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Fixing mistakes. How Ukraine treats Crimean Tatars after the occupation of Crimea

Ukraine was hospitable to the Crimean Tatars, but in the end it turned out it did not do enough for them. Photo:
Edited by: Alya Shandra

On 18 May 1944, the tragic deportation of Crimean Tatars was initiated by the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). In result, at least 183,185 people were evicted (up to 240,000 by other estimates) – the majority were transported to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. According to different data, during 1944-1945 up to 46% of those evicted died.

In 1989, the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic recognized the deportation as illegal. Crimean Tatars started to come back home. Ukraine was hospitable to them, but in the end, it turned out it did not do enough. Now the Crimean Tatar population is again in danger due to the Russian occupation of Crimea and political persecution of those who stayed on the peninsula. Only now did Ukraine activate the process of integration of the indigenous people of Crimea. But is it enough?

Crimean Tatars before the occupation

Representatives of Crimean Tatars emphasize that they see their future within independent and sovereign Ukraine.

During over 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, the government lacked a clear strategy to resolve the situation in Crimea, specifically – the Crimean Tatar question. The country faced the cultural, economic, political, and social challenges with settling Crimean Tatars returning to Crimea.

Inertia, lack of systematic actions, and imperfect legislation of the state led to certain problems in the region:

  • The program on resettling those who were returning from the deportation was underfinanced. In result, thousands of Crimean Tatar families had been waiting in lines for accommodation.
  • The state program on the social and economic development of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea until 2017 was aimed at solving the social-economical, but not ethnopolitical problems of the region.
  • The land issue. According to the Crimean Regional Executive Committee decision from 1989, it was forbidden to register Crimean Tatars who returned to Crimea in the largest cities, most of which were situated on the tourist-attractive south coast:: Simferopol and its districts, in Velyka Yalta, Velyka Alushta, Sudak, Feodosiya, Yevpatoriya, and Bakhchisarai districts. Many of the Crimean Tatars lived in these places before the deportation. Now, instead, they had to live in depressing steppe parts of Crimea with the highest level of unemployment. Notably, land for Crimean Tatars has always been the part of their identity.
  • The land and other problems became catalysts of the ethnic conflicts between Crimean Tatars and the Russian-speaking population of the peninsula.

As of 2013, about 270,000 Crimean Tatars lived in Crimea, approximately 13% of the total amount of the population of the peninsula. When the Russian Federation occupied Crimea, about 30,000 Crimean Tatars left Crimea.

Nowadays, the indigenous people of Crimea are again pressured, this time by Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union. And the majority of the questions related to the Crimean Tatars which were left unsolved by the Ukrainian government still remain.

What Ukraine did and should do for Crimean Tatars after the occupation

When Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Crimean Tatars became the main force of resistance. On the photo stands Mustafa Dzhemilev, Authorized representative of the President of Ukraine on Crimean Tatar people. Photo:

Waking up after the occupation. Before the occupation of Crimea in 2014, the question of the Crimean Tataräs tragedy had never really been brought to the agenda in Ukrainian society.

Only on 12 November 2015 did Ukraine officially recognize the deportation of 1944 as a genocide of the Crimean Tatars and announced 18 May as a Day of Remembrance of Victims of the Genocide of Crimean Tatar People.

Moreover, this year the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches of the Kyiv Patriarchate tolled their bells for the first time to commemorate the victims of the deportation on 18 May.

After the occupation, Ukraine finally realized that Crimean Tatars are a part of Ukrainian society. The question also received a lot of attention after Crimean Tatar singer Jamala’s winning performance on Eurovision with the song “1944” devoted to the deportation. After her victory, Jamala became a judge on the Ukrainian version of the popular TV show The Voice where she often referred to her roots.

The status of Crimean Tatars. The development of legislature on the status of Crimean Tatar people in Ukraine started in 1996. However, there were no chances for its adoption at that time due to opposition from several forces in Crimea, namely, the Security Services (SBU) of Crimea, a large part of whom betrayed their oath and switched to the side of Russia after the occupation. They were imposing perception of Crimean Tatars as extremists and potential terrorists.

Only on 20 March 2014, days after the illegal referendum on the annexation organized by Russia did Ukraine recognize Crimean Tatars as the indigenous population of Crimea by adopting the corresponding decree.

Among its main provisions are guarantees to maintain and develop the ethnic, cultural, language and religious uniqueness; to protect and implement the Crimean Tatars’ right to self-identification within sovereign and independent Ukraine.

Additionally, the Mejlis was recognized as an authorized body of the Crimean Tatar people.

Albeit belatedly, Ukraine signed the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people.

The decree of the Ukrainian Parliament foresaw the development of the relevant law. However, work on it had been renewed only in the summer of 2016.

“Despite the decree of 20 March containing the phrase ‘urgently develop,’ in fact nobody was in a hurry. There was an attempt in 2015 which failed […]. But after the ban of Mejlis [by Russian officials- ed.] and its inability to operate in Crimea, these regulations don’t work, they should be urgently changed. It was unclear how to get out of this situation, so the work on the bill was delayed,” said Natalia Belitser, an expert of the Institute for Democracy of Pylyp Orlyk.

