Mustafa Djemilev: The True Voice of Crimea

24 March 2014

by John Crowfoot

Photo of Mustafa Djemilev

On Friday, 28 March, the leader of the Crimean Tatars Mustafa Djemilev is due to address the UN Security Council. After Putin’s fait accompli of the past three weeks and the formal annexation of the Crimea (and Sebastopol) as the Russian Federation’s ninth Federal District some may wonder what this can achieve. 

Mustafa Agha 

Over a week ago Djemilev received a phone call from President Putin, who addressed him respectfully as “Mustafa Agha”. As many may have noticed, the Russian leader has declared that the peninsula should have three official languages. He would very much like the Crimean Tatars on his side. 

Djemilev’s recent statements leave no doubt about his views. 

“We are going to appeal to the United Nations. “On 28 March I am flying to New York and will attend the UN Security Council …. We are going to explain, from the point of view of the indigenous nation of Crimea, the necessity for the withdrawal of foreign troops from our territory and the restoration of Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine.” 

“This is a rather belated decision,” he added, “but we hope to use all mechanisms to bring the situation under control. This is an additional argument that the actions of the Russian Federation are unlawful. Statements that the Crimean people have decided to join Russia are absurd. The right to self-determination belongs only to the indigenous nations and not to people who settled here from the inland regions of Russia,” said Djemilev. 

It has also emerged the Crimean Tatar boycott of the referendum was almost total: barely 1,000 of the 180,000 Crimean Tatars now living on the peninsula took part. But does this matter, and will it make any difference? 

Putin’s phone call shows that it does, to one degree or another. As the indigenous population of Crimea, Djemilev says, the voice of his nation deserves particular attention. It is quite as important, perhaps, in any serious discussion of historical justice, legality and rights to acknowledge that before the Second World War Russians were also a minority in Crimea. 

A region of minorities – pre-Stalin 

The 1926 population census shows that 25% of the peninsula’s settled population were Crimean Tatars, 42% were Russian, and the remaining 33% were made up Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian and other communities. Only after Stalin’s extensive ethnic cleansing of the Crimea in 1944, creating a great deal more lebensraum for others in the peninsula, did Russians become the majority for the first time. On the night of 18-19 May 180,000 Tatars were rounded up and deported to Central Asia, to be followed a month later by the Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians. By 1959, as a consequence, the peninsula was 71% Russian while in the whole Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic there were no more than 193 Crimean Tatars. 

Collective punishment through the deportation of entire nations - men, women and children - affected many in the western USSR. The memory of wartime expulsion, multiple deaths in transit and years of exile, for example, certainly played its part in the bitter between Chechnya and the federal authorities in Moscow. Yet the Chechens (and Ingush) were cleared of the crime of wartime collaboration with the invading Germans and, after 1958, allowed to return to their homeland. A secret (i.e. unpublished) decree of 1967 removed a similar accusation against the Crimean Tatars. They were not permitted to return from Central Asia, however, and for the next thirty years would struggle for their right to live once again in their historic homeland, as a nation and as individuals. 

Two incidents from 1969 show the kind of opposition they faced: 

“Eldar Shabanov, aged 32, purchased a house in the Crimean town of Belogorsk and moved into it with his mother, wife and child; not long ago a second child was born. He is now liable to forcible eviction, since he is not registered there as a resident. Novikov, the chief of police, has stated that ‘the first Crimean Tatar will be registered only over my dead body’.” 

“The Crimean Tatar family of Bekir (Kashka) was living in the village of Kizilovka in the Belogorsk district. They owned the house but were not registered. On the night of 26-27 June about twenty men burst into the house. The members of the family (including five children) were bound, gagged and deported from Crimea.” 

These two reports from issue 101 of the Crimean Tatar “Information Bulletin” are quoted on 5 March 1971 by the samizdat periodical “A Chronicle of Current Events” (Issue 18). From the 1960s onwards human rights activists in the Soviet Union regularly documented the plight of the Crimean Tatars, for their own fellow citizens and for the world outside. 

By 1989 Crimean Tatar numbers had reached 271,715 and passed their pre-war level: in 1959 there were only 49,710 who described themselves as such throughout the USSR. Meanwhile a tireless and non-violent campaign, which was an example and inspiration to other disenfranchised, deported nations led, at long last, to the beginnings of a mass return to the Crimea. 

“Welcome to the Twilight Zone” 

Mustafa Djemilev, one news report announced, has now been declared persona non grata by the Crimean authorities. The former head of the Mejlis (Assembly) of the Crimean Tatars and a deputy of the Ukrainian parliament, Djemilev is presumably in a position to travel to the outside world and will speak, as expected, on Friday. 

The other residents of Crimea now face the uncertainties and difficulties of those living in a variety of other enclaves of similarly uncertain international status. (See "Welcome to the Twilight Zone, Crimea", by Thomas de Waal, March 19, 2014, available in Johnson's Russia List, 2014-#62, 20 March 2014). 

“Most Crimeans probably do not realize it yet, but without a shot being fired and in the space of just a few days, Crimea has joined the list of European territories that live in the twilight zone of international sovereignty. It is not a happy list,” warns Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, long an observer of the region. “It begins with Northern Cyprus and in the former Soviet space extends to Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. In the Balkans, Kosovo has mostly come out of the shadows, being recognized by 107 states, but has still not taken up a seat at the United Nations.” 

Turning to practicalities de Waal asks: “What happens to your bank account and what currency is it held in? Already there are reports of confusion. Can your airports take international flights? How do you travel abroad and on what passport? These are problems that Abkhaz and Transnistrians know about through bitter experience. And that is even before you try to deal with the issues of Ukrainian property rights and deliveries of electricity and water from mainland Ukraine. The strangest aspect of the Crimean case is that this is not a situation born out of conflict. The other territories reached their sad, isolated status in large part because they had no other option in a time of bloodshed.” 

A “special place” in Russian hearts 

In a robust discussion of the diplomatic, military and political ramifications of the Crimean crisis this Sunday on Sky News, it was firmly asserted by The Independent’s Mary Dejevsky that Crimea was special. The Russian people “felt its loss” like no other part of the former Soviet Union, she said. Perhaps. Until now, however, there has been nothing to stop them travelling there, as in the past, to take a holiday or visit relatives and friends. 

For the last 23 years the Ukrainian-Russian border has been almost totally porous, without any visa requirements for citizens of Russia. So it strikes me as somehow doubtful that the impetus for annexation came from a confirmed majority of ordinary Russians. Indeed, the redoubtable Irina Prokhorova is demanding that those Russians now also be formally consulted: Do they really want to acquire and subsidise yet another problem region? Opinion polls conducted in Crimea only last year, meanwhile, suggest that no more than a minority of any resident ethnic group then wished to be “re-united” with Russia. 

Such doubts, combined with the assurance of a long-term and renewable lease by Russia of the Sebastopol naval base (running to 2042 and beyond), make it additionally puzzling as to what really lay behind the rushed and fundamentally flawed referendum and Russia’s military intervention.

The views expressed in blogs published on Rights in Russia are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia.