Targeting the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as pro-Russian euphoria fades in Crimea
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently asserted that the Crimean Tatar people have received what they couldn’t have dreamt of within Ukraine”. Lavrov was unusually close to the truth since in their worst nightmares Crimean Tatars could not have imagined the violations of their rights seen since Russia annexed their homeland.
Lavrov noted that “some” of the Mejlis or representative assembly were unhappy with what he calls the ‘reunification’ of the Crimea to Russia. A week later it is clear that rather than “removing the issues causing constant tension between Crimean Tatars and the rest of the population”, the occupation regime is in fact trying to crush the current Mejlis and eliminate other voices of dissent to Russian occupation.
More than six months after annexation, it is increasingly difficult for the occupation regime to blame a supposed ‘Kyiv junta’ for the Crimea’s socio-economic woes. Just as in Soviet times, new enemies are required to explain why the promised ‘glorious future’ is stubbornly refusing to materialize. Some of the tactics used, especially the abuse of anti-extremism law, are also clearly designed to create a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, with the predominantly Muslim Crimean Tatars the main, although not only, target
It started with a Ukrainian flag
Overt pressure on Crimean Tatars and the Mejlis began on April 22 with the 5-year effective exile from his homeland imposed on veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev. This came two days after the 71-year-old former Soviet political prisoner and Ukrainian MP, on his first return to Simferopol since annexation, insisted that the Ukrainian flag be reinstated over the Mejlis building. Despite vandal attacks, violence and threats of prosecution for supposed ‘extremism’ and ‘incitement to inter-ethnic enmity, it flew there together with the Crimean Tatar flag throughout all these months.
Russia’s attempts to legitimize aggression via pseudo elections have thus far proved futile. Its use of fascist and neo-Nazi politicians as ‘western observers’ of the March 16 ‘referendum’ fooled only those fed solely on Russian propaganda. Neither that so-called ‘referendum’ nor the ‘elections’ on Sept 14 have been recognized by the international community.
The low turn-out cannot only have been because of the Mejlis’s call for a boycott, and if the crackdown has come immediately after the elections it may also be because the occupation regime no longer sees any reason to watch its step.
Mustafa Dzhemiliev is convinced that the repression will continue since the authorities are set on creating a ‘tame’ Mejlis, and cannot succeed.
Two Mejlis leaders – Dzhemiliev and the current head, Refat Chubarov have been banned for 5 years, as has an adviser to the Mejlis, Ismet Yuksel. A number of Mejlis members have been harassed and detained either leaving or returning from mainland Ukraine on Mejlis business.
Just hours after the voting ended in the Sept 14 elections, three armed men carried out a well-coordinated attack on the Mejlis building in which they simply pulled down the Ukrainian flag. The Mejlis put it back up again the following morning. On Sept 15 the FSB and armed men in military uniform blocked the Mejlis and carried out an 11-hour search of the entire building. The next day, bailiffs arrived and gave the Crimea Fund 24 hours to vacate the entire building.
The declared grounds for the search had nothing to do with the so-called writ and it was effectively impossible to fight such overt lawlessness. The Mejlis began moving out on Thursday, yet the bailiffs still fined the owner of the building – Riza Shevkiyev and the Crimea Fund 50 thousand roubles for not fully vacating the building within the original 24 hours. All the Mejlis’ property, documents, etc. have been removed and the building sealed. In a related move the prosecutor’s office is seeking through the court to get Mustafa Dzhemiliev removed from the list of founders of the Crimea Fund through Simferopol’s district court. This might mean that they will not liquidate the Fund, but rather try to seize control over it.
Russia has assiduously foisted certain stereotypes in its attempt to justify aggression. Against Ukraine as a whole, it has tried to present EuroMaidan and then the Kyiv government as ‘fascist’. Against the Crimean Tatars they are bandying around accusations of ‘extremism’. Russian ‘anti-extremism’ legislation is, of course, a brilliant weapon since it can cover just about any opposition to those in power.
If the first warning about ‘extremism’ issued to the Mejlis newspaper ‘Avdet’ was because of such unkind terms as ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’, the prosecutor saw a second demonstration of ‘extremism’ in its reporting the Mejlis’ call to boycott the Sept 14 elections.
There is certainly no sign of a let-up in the series of searches, usually by armed men in masks, carried out recently of private homes, mosques and schools. Quite the contrary since the Crimean ministry of education has just issued an order that all schools be searched for ‘extremist literature’ and prohibited books. It would be good if they could leave their machine guns at home, but optimism is not high.
The armed searches are extremely worrying and it unfortunately seems likely that the occupation regime may be planning arrests or even a show trial as they have attempted with Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov and three other opponents of Russian occupation.
There may also be another cynical motive for the escalation. Hate speech, especially directed against Crimean Tatars, was long common in the Crimea and fuelled by various pro-Russian political forces for their own ends. In previous years there was an underlying venal motive linked with corruption over land and unwillingness to resolve the problems which Crimean Tatars faced on returning after years in forced exile. One especially notorious article by Natalya Astakhova was even entitled “Brought by the Wind” [a play on the title in Russian of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind] and used standard techniques to elicit negative feelings about the Crimean Tatars.
Lavrov claimed in the above-mentioned interview that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea had been necessary. “Our country prevented bloodshed, it stopped a repeat of Maidan and the war which later erupted in the South East”.
The Russian foreign minister is considerably further from the truth here, but most importantly these excuses will do little to explain away the difficulties Crimean residents are now experiencing and which will not get better.
In these conditions, a scapegoat is often sought and the Crimean Tatars as a people were often targeted before by politicians and media from the pro-Russian camp. They are likely to now be viewed as a convenient aim because of their strong opposition to Russian rule. Although, of course, with ‘extremist’ increasingly used about anybody who opposes Russian occupation, the range of such ‘enemies’ seems set to widen.