Crimeans protest against Russian occupation, March 2014
Russia’s annexation of Crimea has led to growing awareness in Poland of the history of the Crimean Tatars. The dramatic fate of these people is an increasingly popular theme in Polish media as well as a frequent topic in academic and popular discussions. According to the Crimean Tatars who live in Poland, Poles sympathize with the indigenous people of Crimea because they themselves have suffered for decades under Russian occupation. The Tatars believe that Polish support will ensure that the Crimean Tatar issue will be important for other EU countries as well.
On the eve of the 71st anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea, a demonstration of solidarity with Ukraine, which Polish activists dedicated to the memory of the deported, was held in Warsaw. However, as the event participants emphasized, it is impossible to speak about the tragic past of the Crimean Tatars without taking into account the current dramatic events.
Speaking at the demonstration, on May 17, Polish journalist Wojciech Mucha, author of a book on current developments in Ukraine, reminded listeners that the Crimean peninsula belongs to Ukraine. “First of all, Crimea is Ukraine; second, Donbas is Ukraine; third, Ukraine is Europe. When at the end of November 2013 students in Kyiv came out on Maidan, nobody suspected that the largest political conflict since the war in the Balkans was beginning,” he said.
Other participants in the Warsaw demonstration and the march of solidarity with Ukraine stressed that they would continue their active support of the Crimean Tatar people. As they marched along the main streets of Warsaw, participants in the March of Solidarity with Ukraine cried out “Crimea is Ukraine!” The slogan could be heard in three languages: Ukrainian, Polish and Crimean Tatar. Many passersby cheered the demonstrators and waved. Curious foreign tourists asked what it was all about.
Poland raises the Crimean Tatar issue internationally
The Crimean Tatars who live in Poland admit that a year ago the Poles knew much less about the indigenous people of Crimea than now. According to Lenur Kerymov, a Crimean Tatar who works in the Warsaw office of the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation, this interest is recent.
“Poland has learned about the Crimean Tatars. Earlier there was almost no public discussion about the Crimean Tatars in Polish mass media or in public discourse. The subject of Crimean Tatars appeared when Crimea was occupied. It was very important that the first ever international Lech Walesa Solidarity Prize was given to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars (on June 3, 2014 –Ed),” he said.
Kerymov believes the awarding of the Walesa prize to Dzehmilev had a definite impact on Polish society since it was presented on the very day that Poles celebrate their first democratic elections. Kerimov also points out that it is the former activists in the anticommunist movement and participants in Solidarity who have been bringing up the issue of Crimean Tatars on public forums in Poland.
“Poland, the original advocate for Ukraine in the European Union, is being heard because is it such a large European country.” he says. “And as an advocate for Ukraine, Poland is doing a lot for the Crimean Tatars. When Dzhemilev was here during the presentation of the Walesa prize he met with leaders of European countries and also with Barack Obama. In my view, this is more than an award for a person who has dedicated his life to the struggle for human rights and the Crimean Tatar people. It is also an opportunity to appear on the international arena.”
Kerymov believes the Poles sincerely sympathize with his people because of their own history. “I think it is because Poland has a long tradition of struggle against the Soviet regime that the Polish people understand that Crimean Tatars also fought with this regime for decades. So I think there is a huge potential here to advance the issue of the rights of the Crimean Tatars through Poland and on to the international level.” According to Kerymov, out of all the countries of Europe, Poland today has done the most to inform the world about the dire situation faced by the Crimean Tatars.
Nedim Useinov, a Crimean Tatar who works at the Polish Foundation for International Solidarity, draws attention to the importance of culture in spreading the truth about the tragedy of his people. According to him, one of the most important events that influenced the attitudes of ordinary Poles toward the Crimean Tatars was the screening in Poland of the artistic film Haytarma. This film was originally shown in theaters and then on the main national TV channel TVP1. “The movie was broadcast during primetime throughout Poland and many people were able to see the tragic fate of the Crimean Tatar people. I think it is because of this background and through this prism that most Poles understand the situation in Crimea,” he said.
The struggle for Crimea is not solely the responsibility of the Crimean Tatars
Polish social activist Pawel Kazanetsky had lived in Crimea for several years. After the Russian annexation he returned to Poland. He emphasizes that Ukraine must remember all the loyal citizens who have remained on the occupied peninsula. “Ukraine must not forget that in Crimea the Tatars were not the only ones to consider themselves citizens of Ukraine and it must not shift responsibility for the struggle for a Ukrainian Crimea solely to the Tatars. Ukraine must remember that for 20 years a Ukrainian elite began to emerge in Crimea. Perhaps it is a minority, but change is possible. A breakthrough is possible if Ukraine does not forget Crimea and supports those remaining there who remember that Crimea is part of Ukraine.”
For his part, Nedim Useinov is convinced that Crimea will become part of Ukraine once again if Europe remembers the situation of the Crimean Tatars not only on the anniversaries of the deportation and annexation. In his view, the European organizations should more actively engage the Crimean Tatars who have been forced to leave their homeland after annexation in various initiatives and discussions.