In April 2017, the bill on the status of Crimean Tatars was registered in Ukrainian Parliament. Its authors say that the bill has to become a part of the suggested amendments to the Constitution on the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as a national-territory autonomy of Crimean Tatar people within Ukraine.

No de-occupation without Crimean Tatars. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Crimean Tatars became the main force of resistance. They initiated blockades of the peninsula, brought the Crimean question to international attention at any occasion, and appealed to Ukraine to create a strategy on the de-occupation of the peninsula. The first signs of Ukraine starting to think about such a strategy appeared only after three years of occupation.

It is noteworthy that the above-mentioned problems which arose after the Crimean Tatars returned to Ukraine after the exile also played a significant role in Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Now, Ukraine is working on fixing its main mistakes.

“This year, as in previous years, the attention of the Crimean Tatar People will be on the capital of our state, Kyiv. Because right here the historical justice for the Crimean Tatar people should finally be renewed. The same justice which Crimean Tatars could not gain during 23 years before the Russian occupation,” said Refat Chubarov, the Head of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar people.

He reminded that on 18 May 2016 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stressed that it was necessary to create a national autonomy of Crimean Tatars with full guarantees of equal rights and freedoms like those of ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, and other ethnoses of the peninsula.

“Today the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people has to work in emergency conditions. It is still not introduced to the legal field of Ukraine, as there is no law on indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, the Mejlis which represents the indigenous people of Crimea is a tool for de-occupation of the Crimea at the international level,” said Mejlis member Eskender Bariev.

On 11 May 2017, Ukraine’s Constitutional Commission decided to create a working group to draft proposals of amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine regarding the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol. It consists of 25 members, including Mejlis Head Refat Chubarov and Authorized representative of the President of Ukraine on Crimean Tatar people Mustafa Dzhemilev.

In his yearly press conference, Poroshenko emphasized the importance of the issue and said that he is ready to make corresponding changes to the Constitution of Ukraine:

“I think it was a mistake that for 23 years prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian authorities failed to grant an appropriate status of autonomy to the Crimean Tatars. I am ready to make a few changes to the Constitution, including on the Crimean autonomy. What will be the format of autonomy? The Constitutional Commission should suggest that to me.”

The difficulties of adaptation in mainland Ukraine

The vast majority of Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslims. Photo:

Because of constant pressure from the Russian Federation and other problems caused by the occupation of Crimea, thousands of Crimean residents including Crimean Tatars had to leave their homes. They fled to mainland Ukraine.

As well as IDPs from Donbas, displaced Crimeans faced difficulties with finding accommodation, work, and education facilities. However, in addition to that, Crimean Tatars had their own unique difficulties of adapting to new places of living.

In mainland Ukraine, they met a different culture and religion.

Crimean Tatars in the vast majority belong to the Sunnis. This mainstream denomination of Islam includes many directions and branches, one of which is Salafism. People practicing it adhere to a literal interpretation of the provisions of the Koran. There are Salafists among the Crimean Tatars. The majority of those who first left the Crimea for religious reasons where Salafists and supporters of the party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia recognizes a terrorist organization. Even before the occupation of the peninsula, these two religious groups emphasized their distinctiveness against the general Muslim background of Crimea. For example, Salafists had their own mosques, where they said parishioners could practice a “cleaner” Islam which was free of historical layers.

For example, Salafists had their own mosques, where they said parishioners could practice a “cleaner” Islam which was free of historical layers.

The religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is better known as a political party, acted in Crimea for a long time. Despite the party being legal in Ukraine, it remains a closed organization. According to unofficial data, there were about 1,500 of its supporters in Crimea before the occupation. With its populist rhetoric directed at building a caliphate throughout the world, the party has gained great popularity among young people. Today, supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir moved their activities from Crimea to Western Ukraine.

Read also: Imaginary “terrorists” with no terror acts: Russia’s collective punishment of Crimean Muslims

After ending up in a different religious environment, they keep to themselves, which often causes problems with integration to non-Muslim society. There are cases where Salafists tried to obtain permission for homeschooling their children, which is sometimes problematic.

According to the editor of the website “Islam in Ukraine” Dilyaver Saidahmetov, the main problem is not a lack of religious tolerance or intolerant attitudes, but a different level of religious competency and general education of Muslims and Christians.

For Crimean Tatars, it is hard to form a community and to solve other issues, for example, receiving education in the Crimean Tatar language. After the occupation, Crimean Tatars moved to different cities and towns from different parts of Ukraine. The largest share of them came to Lviv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Kyiv. As Crimean Tatars are dispersed across the country, there is no possibility to open additional classes in the Crimean Tatar language. There are no teachers who will teach the language. So there is a risk that the language will be lost, at least for those people who live on the mainland.

However, representatives of Crimean Tatars emphasize that they see their future within independent and sovereign Ukraine.

Now, the Crimean Tatars in Crimea are the main targets of the pressure of the Russian occupational authorities. Twenty of them are held in Russian prisons. In April 2017, The International Court of Justice ordered Russia to stop discrimination against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea.[hr]

Read also: 

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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