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Report: Crimea’s Tatars Targeted Since Russian Annexation

A new report on the human rights situation in Crimea paints a grim picture of the region since coming under Russian rule.

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to absorb Crimea into his country in March 2014, the move was justified as protecting the peninsula’s residents. Crimea’s return to Moscow, according to Putin and supporters of annexation, would right a historical wrong and protect the territory’s citizens from an unstable Ukrainian government. But nearly 19 months later, a new report on the human rights situation in Crimea paints a grim picture of the region since coming under Russian rule.

The 100-page document released Thursday by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) chronicles the widespread targeting of individuals, media, and minority communities that have opposed the Kremlin’s narrative since annexation. “Fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, expression and movement have all been restricted by the de facto authorities in Crimea,” Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said in a statement.

The targets of these restrictive measures have largely been the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities, many of whose members refused to accept Russian citizenship following Crimea’s annexation or spoke out against the Kremlin’s land grab. That placed them in the authorities’ crosshairs as Russia has consolidated its hold on the territory.

The report goes on to describe how the change from the Ukrainian legal system to one run by the Russians was used to deny broadcast licenses to media outlets, such as the TV station ATR, and to close organizations with ties to Kiev. This has left the peninsula’s Tatars particularly exposed, putting “increasing pressure on … the peaceful expression of both their culture and their political views,” according to a statement by Astrid Thors, the OSCE’s high commissioner on national minorities.

Muslim Tatars compose about 12 percent of Crimea’s population. They largely opposed Russia’s takeover, mindful of their dark history with Moscow, including mass deportations under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II.

Following Crimea’s annexation, leaders from the Tatar community denounced the move by Russia and staged protests in opposition. While most ethnic Russians did approve of the referendum on Crimea’s annexation, the Tatars’ stance dented the Kremlin’s narrative that it was following the will of the people.

In response, several Tatar publications have been closed or sent into exile, and two of the community’s leaders, Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, have been banned from entering Crimea. Moreover, the Mejlis, the representative political body of Crimea’s Tatars, is under constant threat of being disbanded, with its headquarters currently impounded. The report adds that “[t]hrough the justice system, the de facto authorities in Crimea have applied vague charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘separatism,’” which has made it easier for Russian officials to target any remaining opposition.

A month after Crimea’s annexation, Putin issued a decree on the rehabilitation of relations with Crimean Tatars, giving their language equal status with Russian and Ukrainian as Moscow tried to woo the community. More than a year later, however, concrete progress has failed to materialize. The OSCE report notes that promised access to Crimean-language education is still sparse and that land rights, an issue never resolved while Crimea was part of Ukraine, has persisted.

During a three-day visit to Crimea in August, Putin suggested that foreign countries were funding rights activists in an effort to “destabilize the situation” by playing up problems faced by Crimean Tatars. “You and I know full well who we are talking about. There are a number of people who consider themselves professional fighters for rights,” said the Russian president. “They want to receive foreign grants and acknowledgment and realize their ambitions, including political ambitions.”

Crimea was annexed following popular protests that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, 2014. Less than a week later, gunmen in unidentified green uniforms, who would later be revealed as Russian soldiers, occupied key buildings and airports in Crimea, paving the way for a March 16 referendum on joining Russia. Two days later, Putin signed a bill officially absorbing the peninsula into Russia.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Sept. 17, 2015: ATR was the Crimean TV station that was denied a broadcast license; an earlier version of this article incorrectly called it ATV. The quote “increasing pressure on … the peaceful expression of both their culture and their political views” was said by Astrid Thors in a statement; an earlier version of this article said it was from the OSCE’s report on the human rights situation in Crimea.

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP. Twitter: @reidstan

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