The Annexation of Crimea Isn’t Going as Planned

The show trial of Akhtem Chiygoz was supposed to be a quick and easy way to discourage dissent. That was before it went off the rails.


SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — When the new Russian-appointed Crimean government opened its investigation into Akhtem Chiygoz in 2015, Chiygoz’s family said they heard the case against him was being called “candy” — that is, a sweet, ideal case.

The goal was simple. Chiygoz, a prominent figure in the Crimean Tatar community, was to be tried and convicted under Russian law, along with five other Crimean Tatars, for inciting “mass disturbances” on Feb. 26, 2014. On that day, less than a month before Crimea would be annexed by the Russian Federation, about 13,000 pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators clashed over closer Russian ties at rallies outside the parliament building in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Two people died.

The trial — which started in December 2015 — was to serve a dual purpose for Crimea’s new Russian government. First, it would demonstrate that the most visible resistance to the Russian takeover was generated by an unpopular minority ethnic group with a history of protesting for indigenous rights. Second, a conviction would discourage further opposition and discredit the Crimean Tatars’ governing body, the Mejlis, one of the organizers of the February protest and source of the strongest opposition to the new regime since the peninsula’s annexation.

“It was supposed to be an intimate court case in Crimea,” said Chiygoz’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov. “It should have gone quickly and nicely, and painted a beautiful picture.”

More than a year later, the trial has gone wildly off the rails. Witness after witness called by the prosecution has directly contradicted the prosecution’s case. Many told the court they never saw Chiygoz inciting unrest; others called as injured parties said they never suffered any harm. Two of the other accused men said in court they’d been pressured to give false evidence against Chiygoz in return for lighter sentences. And then there is the major problem that at the time of events, the participants were Ukrainian citizens on what even Russia agrees was Ukrainian territory (although Russia has adopted legal changes to retroactively cover Crimea pre-March 2014).

The original prosecutor left to become a deputy in the Russian Duma in autumn 2016. The trial has since descended to such absurdity that the presiding judges often struggle to keep straight faces.

What was intended to be a quick, clean case has transformed into a sprawling show trial gone wrong. In the process, the “26 February” case, as it’s come to be called, is revealing some of what went awry in the annexation of Crimea itself.

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On a recent day in court, Polozov, a bullish defense lawyer who hails from Moscow, opened hearings with his regular request to the judges to grant Chiygoz bail, and access to the court room where he is being tried. Chiygoz has been banned, under a never-before-used clause in Russian law which says defendants can be excluded if they are considered a danger — although Polozov has never managed to get an explanation of why the 52-year-old Chiygoz poses a threat.

Both requests were, as usual, denied. And so the trial continued, with Chiygoz watching via Skype from his pretrial detention cell less than 500 meters away from the courtroom.

This arrangement not only denies Chiygoz the opportunity to confer in private with his lawyer, it poses logistical problems, too. That same day a witness was asked if he recognized the defendant. The witness looked around the courtroom in vain until Chiygoz, only visible on a small flat screen, waved and shouted “Look! I’m here!” — at which point the surprised witness said he’d never seen this man before.

Chiygoz is being tried for organization of mass unrest under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code. His trial was restarted in August 2016 after his case was split from the five other Crimean Tatar men who are accused of participation in the day’s violence. None of the accused deny being present at the gathering, but say they never incited or took part in any unrest. In fact, there is no evidence that there was any large scale unrest that day at all.

On the day the supposed mass disturbance took place, the Crimean parliament was scheduled to meet for an emergency session to debate closer relations with Russia. The Yanukovych government in Kiev had fallen just days before, and two sanctioned rallies were planned that day outside parliament in Simferopol: one led by the Russian Unity party supporting closer relations, and one by the Mejlis, against any such rapprochement. The pro-Kievites numbered about 7,000 — mostly Crimean Tatars, but also ethnic Ukrainians and Russians from Crimea among them. The pro-Moscow demonstrators numbered about 5,500. Some came in buses from Sevastopol; others belonged to recently formed Crimean “self-defense militias.”

Extensive video footage shot by the media and participants shows some isolated fights, and bottles and sticks being thrown, while leaders on both sides call for restraint. The meeting broke up peacefully. The cause of the two deaths is unclear but a recent, exhaustive report by human rights groups from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Moldova concludes they were likely crushed when demonstrators were caught in a narrow gap between the parliament building and the outer courtyard.

