The sad history of the indigenous peoples of the Crimean peninsula repeats itself. Over 70 years ago Crimean Tatars were forced to leave their homes and were deported to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and also to some parts of Russia. The authorities of the Soviet Union had accused these people of supporting Nazi Germany. As a result, over 183 thousand people were deported in 1944 and, according to different sources, 15% to 45% of them died during the deportation. In 1989 Crimean Tatars were allowed to return home. However, today, as Crimea is occupied by Russia, many Crimean Tatars are again leaving their homes to save themselves from Kremlin repression. A part of the new wave of repression is an attempt to ban the Mejlis – the representative body of the Crimean Tatars. Public awareness, especially internationally, can help to reduce repressions against Crimean Tatars and to save their culture.
Euromaidan Press spoke with Tamila Tasheva, Crimean Tatar activist and one of the founders of the volunteer initiative Crimea SOS. She told us about the consequences of the possible Russian ban of the Mejlis, and about the current repression in Crimea against anyone who is pro-Ukraine and all Crimean Tatars, Russia’s attitude towards local Crimean Tatar culture and about the history of the relationship between the Ukrainian state and the Crimean Tatars.
Tamila’s NGO Crimea SOS was founded after the first Russian soldiers came to the peninsula at the end of February 2014. Now the organization is dealing with new problems caused by the occupation. Many activists, as well as for Tamila, are worrying about personal issues related to Crimea as well as public issues.
Because of the deportation, Tamila’s family was living in Uzbekistan. By the time she was 5, her family was in good financial shape. At that time Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their Fatherland. Both Tamila’s father and mother were born in Uzbekistan and had never been to Crimea. Nevertheless, the family decided to move. This step was a sign of respect towards her great grandmother. Tamila recollects her first impression of her homeland:[quote]“For me it the return was not so sweet. I was 5 years old. In Uzbekistan we lived in a large two-story house. My father earned good money. Then we come to Crimea and everything was empty. I used to look at big houses. In Simferopol I saw only the lonely street. There was no development and we had a two-room temporary house made only from bricks. There was no glass in the windows. Then my father put fabric over the windows. My father and my brother were living in one room, and my mother, my sister, and I slept in the other room on a big bed. My grandmother also lived with us in the same room. I thought: What type of homeland is this!? We have moved from a place where we had everything to this one. Then my grandmother gradually started to tell me. When I was 7 years old, my grandmother and I went to her native village, to her house, where she was deported from. That’s when she started to tell me about our history.”[/quote]
When Tamila and her great grandmother went to the house, they found an old Russian woman living there. She was unfriendly to them and did not let them look at the rooms. “I remember how my grandmother went away in tears,” says Tamila. Other Crimean Tatars tried to buy back their old houses. However, most of them were met with an icy attitude from the people living in their old homes, and could not purchase them. Just like Tamila’s family, many other Crimean Tatar families started to build their new houses:[quote]“They (her parents) have deliberately chosen to live in their homeland. Our father went there a little earlier, to build a temporary shelter. The majority of Crimean Tatars were living in temporary structures like that. And yet, many people still live in them. From the very beginning we started to build a two-story house. Just before the beginning of the occupation my parents had already completed and fully furnished the house – and then these events have started. For many Crimean Tatars moving back home was associated with continuous construction work. Because of lack of funds everybody had been building their homes off-and-on for a long time. Many Crimean Tatars faced the same situation in 2014. They had to leave Crimea, but they had just finished building their house. I know that some sold their home with tears on their faces and were forced to move here (onto the mainland) because it is virtually impossible to stay there. However, my parents are saying ‘we did not come to Crimea and suffer just to leave it all and go away; this is our home, we will not go.’ So my parents are in Crimea.”[/quote]
At this point in the interview tears appeared on Tamil’s face:[quote]“For me it is a life’s mission – to do everything to try to go back there. Because I cannot go to Crimea, I cannot see my parents. For me, it is such a personal tragedy. I have lived in Kyiv for a long time (for 8 years at the moment of the beginning of the occupation.) I was not there at the beginning of the occupation of Crimea, but I’m still confident that we will fix it.”[/quote]
What will happen if you go to Crimea now?
