Crimea’s Forgotten Children Fight Back

Repressed by Russia and abandoned by Ukraine, Crimean Tatars have turned to a low-level insurgency campaign in a bid not to be ignored.

CHONGAR, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 20 :  Activists block a road near to the border crossing point of Chonhar, linking mainland Ukraine to Crimea, on September 20, 2015. Tatar activists on Sunday blocked the two main roads leading into Crimea from Ukraine to emphasize the plight of Tatars in the Russian-annexed territory. The blockade of goods trucks created a 3 kilometer (2 mile) tailback on the roads, with road blocks established at Chonhar, Kalanchak and Armyansk (Photo by Maksim Voytenko /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CHONGAR, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 20 : Activists block a road near to the border crossing point of Chonhar, linking mainland Ukraine to Crimea, on September 20, 2015. Tatar activists on Sunday blocked the two main roads leading into Crimea from Ukraine to emphasize the plight of Tatars in the Russian-annexed territory. The blockade of goods trucks created a 3 kilometer (2 mile) tailback on the roads, with road blocks established at Chonhar, Kalanchak and Armyansk (Photo by Maksim Voytenko /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

CHONGAR, Ukraine – Last month, a 32-year-old singer named Jamala was chosen to represent Ukraine at the Eurovision 2016 contest, with a song that’s a far cry from the competition’s typical bubbly euro-pop.

Her song, ‘1944,’ an R&B ballad, is about the brutal deportation of her people, the Crimean Tatars, from their Black Sea peninsula to Central Asia and Siberia during World War II. The chorus, sung in Crimean Tatar, repeats the story of Jamala’s deported grandmother: ‘I could not spend my youth there/Because you took away my land,’ she sings. But in the song, the contest judges and Ukrainian public found an expression of their own grief and anger at the loss of the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014, and in the lyrics, an expression of sympathy for a new generation of Crimean Tatars who have had to leave their homeland, or remain there under a repressive regime.

Meanwhile, some 450 miles away from the glitzy Kiev concert hall, Evelina Arifova sat in a comfortless army tent near the village of Chongar, on the de-facto border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. Crimean Tatar activists have been camped here for months, enforcing a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula that they hope will one day help them win it back.

Arifova watched the competition and texted her vote for Jamala from her mobile. Her friends in Crimea could not vote: Only numbers with a Ukrainian country code were valid, and numbers in Crimea are Russian now. Nor could many watch the competition, as Ukrainian TV channels are no longer broadcast there; even if they were, the regular power outages affecting the peninsula since Ukraine stopped supplying electricity would have probably interrupted the show. Arifova and others like her in mainland Ukraine bought extra Ukrainian sim cards so they could vote on behalf of friends and relatives back home.

Like Jamala (whose real name is Susana Jamaladinova), Arifova is a Crimean Tatar, a member of the Muslim minority that fiercely opposed Russian annexation, and which has been subjected to steadily growing repression since the takeover. Now she is part of a small group of strange bedfellows – Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups – who are leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation. Last fall they took the law into their own hands by unilaterally imposing a trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods. In November, unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark.

The latter move also left Arifova – who, like everyone on the blockade, claims not to know who blew up the power lines but supported pickets that blocked their repair — at risk of being banned from returning home, or arrested if she does return. Blockade leader and financer Lenur Islyamov faces criminal charges in Russia; his assets in Crimea have been seized and the houses of his relatives searched.

“In Crimea [the authorities] are opening criminal cases against the blockade organizers,” Arifova told me late last year. “I’ve realized I can’t go back.”

* * *

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, after an internationally condemned referendum, much of the world sympathized with the Tatars who’d been left behind. Relations between Russia and the Crimean Tatars are historically fraught: Close to half the entire population was wiped out when the group was deported en masse from Soviet Crimea under Stalin. Crimean Tatars campaigned for decades before more than 250,000 were allowed to return to the peninsula in the early 1990s, only to face tensions with those who’d settled on the peninsula in their absence.

Fears that the Tatars under Putin would be subjected to oppressive measures have proved justified. The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.

At first, Crimeans opposed to the Russian annexation, including Tatars, chose mostly to resist through peaceful means. Serhii Kostynskyi, from Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee, launched the Crimea is Ukraine media campaign in spring 2015 to focus international and domestic media coverage on the many prominent Ukrainian citizens from Crimea who had become internally displaced. It was part of a long-term strategy, Kostynskyi explained, to expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with “soft power.”

