What’s life like for Crimea’s Tatars now?

What’s life like for Crimea’s Tatars now?

With the eyes of the world focused on events in southeast Ukraine, it would have been easy to miss what has been happening in Crimea in the weeks since its illegal annexation by the Russian Federation.

Take the case of Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev (Kırımoğlu).

He has led an extraordinary life. He was exiled as a baby by Josef Stalin and has spent over10 years in Soviet jails for supporting the rights of his people. Now, 70, he is revered by them as an elder statesman.

In early May, after a visit to Kyiv, he was prevented from going home to his family, blocked from setting foot on the Crimean peninsula. Over 1,000 Tatars raced to support him; they are reportedly now under watch.

Meanwhile, the new authorities threatened to dissolve the Crimean Tatar council for “extremist activity.”

Last weekend marked the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
In 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population – some 230,000 people – was transported from their homeland into exile in Central Asia and the Urals.

More than 100,000 people died from starvation and disease on the way or shortly upon arrival to their final destinations.

Only in the last years of the Soviet Union were they allowed to start to return. Today, over a quarter of a million Tatars live in Crimea.

After Crimea’s illegal annexation, President Putin signed a decree intended to “make sure that as part of Crimea’s integration into Russia, Crimean Tatars are rehabilitated and their historic rights restored.”

But faced with Tatar opposition to Russian interference and annexation, the authorities in Moscow have resorted to crackdowns and repression. Mr. Putin’s own Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights reports serious human rights violations – including murder and the closure of the only Ukrainian-Tatar language and literature studies university faculty.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released on May 16 its latest report on human rights in Ukraine. Among other serious concerns, the report noted the following: “increasing reports of ongoing harassment toward Crimean Tatars and other residents who did not support the ‘referendum.’ The reported cases of Crimean Tatars facing obstructions to their freedom of movement, as well as the recent attack on the building of the Parliament of the Crimean Tatar people are worrying developments.”

Russia is currently selling itself to people in south-eastern Ukraine as a guardian of their rights and encouraging nostalgia for their Soviet past.  For some, there is appeal in the idea of turning the clock back.

But it’s worth remembering what life was really like in the Soviet Union. People exiled, discrimination against believers and dissidents, state controlled information and media, chronic shortages, totalitarian control by a remote privileged elite. And, in its darkest days, mass repression, including against minorities like the Crimean Tatars. The echoes of history are reverberating in Crimea today.

On May 25, Ukraine will vote for a new president and a new start. A Ukraine that respects human rights, values a free press and upholds the people’s right to democratic choice.

I sincerely hope people in south and east of Ukraine will vote in good numbers on May 25 to show they are not intimidated by bullies who provoke instability, fear and discord, and threaten their chances for a better, more prosperous livelihood. It is important that the views of this silent majority continue to be heard and heeded as Ukraine’s round tables of national unity continue in the days and weeks to come.
But people in Crimea should know that the world has not forgotten them either.

Each time the Crimean Tatars hoist the Ukrainian flag to hang alongside their own is a reminder to Moscow that their actions are not only illegal and contrary to every democratic norm, but that they ride roughshod over the views of a people who have suffered grievously before under Moscow’s rule.

Russia cannot think that it can just pocket its annexation of Crimea and move on.

On May 18, we remembered what the Crimean Tatars endured 70 years ago and we also remember their descendants, the modern Tatars of Crimea. They deserve the right to mark that anniversary peacefully and with honor and dignity. Alongside other citizens of Crimea, they deserve the democratic right to choose their president – the president of Ukraine.

*David Lidington is the UK minister for Europe.