The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought with it an unprecedented threat to the lives and customs of indigenous peoples of the peninsula – the Crimean Tatars. From its earliest days in Crimea, the Kremlin tried to establish a dialogue and find common ground with the Crimean Tatars and their main representative political body – the Mejlis. Indeed, when Crimea was flooded with “little green men” and was preparing for a referendum on joining Russia, the Kremlin was actively seeking out ways of winning over the entire Crimean Tatar people. When they weren’t able to, they moved from a strategy of incentives to the tried and tested method of reprisals. The latest of these reprisals has been the banning of the Mejlis – the Crimean Tatars’ executive representative body – in a move that has been met with outcry from the international community.
The trajectory of Tatar repression was slow at first, when it was forbidden for leaders of the people Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov to enter the territory of the peninsula in May 2014. Then more so when the Mejlis was deprived of all its buildings and, ultimately, excluded from the socio-political discourse of Crimea. Yet repressions took a quantum leap when the Crimean prosecutor's office arrested and initiated criminal proceedings against several Crimean Tatars, including Akhtem Chiygoz, the deputy head of the Mejlis (who is currently remains in custody). Crimea has not seen such systematic repression for a long time. Two years have now elapsed since the annexation and human rights activists have counted 233 individual human rights violations against the Tatar community, including house-checks, disappearances, intimidation, restrictions of the right to free assembly, as well as restrictions to freedom expression and independent media.
At the beginning of 2016, the infamous Crimean prosecutor, Nataliya Poklonskaya, began the process of banning the Mejlis and beginning the process for its inclusion in the list of banned and extremist organisations of the Russian Federation. Poklonskaya’s work was helped along by the fact that the process of delegitimisation was itself initiated by Crimean Tatars that are loyal to the Russian regime. A number of organisations provided a statement to the prosecutor's office with a request to ban the Mejlis – claiming it to be an extremist organisation – on account of its involvement in the blockade of Crimea. By 15 February, Poklonskaya had filed a lawsuit to ban the organisation and recognise it as an extremist one in the Supreme Court of Crimea. On 13 April, without a court decision, the Crimean prosecutor's office decided to suspend the work of the Mejlis and to ban it from using the media, from engaging in or hosting public events and prohibit its activities.
Russia’s more aggressive stance against the Mejlis is motivated by the effectiveness and broad support among Crimean Tatars for the administrative body, even two years after annexation. This new and hardline approach against the Mejlis has been motivated by three main factors. Firstly, that the Mejlis is becoming an even more established institution, being recognised by Ukraine in 2014 and on the international stage. In addition it is now the key lobbying party in Ukraine over the issue of Crimea, although it has relatively little political and legal leverage. Secondly, the frustration of Russian-Turkish relations over the downed jet in November raised old Russian worries about Turkish pro-Tatar sentiments and Tatar pro-Turkish sentiments. The third motivating factor for Russia’s aggressive approach is that the Crimean Tatars are a spoiler group that make life more difficult for the Crimean authorities and for Moscow. Russia clearly understands that the quickest way to break the Crimean Tatars’ backbone is to eliminate the Mejlis.
The Mejlis played a crucial role in the economic blockade of Crimea and acted as a symbolic bridge for strategic rapprochement between Ankara and Kiev. Kyiv has used the Crimean Tatars’ historical and cultural ties with Turkey to strengthen its own relations with Turkey against Russia. The Tatars have been at the core of Ukraine’s new pro-Turkish policy. Interestingly, until November Russia flirted with Turkey on the issue of the Crimean Tatars and tried to create the image that Russia was taking care of the interests of the indigenous people of Crimea. Now the situation is very different. Effective lobbying on the international stage about Ukrainian territorial integrity and human rights abuses in Crimea have been effective, making the Mejlis an important opponent for Moscow in the international arena. It was in February that a landmark meeting took place in Ankara, of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Petro Poroshenko, and Crimean Tatar leaders were present at almost all official meetings. During the summit a meeting took place with Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, and several other leaders of Islamic countries, including the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev. Notably, in his speech, Erdogan separately called on members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to show solidarity with Ukraine, with the “Muslim Brotherhood, the Crimean Tatars living in the occupied Crimea”.
The ban of the Mejlis has been a long planned action, but there were many factors prevented it going ahead until now. The cessation of normal relations with Ankara has led Crimean authorities finally acted as the trigger for Russia to release the hounds on the Mejlis.
Since annexation the activity of the Mejlis has been a challenge for the Kremlin, though one which has been grossly out of proportion to the size of the community, which numbers only 300,000 people. Russia wants to weaken the Mejlis in Crimea. Their strategy is based on co-opting the Mejlis and promoting parallel structures and institutions that are more to its liking. However, the Mejlis embodies the ideological struggle of the Crimean Tatar people for their homeland. Declaring war on the Mejlis is declaring war on the indigenous people of Crimea. The Mejlis has been a thorn in Moscow’s side since its conception and across the entire period of its existence.
The Crimean Tatars are fighting against the call to assimilate with Russia – to become part of the country that deported them from their homeland. They are the outsiders tearing at the ideological fabric of Putin’s Russia, and unwilling to roll over and conform. Russia tried using “carrots” to incentivise and co-opt the Crimean Tatars, but now it is resorting to “gauntlets” instead.
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