Despite the lack of evidence, Russian prosecutors have forged ahead with criminal charges. Yet those charging Chiygoz seem to be regularly caught off-guard by their own witnesses, who have not been inclined to back up the state’s version of events. During 90 minutes of cross-examination, the same witness who did not recognize Chiygoz on the screen — a gruff fisherman anxious to get back to the herring season — said he didn’t know who had hit him on the head that day, or why he was being called to court as an injured party even though he had never sought any medical aid or compensation, and did not consider himself injured.

“A fight’s a fight,” he said. “I don’t know who was throwing what, everyone was throwing things.”

Over 100 hearings and 153 prosecution witnesses later, only three people have actually testified to seeing Chiygoz planning or inciting any unrest at the meeting — and two of them were secret witnesses known only as Ablyayev and Petrov, who testified via video link with their faces hidden.

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The trial has revealed little proof of “mass disturbances” instigated by Chiygoz on Feb. 26, 2014. But it is inadvertently revealing details about the contested events in spring that year that led up to annexation.

On the night of Feb. 26, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms — who would soon come to be nicknamed the “polite people” — surrounded the parliament in Simferopol and other state and military structures. The next day, in a closed session, parliament voted to hold a referendum on joining Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted in April 2014 that the “polite people” were Russian servicemen. Nevertheless, the Russian narrative of events holds that annexation was a result of a popular local uprising. Central to this story is the supposedly spontaneous rise of the peninsula’s self-defense militias — groups of Crimeans who independently organized and armed themselves for fear of the pending arrival of right-wing groups from mainland Ukraine.

Many witnesses called in the 26 February case against Chigyoz belonged at the time to the Crimean self-defense militias. Their statements have revealed the extent of their outside assistance; testimony confirms they were established with assistance from the Russian Unity party, which helped them purchase riot gear. (Russian Unity was banned in April 2014 by a court in Kiev and its former leader, Sergey Aksyonov, now heads the Crimean government.) Others have shown how Russian propaganda deliberately fostered misconceptions among them to feed a sense of danger. They also, in some cases, reveal some sheepishness about their actions during the heady weeks around annexation.

The fisherman, for example, told the court he had belonged to a 300-strong self-defense militia of Afghan war veterans, one of about 14 divisions around the peninsula. The militias met daily, he said, and were sent to the Feb. 26 meeting by “Valeryich” (Aksyonov’s patronymic) and Sergey Tarasov, the head of the Crimean Afghan veterans’ league, who is now a Crimean parliament deputy.

Under questioning by Polozov and Chiygoz, the fisherman said his militia went to parliament that day because of rumors that fascists were on their way. “We heard that supposedly there should be something like some others coming, from there, from Ukraine,” he told the court. “They were called Banderites” — a Soviet term for Ukrainian nationalists. “No one knew when they were coming, but we were at the railway station as well because it was said there’d be a train.” He was referring to the so-called “friendship train,” a story fomented by Russian propaganda of supposedly violent Ukrainian nationalists on their way to Crimea. The story is still cited today by Crimeans who support annexation; there is no evidence that the train existed.

The fisherman said he never saw the purported Banderites, either at the railway station or at the Feb. 26 meeting. In the end, he seemed embarrassed by the whole subject.

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Human rights groups like Amnesty International and the Russian nongovernmental organization Memorial recognize Chiygoz as a prisoner of conscience, and the trial as part of a wider ongoing effort by the Russian government to repress any political opposition in Crimea, particularly from Crimean Tatars who, even after three years, cannot be persuaded to support the annexation. It’s notable that although there were two sides and two organizers to the Feb. 26 rallies, only Crimean Tatars are in the dock.

“There’s an obvious segregation on ethnic grounds,” said Polozov. The prosecutor’s office has said this is because no Crimean Tatars claimed injury or damages.

It’s no surprise the Crimean Tatars and Crimea’s Russian leadership have found themselves at odds. Members of this ethnic group have not forgotten how their nation was expelled from the peninsula en masse by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1944 and not permitted to return until the Soviet Union collapsed. Just a few months after taking control, Russia banned two Crimean Tatar leaders from Crimea: Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov.

Remaining members of the Crimean Tatar community were initially courted by the new authorities. Chiygoz — one of the Mejlis’s most prominent representatives left in Crimea — was flown to Kazan, Russia by private jet for discussions on cooperation, according to his father, while his wife, Elmira Ablyalimova, was made director of the 16th-century Crimean khan’s palace in Bakhchisaray, one of Crimea’s most famous heritage sites. But at the same time, increasing numbers of Crimean Tatars disappeared or were arrested on charges of “extremism” and “terrorism.” Ablyalimova left her museum post in December 2014, saying she was subjected to constant pressure to influence her husband. “The authorities in Crimea need 100 percent loyalty — not professionalism, but loyalty — and everything is based on that principle,” she said.

