Who Will Speak for the Tatars?

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, a crackdown on the Muslim minority ensued.

Crimean Tatars light candles during a memorial ceremony in Kiev on May 18, 2016, in commemoration of the 72nd anniversary of the deportation of the indigenous population of Crimea by the Soviet Union.
Crimean Tatars light candles during a memorial ceremony in Kiev on May 18, 2016, in commemoration of the 72nd anniversary of the deportation of the indigenous population of Crimea by the Soviet Union. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Backlash against Muslim minorities is one of the largest human rights concerns of the 21th century. The culture and religion of the Uighur Muslim minority in China, a population of about 11 million mostly living in the country’s northwest, have been brutally suppressed by Beijing. An estimated million Uighurs have been forced into so-called reeducation camps. In Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslim minority was violently forced across the border into Bangladesh in 2017 as they fled burning villages, rape, and slaughter. Some 750,000 Rohingya have been forced from their homes.

But while both of these groups have garnered deserved headlines, there is yet another Muslim minority facing ethnic cleansing whose plight has not received nearly the attention it deserves: the Crimean Tatars.

In the five years since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, wresting the lucrative ports away from Ukraine, life for the 250,000 Tatar Muslims of Crimea has disintegrated. Tatar Muslims have been denied work, their language, their newspapers, and their very way of life in a bid to push them off the peninsula.

This isn’t the first time the Tatar minority has experienced persecution. Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim people whose language, culture, and history have faced forcible erasure for centuries. Under Russian rule today, accused of extremism, they face obliteration.

Residents of the prized Crimean Peninsula since the 13th century, the Tatars have come under attack again again—less for their ethnicity and religion, and more for their access to water. Crimea is completely surrounded by water—it sits on both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is no wonder the largely landlocked northern region of Russia has eyed the region hungrily for centuries.

Problems began in the early 1770s when Catherine the Great made a play to seize control of Crimea, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. (It was known as the Crimean Khanate.) Catherine invaded, gained access to key ports, and began a process of political reorganization, which included replacing the ruling Tatar khan with a Russian governor and parceling out land to Russian officials and nobility. Catherine encouraged Russian relocation from the interior to the peninsula, which was then made up of more than a quarter of a million Tatars. The Muslim group made up nearly 85 percent of the population. In 1783, Russia formally annexed Crimea. That annexation marked the first wave of Tatar emigration; initially 8,000 to 10,000 Tatars, mostly from the nobility, left for elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1853, when Russia set out to expand its empire beyond Crimea into the Danube, the Ottoman Turks deployed a military force to stop them. Over the next two years, Britain, France, and Sardinia joined in what became known as the Crimean War (the same one that made Florence Nightingale a legend). Russia lost— and then sought vengeance on the Tatar population, which the tsarist regime accused of abetting the Turks. They imposed the use of Russian language on the population and replaced Tatar street and place names with Russian ones. As Alan W. Fisher notes in his book The Crimean Tatars, “During this period, the population of the Crimea dropped from an estimated 275,000 in 1850, to 194,000 in 1860.” Those Tatars who remained did so reluctantly. They did not trust their Russian rulers or compatriots, who did not hide their ambition to strengthen and extend their reach.

A century later, another Russian ruler turned his attention to Crimea. As supreme leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Joseph Stalin began eliminating the Tatar intelligentsia. This intelligentsia had been working on reviving Tatar language, culture, and self-determination. In 1927, Stalin called them “bourgeois nationalists,” rounded up as many as 40,000 Tatars, and sent them to Siberian labor camps.

That was just the beginning. Seventy-five years ago this month, on May 18, 1944, Stalin, eager to gain control over Crimean ports as well as to seek revenge on Tatars who sided with Germany, ordered the brutal purging of nearly a quarter of a million Tatars from their homes. (Convinced that the Germans could and would help liberate the Tatars, several thousand had allegedly collaborated with the Nazis to fight the Red Army on the Eastern Front.) Stalin then began a more thorough ethnic cleansing of the Tatars, deporting them to the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan. Half died on the journey from disease and starvation, by some estimates. Several thousand Tatars managed to escape to Turkey and into Europe. Some, like my family, ended up in the United States.