I, together with several other people, the co-founders of Crimea SOS, cannot enter Crimea. Under Russian law, we are considered citizens of Russia. We did not write any denial of our citizenship and we have Crimean registration in our passports. They [the Russian authorities] consider all citizens who had Crimean registration at the beginning of the occupation as their citizens. So they will sue or arrest us not as citizens of Ukraine, but as citizens of the Russian Federation. A denial to recognize Crimea as Russian territory is considered a call for dismantling the Russian state, an extremist activity, and so on. They have specific articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for this. So for us it is simply not safe to go there. We do not even try, because from the very first days of the occupation we had a clear position and we expressed it. We did hundreds of interviews. The Russian occupation authorities monitor it all and we know that they know about us very well. So as to not expose not only ourselves but also our relatives and members of the organization to danger, we just don’t go there.
Now Russia is actively trying to ban the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. What does the Mejlis mean for Crimean Tatars and what could be the results of this ban?
The Mejlis is not an NGO, it is not a party, it is not just an association of citizens. It is the representative body of the Crimean Tatars. It is representative because it really is a legitimately elected body, whose members are chosen by a direct secret ballot. First, throughout Crimea elections of the Kurultai delegates takes place. Then, these elected delegates choose the governing body by secret ballot. Crimean Tatars are very conscious, they understand what they are doing, so almost all go to elect the Kurultai delegates. That is why the Mejlis is a body that represents Crimean Tatars. This body can not just be banned. The so-called criminal prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya is trying to accuse the Mejlis of being an extremist organization, but it is obviously not such an organization. The Mejlis is not just 33 people. It has representatives in virtually every residential community in Crimea. It has hundreds of representatives on the ground. Mejlis representatives participate in village or street gatherings. So almost every Crimean Tatar can be accused of extremist activities. That can lead to a new wave of repressions against the Crimean Tatars. The Crimean occupational authorities are trying to legalize their repression of Crimean Tatars. This will mean that people will be grabbed on the street and told: “You are a member of the Mejlis! You are connected to it!” And they will simply be imprisoned.
How do people who stayed in Crimea perceive Russian actions towards Crimean Tatars?
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]There’s no a single Internet service provider that is not controlled by the FSB, so all information flows are read. [/quote] In Crimea, they [the occupation “authorities”] are trying to create the myth that Crimean Tatars are extremists and that they are undermining the peace. One of the main myths that works with majority of the population is “But we do not have war.” Like, if Russia did not come to Crimea, they they would not have be defended and they would be the same situation like there is in the east [of Ukraine.] There would be a war. So now a lot of people live by this myth: “Ok, we will suffer, but at least we do not have war.” Therefore, the Crimean Tatars are presented as the people who can disrupt this peace. Gradually people who were good neighbors, under the influence of this propaganda, perceive Crimean Tatars as enemies. Now there is a trend of displacement of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula. Russia is actively replacing the population. One person leaves (not only Crimean Tatars), and another one comes in. Thus Russia is creating a comfort zone, where there will not be objectionable people. Activists and journalists have to leave the territory of Crimea. They are replaced with a migrant population from other parts of Russia.
What is it like to be pro-Ukrainian or a Crimean Tatar in Crimea now?