The brief truce soon descended into all-out war. Chiygoz, Ablyalimova says, refused to show such loyalty — and so a way was found to remove him. He was arrested in January 2015. The Mejlis was banned in 2016 and labeled an extremist group.

Ludmila Lubina, Russia’s human rights commissioner in Crimea, denied bias against any of Crimea’s many ethnic groups post-annexation. In an interview last autumn, she suggested that the Mejlis ban and other repressive measures are only what the Crimean Tatars — about 12 percent of the Crimean population — had coming to them after years in Ukraine of demanding the rights they lost after they were deported in 1944, often through mass peaceful protest. (Chiygoz once laid down in front of a bulldozer to protest for land rights.)

“It’s not my opinion — I’m the ombudsman — but the opinion of most Slavic and German and Greek people [in Crimea] is that the Crimean Tatars have at last been made to live according to the law. And that’s really gratifying. Really gratifying,” she told me.

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Other than Crimean Tatars, hardly anyone in Crimea today is still paying attention to the events taking place in the Simferopol courtroom. Few Crimeans can name Valentina Korneva and Igor Postny, the two people who died on Feb. 26, 2014. The court case is ignored by local and Russian media. But the gathering, like the “friendship train” and the “polite people,” has entered into local folklore about what happened in spring 2014, and reinforces among some Crimeans a long-held belief in Tatar lawlessness.

“If it hadn’t been for Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] we would have been left alone with the Tatars and it would have been the most terrible thing in the world,” said Irina Antonova, who sells souvenirs in Simferopol International Airport, including Putin T-shirts and models of a new monument to the “polite people” erected outside the Crimean parliament. “At that meeting, the Tatars would have just destroyed us.” She did not attend the meeting.

In the center of Simferopol, patrolled by the self-defense militias as well as police, posters from 2014 warning about Ukrainian fascists have disappeared. It’s hard to remember the sea of people, flags, and high emotion that filled the square outside parliament on Feb. 26.

Three years since annexation, many Crimeans find themselves disappointed by the results. Russian promises of higher living standards have not materialized. Few speak openly about their dissatisfaction, however; trials like Chiygoz’s have made it clear that dissent is not welcome. But even Lubina, the human rights ombudsman, while denying there are any human rights violations post-annexation, complained about corruption and a lack of freedom.

“I feel there’s not enough freedom to express my personal opinion,” she said. “In Ukraine, you can spit out whatever’s on your mind.… In Russia, it’s not always possible to formulate and to understand where we’re heading.”

A few streets away from the parliament, a small, dogged group of friends and supporters gather almost daily outside the supreme court for Chiygoz’s hearings. For all its unintentional comedy, the trial has been brutal: Conditions in the pretrial jail are notoriously bad, and Chiygoz spent seven months of his ongoing two-year incarceration in solitary confinement. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

“We’re here because it could be any one of our sons or husbands,” said Ferasultan Musliadinova, a Crimean Tatar who arrives each lunchtime with a van full of rice plov and hot tea for supporters.

Other political trials of Crimeans post-annexation, such as that of the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, have resulted in long sentences, and few expect Chiygoz’s trial to end differently, despite the lack of evidence and the reluctance of witnesses to play along. Still, with the hysteria and euphoria of spring 2014 long gone — and the case’s initial prosecutor in Moscow — local zeal to make a public example of Chiygoz seems to be fading.

“There was no mass unrest and there were no injured, just some invented victims, so it’s not interesting for [the witnesses]. It’s only interesting for the prosecutor,” said Daria Svyrydova, a lawyer from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and co-author of the report on the Feb. 26 case. “But as time goes on, it’ll get less interesting for the prosecutors, too, as they understand the case is collapsing and it’s their headache.”

Judges closed the questioning of the fisherman witness by asking if he wanted to see Chiygoz punished for his role on Feb. 26. The fisherman, who in between grilling from Chiygoz, had engaged in an amicable exchange with him about fishing, looked nonplussed.

“I don’t know him, so how can I judge him?” he said. “Should I sentence him just because he’s asked me a lot of questions?”

Photo credit: Alina Smutko

Correction, Sept. 13, 2017: Ludmila Lubina is Crimea’s current human rights commissioner. A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to her as the former commissioner. 

Lily Hyde is a British writer and freelance journalist who covers Ukraine.