None were allowed to return until 1989, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the Crimean Tatars as a repressed people who were illegally deported. By then Crimea had spent half a century as part of Ukraine. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had bequeathed the peninsula to Ukraine to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with the Russian Empire.

Tatars began to return to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The several thousand who did found that their homeland had been entirely repopulated by Russians. Still, committed to rebuilding and reviving Crimea’s Tatar heritage, they set up their own political body, the Mejlis. The Mejlis acted as a sort of embassy for the Tatars as well as a body that worked to reinstate Crimean Tatar rights and self-determination.

In February 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, illegally annexing the peninsula from Ukraine. Russians began to harass Tatars, especially after Moscow staged the March 2014 referendum, a vote purported to determine the peninsula’s future—either as part of the Russian Federation or with Ukraine. It was, as the U.S. State Department noted at the time, fabricated to be a democratic fig leaf for an illegal and violent invasion. Tatars vehemently opposed it. Many Tatar activists and journalists were arrested. Several disappeared.  Reshat Ametov, a political activist who was campaigning against the referendum and Russia’s invasion, was abducted in front of the Council of Ministers building in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. The 39-year-old’s tortured body was found two weeks later. His murder remains unsolved.

In the intervening years, Tatar newspapers, radio, and television stations have been shuttered. Crimean-language classes have been banned. In April 2014, the Crimean Tatar leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the head of the Mejlis, was barred from entering Crimea after being abroad during the referendum. He has been in exile since. In April 2016, the Russians banned the Mejlis, calling it a dangerous, extremist outfit. They have since arrested many Tatars, accusing them of being terrorist sympathizers or for belonging to Muslim groups.

Last December, Dzhemilev visited the American Association of Crimean Tatars in Brooklyn, New York. Smoking cigarette after cigarette in an unheated room, he told the gathered crowd of Crimean Tatar exiles, many of whom had been forced from their homes in 1944, that the situation in Crimea was dire. He said that he feared for the next generation, whom the Russians were brainwashing and alienating from Tatar culture, language, and their Muslim religion. Indeed, last year, Russia started a so-called restoration on the Big Khan Mosque, a 16th-century building. In fact, it has been a remodeling, with medieval tiles and old woodwork removed.

Other Tatars living in the United States have told me that they fear for their family and friends in Crimea, who face daily discrimination. Many have lost jobs and are unable to find new ones. Business owners, fearing Russian backlash, won’t hire Tatars. Tatar homes and businesses have been raided and, in some instances, seized.

A report issued in February by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that the “human rights situation in Crimea continues to deteriorate as a direct result of the Russian Federation authorities applying its laws against residents of Crimea in violation of … the Fourth Geneva Convention, and other violations of international humanitarian law.”

Today, there are once again 250,000 Tatars in Crimea. But whereas in the 18th century the Tatars were 80 percent of the population, today they make up about 12 percent.

The United States, European Union, NATO, and Turkey have condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and refused to recognize it. NATO has stated “Crimea is a territory of Ukraine.” Last year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Russia to withdraw from the territory. The United States and EU have leveled sanctions against Russia for its aggression. Yet all of these are half-measures. Russia violated international law. No one has taken serious action in response, much less forced a Russian withdrawal.

Moreover, no one has been moved to stop slow-motion cultural and ethnic elimination of the Crimean Tatars. Instead, the West and its institutions that were set up to defend human rights and peoples remain indifferent bystanders. They have abandoned justice in Crimea and, with it, the Crimean Tatars.

Elmira Bayrasli is the author of From The Other Side of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places and the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted. Twitter: @endeavoringE