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”] There is no visibility of a resistance because Crimea is an area of total control. All social media is controlled there.[/quote] People fight on as they are able. Some continue to read fairy tales and poetry books to their children in their native language — Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar. There is no visibility of a resistance because Crimea is an area of total control. All social media is controlled there. They don’t only monitor the (Russian) social network Vkontakte, which is read by the FSB, pages in Facebook are also constantly monitored. It often happens that someone says that he would love to repost some info, but he can not, because then FSB will come and call them for interrogation. People say that they are afraid to put “likes” under online posts. There’s no a single Internet service provider that is not controlled by the FSB, so all information flows are read. Skype and Viber too – when you start to talk to people about political topics, Skype often stops working or is interrupted by a loud noise. People often go to the mainland to, as they say, “breathe the spirit of freedom.” There are still activists who from time to time show themselves in public, but there are not numerous demonstrations. Premises are taken away from Crimean Tatar organizations. There are dozens of people who have already been arrested. There are more than twenty lawsuits against Crimean Tatars activists. Some have already been arrested. Even though there are no military operations in Crimea, I call it an undeclared war when people disappear, people are killed, and everyone who dissents is persecuted.
What does Ukrainian side do to release these people?
From our side the General Prosecutor’s office initiated criminal cases. Of course, as they do not have access to Crimea, they can not effectively conduct an investigation. However, they have to initiate criminal cases, because it is the territory of Ukraine. Talking about criminal cases, there is a big problem with lawyers. Therefore, we always say to our international partners that it would be very good if they allocated some funding. Maybe even through Russian human rights organizations, or through the organizations that are working here on the mainland, so that funds could be transferred to lawyers who could protect these people. However, the investigations on the territory of Crimea on these cases, of course, are not properly conducted. It is more like a tribunal, because attorneys can not work properly with their clients. Court proceedings in Crimea are usually closed and journalists or even the closest relatives are not allowed to go there.
Crimea SOS initiated the creation of an interactive map on the violation of human rights in Crimea. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Now, we have more than 230 human rights violations on the map, but that is only documented cases, those which we can speak about, or those that we found in media and which have evidence. In other cases, and we are aware of dozens of such cases, people ask us to not report about it. For example, journalists often do not speak about the searches of their homes. We create this map in partnership with a number of other human rights organizations. Torture, kidnapping and court investigations are on the map. It is an effective tool to show all these violations from a single source.
And how do the occupation “authorities” act towards Crimean Tatar culture? Russia often says that it cares about Crimean Tatars and in the Internet we can find photos of ersatz care. How is it in reality?
In Crimea, everything that is connected to Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars is prohibited. However, the occupation authorities have founded puppet structures, or just individual puppets they use to do things. For example, when the demonstrations on May 18th devoted to deportation of Crimean Tatars were forbidden in 2014 and in 2015, a number of Crimean Tatars, who went to work with occupation authorities and said that we do not need to do it on the central square, let’s do it elsewhere. Talking about other events like Flag Day, or the Day of the Crimean Tatar Youth, they are also trying to lead all these movements. However, Crimean Tatars do not go to such government-sponsored celebrations. Some go only to see their relatives. With Ukrainian culture they [occupiers] do not do anything at all. They try to totally forget about Ukrainians as a people who were in Crimea.
Do people often leave Crimea these days?
Now we see that people are actively leaving, but they often do not do it immediately. We have an office in Kherson and they provide us with statistics. According to it, every week they have about 300 applicants who fill in documents for departure. Because there are problems with the recognition of documents issued in Crimea, they come to Kherson just to fill it out and then come back again with their families to finally leave. During the last three months we have seen this a lot. Of course, it is caused by active persecution and intimidation on the territory of Crimea. Also, business is actively leaving. The middle class is leaving because now in Crimea one can not earn money and legally conduct business. Another reason why people actively leave is that now in Crimea people have often started to receive draft notices and they do not want to be brought into the Russian army.
Many people are not registered in the social security agencies. On the one hand this could be because they do not need it. Often it is the middle class who leaves, and they do not need to have a document giving them the status of an internally displaced person. On the other hand, at first, some are afraid to register.
What specific problems face Crimean Tatars coming to the mainland?
