Crimean Tatars and the Russian annexation of Crimea

Crimean Tatars and the Russian annexation of Crimea

Filiz Tutku Aydın
Shortly after the Euromaidan Revolution and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ousting from power, Moscow organized a coup in Crimea on Feb. 27, 2014, installing a new local government in Simferopol and declaring a referendum on Crimea’s political future. The Crimean Tatar national assembly, the Qurultay, and its representative-executive body, the Meclis, categorically condemned the Russian annexation and boycotted the referendum.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised rehabilitation for the Crimean Tatars, but they currently face risks to their security. Almost 20 Tatar men have been abducted or found dead since Crimea’s annexation.

The Crimean Tatars boycotted the post-annexation local elections that Russians thought were a legitimization of the annexation. The turnout was quite low (around 50 percent). Immediately after the election results were released, and it became clear that the Crimean Tatars had boycotted the election, the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) along with police and armed military officials raided the Meclis and confiscated documents and laptops. Crimean authorities shut down the Meclis on Oct. 22, denying its role in representing the Crimean Tatars. 

The Crimean Tatar population – most of whom have kept their Ukrainian passports – face coercion to take Russian citizenship. As of Jan. 1, those Crimeans who do not have Russian passports will either be deported or will not be given residency permits that allow them to stay, work and receive education. The Russian government announced that only about 5,000 new residency permits will be issued for Crimea. In the meantime, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have left Crimea. 

Apart from emigration, throughout history, the Crimean Tatars have employed two strategies for survival. One strategy was to engage with the repressive Russian authorities and creatively utilize the available venues to express identity. The alternative strategy was to confront the repressive regime and try to break free from Russian hegemony. This time, Russia, however, closed the door to the possibility of engagement. Even those Crimean Tatars who willingly accepted posts in the Crimean government in April had to resign, as they understood that the regime would not allow engagement but require complete submission. 

The Crimean crisis of 2014 created a foreign policy dilemma for Turkey, as Turkey grappled with balancing its NATO allegiance and loyalty to Crimean Tatar kin with its growing economic relations and strategic partnership with Russia. Thus, Turkey’s reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of the Crimean Tatars was subdued. Today, the Crimean Tatar diaspora, together with Turkish nationalists, protest that Turkey is paying less attention to the Crimean Tatars than to other human rights crises, such as those experienced by Palestinians and Syrians. 

The Crimean Tatar diaspora demands that Turkey join the bandwagon of states that have applied economic sanctions to Russia. However, Turkey continues to engage with an increasingly isolated Russia, and hopes to use this leverage to demand improvements in the situation of the Crimean Tatars. 

Because of interdependence between the two countries, Moscow is courting Ankara by making promises such as the “rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars,” which seem inconsistent with other acts of the regime that are clearly detrimental to the Tatars’ well-being. Moreover, Russia would benefit from Turkish economic investments in Crimea. However, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement has limits. After all, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried, he could not prevent Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Cemilev’s ban from Crimea. Sooner than we think, Turkey might need to downgrade its relations with Russia and conform to the EU policy of containing Russia. 

While many realists bash the United States and the European Union for promoting democracy and enlarging NATO and the EU into the “sphere of influence” of Russia, the truth is that both the U.S. and EU neglected Ukraine and did not provide adequate financial and political resources for its transition to democracy. The U.S. and the EU have the responsibility to ensure the well-being of Ukraine and the Crimean Tatars. They cannot afford to forget Crimea.  

Filiz Tutku Aydın is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2014 issue.