But Kostynskyi’s long game saw limited success. The Crimean cause was quickly pushed out of the headlines by the war in east Ukraine. In summer 2014, the Ukrainian government enacted a law making Crimea a free trade zone, which meant goods could be supplied to the peninsula subject to customs and legally regarded as exports, although Crimea was still part of Ukraine under Ukrainian and international law. In December 2014, it quietly signed an agreement to buy electricity from Russia and resell it to the ‘Crimean Federal District of the Russian Federation’ — Russia’s term for the annexed territory. Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev told me that Kiev officials said to him privately: “You’re on your own.”

In late 2015, the Crimean Tatars decided to force matters with the blockade, even if it meant giving up the moral high ground. Joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics, even if they weren’t legal, was the right move, Arifova told me. “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything.”

Since the blockade, which compounded sanctions imposed by the EU and U.S. over the Russian annexation, Crimean inhabitants have been forced to settle into a regime of daily power cuts and limited goods that reminds many of the tough days of the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed. Crimea shares no land border with Russia, and relies on Ukraine for much of its infrastructure and supplies. In early January, Crimean Vice Premier Yevgenia Babykina estimated losses to Crimean industry as a result of the power shortages at over 900 million rubles.

Cutting off electricity to the peninsula had an impressive PR effect in Ukraine. “It was a real information bomb,” said Kostynskyi. Crimea became a hot media and political topic, and the Crimean Tatars were hailed as patriotic heroes by Ukrainians frustrated with their government’s inability to win back its lost territories. Emboldened, the Mejlis, the governing body of Crimean Tatars, demanded that Russia release eight Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian political prisoners, investigate killings and abductions in Crimea, and allow access for international monitors, before electricity would be restored.

The surge of popular interest and support forced the Ukrainian government to take notice. From January 2016, Ukraine ceased all electricity supply and began implementing an official trade embargo with Crimea.* The activists at Chongar, now registered as a legal community organization, say they now only assist Ukrainian border guards to inspect vehicles for contraband goods.

“We’ve achieved our aims,” said Arifova. “We stopped contraband, we imposed an electricity blockade, and we forced the government to do all of this legally.” The eight political prisoners however, are still behind bars, and many Crimean Tatars in Crimea report that the repression is getting worse. An ongoing legal proceeding in Crimea is attempting to have the Mejlis banned as an “extremist” organization, and a Feb. 3 resolution by the European parliament noted ongoing “unprecedented levels of human rights abuses perpetrated against Crimean residents, most notably Crimean Tatars.”

Some Crimean Tatars in favour of more drastic measures to counter Russian oppression have formed, with the assistance of Ukrainian paramilitaries, their own Crimean Tatar paramilitary battalion. It now has over 200 members and includes Crimean Tatars, non-Tatar Ukrainians, and volunteers from mostly Muslim countries or republics including Chechnya, Dagestan and Azerbaijan.

Islyamov says the battalion will be incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard – which answers to the interior ministry – primarily to act as a civil police force, first in Kherson region bordering Crimea, and then in Crimea itself, upon its return to Ukrainian control. “We know the road to Crimea and we’ll show it to Ukraine; we know every hill and tree and spring of our homeland,” Islyamov said. “We have to be the first to enter a liberated Crimea.”

But those who advocate a soft-power approach, like Kostynskyi, worry that their message is being swamped by hard-line tactics that will turn Crimea into an economic and social backwater. “The hawks have hijacked all discussion,” said Kostynskyi, a self-described dove. Kostynskyi’s father in Crimea was in hospital when the lights went out last November, and it was several hours before he could contact his family.

Kostynskyi said some staunch Ukraine supporters in Crimea felt abandoned by Ukraine. “Crimeans are our citizens, and we should not create a humanitarian disaster for them,” he said. “If we accept the point of view that [the annexation of Crimea] was an armed invasion, then people are not guilty, they are hostages.”

I put this point to Mustafa Jemilev, 72, who, as leader of the Crimean Tatar movement, spent 15 years in Soviet prisons for peacefully campaigning for his people’s right to return to their homeland. He is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities. Jemilev’s wife remains in Crimea; his son is in prison in Russia, which recently also issued an arrest warrant for Jemilev himself. Jemilev serves in the Ukrainian parliament in President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc.

“It isn’t a violation of human rights,” Jemilev told me in December. “We are practically in a state of war, and that has its own rules.” He said today’s situation in Crimea is worse than in Soviet days. “It’s not good to sit in the dark,” he acknowledged, “but it’s even worse to sit in prison, even if the lights are on.”

*Ukraine began implementing a trade embargo with Crimea in January 2016. A previous version of this story stated that it began in January 2015.

Maksim Voytenko /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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