Hostages of the Kremlin

29.07.2019
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On July 10, 2019, several dozen Crimean Tatars protested at the Red Square in Moscow holding posters, which said: “Our children are not terrorists. Stop repressions against Crimean Tatars!”, “Stop ethnic and religious repression in Crimea!”, “The fight against terrorism in Crimea is a fight against dissent”. All of them were detained for violating the regulations concerning organizations of mass gatherings. The next day, dozens of people with the same demands gathered outside the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, where the appeal against earlier sentences for terrorism against the “First Bakhchisarai group” of Crimean Tatars was being considered. On that day, July 11, 2019, Russian police detained about 50 people. All of them were presented with subpoenas on charges of illegal mass gathering.

A week later, authorities in Kyiv and Moscow started talks about an exchange of prisoners (in an “all for all” format), for the first time with the participation of the newly elected president of Ukraine Zelensky. On July 16, the ombudsmen of the two countries exchanged lists of detainees. On July 18, the European Parliament adopted its resolution calling on Russia to release all political prisoners and illegally detained citizens of Ukraine.

Today there are at least 130 such Ukrainian citizens unjustly detained and imprisoned in Russia, of which 101 are Crimean Tatars. In 2019, at least 36 Crimean Tatars were arrested on charges of terrorism, and over the past year and a half, more people were detained in Crimea as part of politically motivated criminal cases than during the previous four years. There is no doubt, that such a long-awaited exchange of “all for all” would help to release dozens of illegally detained people and return them to Ukraine, but the Crimean Tatars would still remain hostages in their own land: not a single week passes without reports of new searches, detentions, arbitrary charges of terrorism.

In 2017, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) recognized that Russia discriminated against Crimean Tatars on ethnic grounds, and the Committee expressed concern about violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars. The CERD called on Russia to abolish all discriminatory practices and investigate human rights violations. In April 2019, Russia provided the Committee with official comments on the situation in Crimea stating, as could be expected, that there was no discrimination on the peninsula and that “all reliable and noteworthy reports of possible violations of human rights standards are verified by the corresponding Russian authorities”.

Indeed, all rights are formally guaranteed by the Russian legislation, but the reality in Crimea is considerably different from these legislative guarantees. Since 2014, the Russian authorities have been trying to establish a “Russian society” on the peninsula, and to make the Crimean Tatars part of Russia’s modern civil nation — meaning their political loyalty and religious subordination to the pro-government Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Crimea. Immediately after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian authorities tried to negotiate with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people. For the first few months, the representative of the Mejlis even worked in local authorities. Trips to Tatarstan were organized for the leaders of Crimean Tatars, in order to acquaint them with how local Tatars live, ones who have been successfully integrated of the “Russian civil nation”.

But this did not work out. Crimean Tatars, their identity, culture and history do not fit into the concept of “the Russian Crimea”. The leadership of the Mejlis took a tough anti-Russian stance. In the spring of 2014, the Crimean Tatars participated in pro-Ukrainian street protests, helped the Ukrainian military, boycotted the so-called March 16, 2014 referendum. Since the fall of 2014, the forced transformation of Crimean Tatars into Russian citizens has become repressive: people started to disappear, others faced criminal prosecution, searches and detentions. In 2016, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people was recognized as an extremist organization and banned in Russia, while the Russian authorities managed to force the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea to cooperate.

Over the next five years, Russia did not allow a single independent event organized by the Crimean Tatars, neither the commemoration of the anniversary of their 1944 deportation, nor any religious holidays. In cases where local authorities allowed rallies, as, for instance, on May 18 (deportation day of Crimean Tatars), they censored the program and the list of speakers. Private events were also banned. In 2017, activists wanted to organize a football match in honor of the kidnapped Ervin Ibragimov, but it was banned as an “unauthorized mass gathering” and the organizer was brought to administrative responsibility. Mosques are now open only on Fridays or at strictly fixed times and are equipped with surveillance cameras. Gathering in mosques is allowed only for religious rituals, any other gatherings are suppressed.

Despite the fact that formally the Crimean Tatar language is one of the official languages of Crimea, the authorities hinder its study and use. Lessons of Crimean Tatar language are only optional in local schools, and they are often scheduled in the evenings or on weekends. School administrations often refuse to open classes or allow extracurricular lessons of the Crimean Tatar language. Teaching in high school is conducted only in Russian, and state authorities also use only Russian. This year one of the bosses of a private enterprise in Sudak even forbade her subordinates, who were Crimean Tatars, from speaking among themselves in their native language. In Crimean Tatar theaters, musical ensembles and other cultural institutions, the Russian authorities changed the leadership and even replaced part of the troupes. In 2017-2018 the Great Khan’s Mosque in the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisarai partially lost its authenticity as a result of restoration work: the original roof and some paintings on the ceiling and walls were destroyed, and the Crimean Tatars took it very badly.

Tatarophobic attacks are making their way both into the public sphere and into education. After the low turnout of the Crimean Tatars in the Russian presidential elections of 2018, the head of the Crimean Public Chamber, Grigory Ioffe, said that the Crimean Tatars refused to participate in Russian political life, so they cannot count on a “special status”. This year, Crimean schools received a new textbook of the history of Crimea for the 10th grade, which indicated that the Crimean Tatars were more active than other ethnic groups in Crimea in greeting the Nazi German army during the Second World War and collaborated with the occupying authorities. Following the protests of the Crimean Tatar community, this textbook was later withdrawn for examination by the authorities.

Hate speech in the official sphere, mass searches and arrests of Crimean Tatars that have become everyday reality, all this provokes and legitimizes xenophobia among the “ordinary inhabitants” of the peninsula, who have been easily convinced that the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians “pose a threat”. Statements by local politicians and some publications in the official press here are not far removed from the 2014 graffiti on the fences demanding, “Tatars – get out of Crimea”, which were so memorable. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities do not realize that it is impossible to control the snowball of interethnic conflict, and that a “civil nation” cannot be created without ensuring equality and guaranteeing human rights for all.

Eugenia ANDREYUK, expert at the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial”

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty