BACKGROUND: In March 2014, Russia offered many overtures to the Crimean Tatars to win their support. On March 11, the Crimean parliament adopted a declaration “On guarantees for the restoration of rights of the Crimean Tatar people,” stating that in a future Crimean constitution, the Crimean Tatar language will have the status of official language (together with Russian and Ukrainian); that in executive organs of state power in Crimea at least 20 percent of positions will be reserved for Crimean Tatars; that Crimean Tatar self-government organs, the Kurultai and the Majlis, will be officially recognized; and that financial assistance, as well as assistance for the restoration of historical monuments and native language education, will be provided. President Putin also invited Dzhemilev to Moscow where he reportedly promised “to do everything” to protect Crimean Tatars from any possible aggression. Several official delegations from Tatarstan also visited Crimea and offered them material assistance.
But by April, the Tatars still refused to support the annexation while the new Crimean constitution proclaimed Crimea “united and indivisible,” did not recognize the Crimean Tatars as an “indigenous people” of Crimea, and did not give them the right to self-determination or recognize the Majlis or other self-governing bodies. Thus they got no autonomy at all. The Constitution gave the Tatars Russian citizenship entailing the right to own land and recognized their language as one of Crimea’s official languages but also reduced the total number of Parliamentary seats from 100 to 75, raised the number of single-seat constituencies to 75 percent, and effectively barred the Majlis from fielding party lists because only national, not local or ethnic, parties can compete in Russian elections. Finally, in July the Crimean prosecutor, Natalya Poklonskaya charged the Majlis with extremist activity threatening its prohibition and thus denying the Tatars any political voice at all.
Moscow is also trying to eliminate the Tatars’ pro-Ukrainian Majlis leadership and split the Tatars’ religious administration by creating its own pro-Moscow authorities, both of which are long-standing Muscovite, Tsarist, and Soviet tactics. Russia seeks to eradicate Crimean Tatar Islamist groups and to use its designated strongman in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to help control the Tatars. By late April, Moscow and the Crimean authorities exiled Dzhemilev from Crimea. They threatened him and anyone demonstrating on behalf of Crimean Tatar autonomy in Ukraine with the full weight of repression under Russian law.
IMPLICATIONS: Russian and Crimean authorities also began arresting or “disappearing” dissidents, and obviously not only Tatars. These “disappearances” began in Mid-March, finally leading the Crimean Muftiate (also known as the Muslim Spiritual Directorate, MSD) to speak out against the authorities. Moscow, in classic Russian imperialist style, also simultaneously sought to break the ties among the Mufti, the MDS and the Majlis. Russian authorities warned that he MSD was “in danger” because of those links to the anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox Majlis. By the end of June the same official who made this warning, the notorious anti-Muslim Roman Silantyev, warned that the FSB planned to liquidate “radical Islamic organizations in Crimea.” Since Silantyev defines as extremist anyone he and the authorities do not like and has repeatedly threatened the MSD, this new warning could clearly presage a full-scale offensive on the MSD and the Crimean Tatars.
Finally in early July the Crimean authorities barred Refat Chubarov, leader of the Majlis, from entering “Russian territory” because of his “activities to incite interethnic hatred.” In light of Putin’s warning that “none of us can allow the Crimean Tatar people to become a bargaining chip in disputes – especially in disputes between Russia and Ukraine,” it is clear that they can hope for nothing from either Moscow or the local authorities. Likewise the UN High Commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, stated that “Tatars faced numerous problems including physical harassment, fear of religious persecution and internal displacement.” And the UN simultaneously released a report attesting to those risks.
The consequences of this repression are not long in coming. Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev recently announced that the government would ask Tatars to vacate “illegally occupied land.” This threatens the status of many of the Tatars, who have mostly lived in makeshift homes on unauthorized property after they returned from exile. Temirgaliyev essentially offered transfers of the Crimean Tatars to other lands but is clearly not interested in resolving claims to the lands from which they were dispossessed in 1944. Neither can anyone place any credence in his “promises” to resettle the Tatars on suitable lands elsewhere in Crimea. By June, Russia’s Ministry of Development was preparing legislation allowing Moscow to seize significant amounts of land in Crimea on an accelerated basis, ostensibly to promote economic development along the same lines Moscow used to seize lands in and around Sochi before the Winter Olympics. This economic development would likely take the form of casinos to reduce the costs of annexation by effectively imposing a hidden tax through that sector. Whatever Moscow’s motives might be, this could easily become another Crimean land grab for well-connected Russian elites. Other analyses confirm that due to the incomplete nature of claims of title to land in Crimea, “Russian officials will deal with the law much as the Kremlin did with Ukraine’s sovereign borders – as they choose.”
Under the circumstances and given the historical connection between the Crimean Tatars and Turkey it is likewise no surprise that the Tatars have appealed to Turkey and even Azerbaijan for relief and support. However, both Ankara and Baku have multiple reasons for caution in defending the Crimean Tatars. More overt representations on their behalf would not only jeopardize their own ties to Moscow, but also go far to confirm the visible suspicions of authorities in Crimea and Russia that the Tatars are a seditious “fifth column” with ties to Turkey and plotting to embroil Turkey and/or Azerbaijan in Russia’s internal affairs. The signs of this mentality of suspicion, coupled with the fact that Russian nationalism has for twenty years been systematically directed against Muslims, can only add to the dangers facing the Crimean Tatars.
CONCLUSIONS: Today no institutional, moral, or legal barriers other than expediency and potential fear of the consequences stand between the Kremlin and a return to historical policies of deporting an ethnic or other minority deemed to pose a threat. But today, Muslims are insurgents all over the world, including the North Caucasus. There are plenty of signs that Russian repression could generate an Islamic or other terrorist movement among Crimean Tatars that could ultimately connect with those in the North Caucasus. And there is no reason to believe that he Kremlin is not concerned that this could come about. Even before this crisis there was a high potential for violence in Crimea and analysts who studied it worried that the conventional wisdom was that Russia could annex it and was thinking of doing so whenever that decision suited it.
Yet the potential for ethnic violence has been there from 1991 and Russian policies are clearly, just as in the North Caucasus, stimulating that potential outcome. The forces that made for past deportations could come again, and not only against the Crimean Tatars because overall nationality policy is moving towards ever stricter centralization, repression, and chauvinism as in the past. But this time the spirit of resistance pervades the Muslim world and they will fight back. Moscow may believe, as St. Petersburg did a century ago, that it could incite ethnic antagonisms in the Black Sea basin and benefit from doing so even at the cost of war. But that illusion was brutally shattered in World War I and an equally delusional drive to restore the empire to save Putinism could trigger one or more new theaters in the global war on terror. If Russia maintains its current approach towards the Crimean Tatars and Russia’s other ethnic minorities, Putin might yet come to be seen not as the victor of Chechnya but as the father of a new “second front” in anti-Russian Jihad.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
(Image Attribution: Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People)