula. In fact, just last week, the Russian-backed prosecutor in Crimea filed a request to ban the Mejlis, pushing the self-governing body, which has represented the interests of the Tatar community in Crimea since 1999, to the brink of dissolution. Given Russia’s influence and control in the Crimea, the Tatars have no power to dispute or fight this ban.
Unless the international community brings greater pressure to bear against Russia, Crimean Tatars will likely continue to face repression, leaving them powerless and voiceless in ways reminiscent of the suffering they experienced during the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime.