The world knows him as Mustapha Dzemilev, but he likes to call himself by his adopted surname as Mustafa Cemilev Kırımoğlu, meaning “Son of Crimea” in Turkish.
It would not be too wrong to call him the “Gandhi of the Crimean Tatars,” or Crimean Turks.
He was only six-months-old when the Soviets deported his family, along with other Crimean Turks, from their centuries-old land at the height of the World War II in 1944. Growing up in Uzbekistan, Kırımoğlu joined the Union of Young Crimean Tatars at the age of 18, for recognition of their right to return to their homeland. He was arrested by Soviet authorities six times between 1966 and 1986, spending a total of 15 years in Siberian prisons and labor camps. Carrying out his struggle though only pacifistic methods, he holds one of the longest hunger strike records in human rights movements at 303 days, only surviving due to force feeding.
The struggle he lead bore fruit; it was one of the issues discussed between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Reykjavik Summit of 1986, which paved the way to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the same year Kırımoğlu, managed to return to his homeland as the chairman of the local Tatar National Assembly, together with some 250,000 of his people. The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1992.
Now, there are some 300,000 Crimean Turks, or Tatars, living in Crimea, around 15 percent of the region’s population. They now feel uncomfortable again because of the conflict between Ukraine
and Russia. The Ukrainian system was not in a position, either in political and military terms, to resist Russia’s seizure of de facto control over Crimea.
Crimea has been special to Turkey for centuries, not only because of the Tatars living there, sharing the same language, religion and culture, but also because of the shared history. Crimea was part of the Turkish Empire before being seized by the Russian
Empire late in the 18th century. Turkey, along with the U.K., fought Russia
in the Crimea War between 1853-56, which resulted in the Russian
Army’s flow southward over the next 20 years, through the Balkans and the Caucasus, costing Turkey dearly. Some historians even link the origins of the Armenian problem to the Turco-Russian wars.
Today, Turkey does not get into conflicts with Russia. In the Syrian conflict, Turkey and Russia
are on opposite sides, but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian
President Vladimir Putin agree to disagree on that and move on in superb economic relations; mainly energy, tourism and construction work.
Turkey, a member of the Western defense alliance NATO, is worried about what has been happening in Ukraine, its northern neighbor across the Black Sea, and is particularly worried about the situation of the Tatars there, but it also avoids getting into a conflict with Russia.
As a sign of this position, Turkish President Abdullah Gül presented Kırımoğlu with Turkey’s Republic Medal for his struggle for the peace of his people, during a state ceremony yesterday in the Presidential Palace on top of Çankaya Hill in Ankara.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, ranking Turkish sources told the Hürriyet Daily News
that the medal was a sign that Turkey would support the legitimate cause of Crimean Turks not to leave their homeland once again and to live in peace with the rest of the population in the region, creating no political problems as long as their existence is not under threat.