By Niyara Alakhunova Contributing Writer April 28, 2015

The international community must intervene to protect Crimean Tatars from further persecution under Russian rule.

The rights of indigenous peoples have been systematically ignored in many countries. Yet these peoples’ fights for their rights, despite historical oppression and deprivation, deserve admiration and support. We are witnessing one such story in the Crimean Peninsula, which the Russian Federation occupied then annexed in March 2014. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) recently released a report revealing that Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of the peninsula, have been facing persecution, abductions, tortures, and targeted killings. In response Russian President Vladimir Putin made a pledge to Crimean Tatars to protect their rights and interests. This protection has clearly not materialized as Tatars have become again the most vulnerable group on the peninsula. The international community must act now to halt these atrocities under Russian rule, and more importantly, to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that happened to Crimean Tatars 70 years ago.

When Russia annexed the Khanate of the Crimea from Turkey in 1783, the Crimean Tatars represented 98% of the population. The peninsula had been competed over for centuries due to its strategically important location – the Black Sea’s commercial ports and its accessibility to the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans, arable land and mild climate. The name “Crimea” comes from the language of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that emerged during the Crimean Khanate, who called the peninsula “Qirim”. In 1944 Stalin signed a decree on mass deportation of Crimean Tatars from their historic homeland for “collaboration with the Nazis.” They were given a 5-minute notice to pack their belongings and leave their homes forever. Out of 200,000 Tatars, 47% died on the way in cattle trains to Soviet concentration camps. They were not allowed to come back home for many years, and the struggle for the right to return has been arduous. Many Crimean Tatars settled down in Central Asia, and despite feeling close to Central Asian people, have always perceived themselves as guests. By the mid-1990s around 90,000 deportees were able to return to Crimea after spending decades on filing petitions and organizing peaceful demonstrations. Tatars now constitute 12-14% of the Crimean population.

In the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Crimean Tatars are an important group that both parties tried to appease. For example, the Ukrainian parliament urgently adopted a resolution two days after the Russian annexation designating Crimean Tatars as indigenous people of Crimea. The motion also recognized their right to self-determination and their representative organs, which the group has been fighting for over the last 20 years. This was a very sudden move as the Ukrainian authorities have always been suspicious of Crimean Tatars who consider Crimea their historical homeland. Past Ukrainian governments never let Crimean Tatars settle near the sea and ignored their basic needs. The receipt of land and its legalization was a major problem facing people returning to the peninsula. Many tried to clear waste landfills with their own hands just to claim a little land, but the authorities did not legalize even these actions. With no official land papers, people hold no rights to retirement allowances or education for their children. The settlement quota, 5,000 people per year, cannot accommodate 100,000 deportees waiting to come back home from Central Asia and Turkey. Despite these grievances, Crimean Tatars undeniably have chosen Ukraine over Russia. The Crimean Tatars distrust of Russian authorities is rooted in the tragedy of their deportation from Crimea, which President Putin downplayed in his speech, saying that millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during the repressions of 1940s, primarily Russians. Russia did attempt to woo them with a series of visits by senior officials from the Russian republic of Tatarstan, but Crimean Tatars knew a return to life under Russian rule would be far worse. A turning point occurred in May 2014, when the new Crimean government banned Crimean Tatars from commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation from the peninsula. Mourning this terrible tragedy is the only thing left to Crimean Tatars, and Russian authorities have demonstrated their complete disrespect for the people and their shared trauma.

The situation of human rights violations became more alarming after Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum to join Russia and refused to recognize the new Crimean government. The longtime leader of Crimean Tatars and a recipient of a UNHCR peace medal, Mustafa Djemilev, has been banished from Crimea for “triggering hatred”. His son Kaiser is now in a detention center in Krasnodar with no rights to a lawyer or family visits. In September the Tatar parliament building was raided by masked, armed men looking for “religious extremist” literature. Many Tatar homes have been “X” marked and civil activists were attacked on their way to the UN conference on indigenous peoples in New York. The Russian authorities have promised to close investigations against Crimean Tatars under suspicion only if those individuals leave the region. On April 1, 2015 the Russian government shut down the Crimean Tatar television channel, continuing to curb freedom of expression on the peninsula to silence Crimean Tatars.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Geneva Agreement was an important step towards conflict resolution across Ukraine as the parties committed to ease tensions, agreed on principles that may lead to de-escalation and condemned expressions of racism, extremism and religious intolerance. However, it said little about Crimea, as if it was implied that Crimea was Russian for good. No intervention has been attempted to address the issues of the Crimean Tatars, over 300,000 of whom live on the peninsula and are now being forced to take Russian citizenship. Crimean Tatars are important stakeholders in the conflict and should be a part of any conflict resolution scenario. Absolute lack of the rule of law in Crimea and the methods used by Russia to instill fear and terror are alarming signs of the tragedy happening to Crimean Tatars again. Bringing temporary peacekeeping forces and observation missions to the peninsula is imperative to stop these atrocities. The United Nations should be tasked with investigating human rights abuses and preparing a case for the International Court of Justice to hold Russia accountable. Irrespective of Crimea’s fate, whether it stays with Russia or returns to Ukraine, protection of civilians should be of utmost priority. Under international law, the occupying state must protect the civilians of the annexed territory. If somehow able to retake control of the peninsula, Ukraine needs to launch large-scale security sector reform, including military, police, and justice systems, to strengthen its protective capacities and create a secure and stable environment for Crimean civilians. Until this happens, Crimean Tatars will continue to be threatened, harassed, and disappeared.

If there is one critical lesson from the current situation, it is that the international community should shift its attention to the indigenous peoples trapped in conflicts and secure their rights to basic freedoms. Conflicts exacerbate already existing grievances and diminish any peaceful means of these ethnic groups to protest against external oppression, particularly in this case. Crimean Tatars have little hope for a secure future in Crimea under Russian rule. Furthermore, the memories of 1944 are still strong. Many draw a parallel from what is happening now to what happened 70 years ago. Even after eviction from their homeland and non-recognition of their nation, Crimean Tatars have never committed violent acts; they are known for a history of peaceful and nonviolent struggle for their rights. But yet another tragedy may be too much to bear. The international community must recognize that an oppressed ethnic group with a strong collective trauma and without humanitarian support may eventually resort to more fundamental methods of retaliation. The time to act is now.

Niyara Alakhunova is a second-year graduate student in the International Development Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She comes from Kyrgyzstan, a small country in the heart of Central Asia. Her previous professional experience includes 6 years at a USAID funded project on food security in Kyrgyzstan, a fellowship at UNDP Washington Representative Office, and a consultancy with USAID Washington Bureau for Policy, Planning and Research. She specializes in post-conflict reconstruction and rights of minorities and indigenous groups.

Photo by Kaktuse is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Image cropped.