The problems of Crimean people are very similar to the problems of displaced people from eastern Ukraine. It is apartments and jobs. However, Crimean Tatars have their own specific problems, because when they come to the mainland, they can not regularly use their mother tongue. In Crimea there were schools and universities where one could study in the Crimean Tatar language. In universities on the mainland it is almost impossible. The thing is that Crimean Tatars are dispersed across the country. That is why there is no possibility to open additional classes in the Crimean Tatar language. There are no teachers who will teach the language. This is a big problem, because there is a risk that the language will be lost, at least for those people who live here in the mainland. There is also the question of religious ceremonies, because venues for praying can’t be found everywhere and this is also a thing we need to work on.
Is there still a possibility to learn the Crimean Tatar language in Crimea?
There are problems with quality, not quantity. Now there is actually almost no studying of the mother tongue because the Russian authorities confiscated all the books that were issued at the time of Ukrainian independence, including textbooks and educational programs in the Crimean Tatar language. And they did not print new books. For the schools with the Crimean Tatar language, there had been specially designed programs. Children studied mathematics, history, etc. in the Crimean Tatar language. There were problems we had since Ukrainian independence. We were always saying that the programs were imperfect, that there were not enough textbooks, but anyway at least we had some. Now when the occupation authorities say “No, we have not changed the number of schools,” and the so-called “Ministry of Education” declares that the number of schools has remained the same, this is in fact not true. As for universities, the language departments are combined. Now Crimean Tatar is learned, but not as it was before. For this reason many students left. Universities have moved to the mainland. There are also problems with teaching Ukrainian. Out of 500 classes and 10 schools which used to work in Crimea, only one school in Yalta and a few classes still carry on. It was said that there will be 3 languages and that none of the national communities would be infringed. We knew that it will not be so and now it is only confirmed.
During the time of Viktor Yanukovych and before, Ukraine did not care much about Crimean Tatars, but still you used to stay loyal to it. Why is it so? Is it only when compared with Russia?
Before the overthrow of the regime of Yanukovych, Crimean Tatars had always stood for democratic values. For this reason, there are no accusations that Ukraine did not do anything [for the Tatars]. Yes, they say often that Ukraine didn’t do enough, but still with the understanding that in an authoritarian state the rights of indigenous peoples, minorities and so on would not be respected. And so we, the Crimean Tatars, participated in the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests to defend European values. Also, I would not say that we are opposed to Russia, but yes, the Crimean Tatars are very well aware that Russia will not give anything good to them and could not have given anything good. It is important to recall the historical movement of the Crimean Tatars returning to their historic homeland. It was a long movement that started in the countries of Central Asia, mainly in Uzbekistan. Ukrainians were among those who supported the Crimean Tatars. Ukrainian authorities undertook a commitment to take in Crimean Tatars and to facilitate their immigration to the territory of Crimea. I always say that Ukraine may have not done enough, but at least it has never prohibited anything. Russia does it all the time. They issue prohibition after prohibition.
What else unites Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars?
It is important to note that Crimean Tatars were independent during the time of the Crimean Khanate. The Crimean Tatars, of course, want to have their own autonomous state, but always say that (they want it) as a part of the Ukrainian state. Crimean Tatars are very few in number and we can only achieve this with Ukraine. Anyway, Crimean Tatars always perceived Ukraine as a fairly democratic society. Ukrainians are a people who are mentally very similar to the Crimean Tatars, because the Crimean Tatars as well as Ukrainians used to live without being under some king. In Ukraine, there were the Kozak outlaws ruled by an elected Hetman. Crimean Tatars had a monarchical succession in the Crimean Khanate, but they directly influenced the Khan. That is why there is this freedom of thought, with some contrarianism very close to Ukrainians, and one can feel this very much when one just hangs out with people. We have a very similar culture. We have different histories, Ukrainians went to the Crimea [with military campaigns], Crimean Tatars went to Ukraine, and there were many wars and battles that Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars won together. Therefore many things unite us in the historical past. This is very important. It is worth speaking about now and worth writing a new history, to talk about our common victories in our common history. This will help ensure that Crimean Tatars are integrated into the Ukrainian society and to correct the mistakes that were done during the time after Ukrainian independence. And this needs to be done now, because if we wait for later we will fall into the same trap.