Who Speaks for Crimea’s Tatars?

FP talks to Mustapha Dzhemilev about his besieged people and bizarre conversation with Vladimir Putin.


The former chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or regional parliament, Mustapha Dzhemilev is still considered to be the father of the Crimean Tatar cause. His community, which he refers to as the only truly "indigenous people" of the Ukrainian peninsula which was invaded and annexed by Russia in February, numbers a mere 300,000 out of a population of 2.35 million, owing to the forced population transfers of the Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia ordered by Josef Stalin in 1944, an act the Mejlis consider to be a modern genocide. (Many Tatars were allowed back into Crimea during the glasnost period of the Soviet Union, but millions more remain as part of a far-flung diaspora.)

A famed survivor of the Soviet gulag, and now member of the Ukrainian parliament from the ruling Fatherland Party, Dzhemilev is in the United States to address the U.N. Security Council on the concerns and fears expressed by his people that now live under Russian occupation, and to press the urgency of the moment in Washington, D.C.

Dzhemilev is a 70-year-old soft-spoken whisper of a man, conspicuous in his curly Persian sheepskin hat. He spoke at the Ukrainian Museum in lower Manhattan on Sunday, March 30, where Foreign Policy caught up with him to discuss U.S. and E.U. options on Ukraine, the likelihood of another Russian invasion, and his recent one-on-one phone call with Vladimir Putin.

Foreign Policy: According to news reports this weekend, the White House has not even raised the status of Crimea with the Kremlin in trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. The United States therefore seems to have accepted that Crimea will remain a part of Russia. What is your response to this position?

Mustapha Dzhemilev: We are very disappointed because, as I said, accepting Russian occupation as a fait accompli will mean future problems for the international system. And, of course, that the Ukrainian forces left Crimea and would not fight. That has been a big disappointment for Crimean Tatars. Accepting this takeover of Crimea will mean that other countries which gave up their nuclear weapons will seek to get them back because no diplomatic accord can ever again be trusted. [The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States, Britain, Russia, and Ukraine, guaranteed the latter’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in exchange for its relinquishment of its nuclear weapons.]

FP: What would you do if you were the United States or European Union?

MD: Increase sanctions. It is our belief that sanctions will be enough to resolve the crisis. We believe that very firm sanctions will do it. They’ll work. I understand that there are first, second, third, fourth, fifth stages [for sanctions] — the gap is very big between these stages. These sanctions should be taken immediately and the more aggressive stages should be taken going forward. Of course, this will take a toll on Western financial interests. But if the West doesn’t pay this price now, it will be much higher in the future.

FP: If Moscow and Washington did manage to resolve this standoff diplomatically, would you take Putin at his word that he’d abide by any settlement?

MD: This would be very difficult for us to do because Russia has already broken the 1994 agreement.

FP: Do you think Russia will invade eastern Ukraine given its troop movements close to the border?

MD: This is a very provocative state of affairs. There might indeed be some unrest in the east because of what the Russians are doing there.

FP: You mentioned that of the 5,000 Tatars who have left Crimea for western Ukraine since the Russian invasion, only women and children remained as exiles, while all of the men came back. This has prompted suspicions that the Crimean Tatars will fight the Russians. Have you seen any evidence that self-defense militias or an armed resistance is taking shape?

MD: We have said that we want a diplomatic solution to this crisis. We cannot fight the Russians because our nation is very small, only 300,000.

FP: Putin called you on the phone several weeks ago, presumably to win your support for Russia’s actions in Crimea. What did he say to you, and what was your impression of his state of mind?

MD: First of all, I was shocked that he repeated the clichés of Russian propaganda, that "Banderites" [followers of Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis when Ukraine was under Soviet occupation] have come to power there, that fascists came to power, that there is a threat to the Russian population. That was ridiculous; there is none of that. The head of such a big nation should have sources of information that are objective, but here he represented all this as fact. I tried to explain that this wasn’t the case, but it was useless. He explained his point of view; I think he was expecting that from this conversation he would at least ensure our neutrality.

FP: So Putin expected the Tatars to remain neutral?

MD: I said that there could be a provocation, there weren’t that many of us, we were not going to fight, our methods are peaceful, but the problem could be solved only by diplomatic means with the government of Ukraine. Only through negotiations with our government could this be achieved. He should withdraw his forces then.

FP: As you know, there are several figures and parties in the Russian opposition who condemn the annexation of Crimea, such as PARNAS, December 5, and Alexey Navalny’s Party of Progress. There have even been some antiwar demonstrations in Moscow, albeit suppressed or disrupted by the authorities.

MD: This is very important. To be frank, we place a lot of hope in the Russian opposition. Because if there isn’t such a powerful movement in Russia — I will sound cynical — I fear that Russia will not wake up until they are confronted with coffins.

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