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In Crimea, Tatars step up resistance to Russian rule

Urozhayne, Crimea: Two years after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin touts the move as a historic achievement, looking on with a satisfied smile from countless billboards across the peninsula. However, overwhelming opposition from the Muslim Tatar ethnic minority puts a crack in this picture of unanimous support, as evidenced in interviews with more than two dozen Tatars across Crimea. And the resistance appears to be growing.

Many described the intimidation of community leaders, the closure of Tatar language classes and a general atmosphere of mistrust of Tatar residents. The Associated Press conducted some interviews at other people's homes because of worries about police surveillance.

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Tatar resistance in Crimea begins to grow

With a blockade and electricity blackouts, Crimean Tatars step up resistance to Russian rule on land seized from Ukraine.

The majority of the people in Crimea are ethnic Russian and support Russia's annexation. The nearly 300,000 Crimean Tatars, who make up less than 15 per cent of the population, are Muslims, although largely secular.

Community leaders say repression has left young people fuming, risking their radicalisation along the lines of the restive North Caucasus, a patchwork of predominantly Muslim republics in southern Russia.

Elnara, the wife of arrested Tatar protester Ali Asanov, sits with one of her daughters, Mumine, in her home in the ...
Elnara, the wife of arrested Tatar protester Ali Asanov, sits with one of her daughters, Mumine, in her home in the village Urozhayne, Crimea.  Photo: AP

Tatar activists are already fighting back.

Before Russia annexed Crimea, Lenur Islyamov was a businessman with family and assets in Moscow. Last northern autumn, he traded his business suits for military-style clothing to lead a resistance movement that imposed a blockade on the peninsula in retaliation for Russia's persecution of the Tatars.

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In September, the activists began stopping goods from crossing into Crimea. Three months later, the Ukrainian government stepped in and banned all trade.

"Everyone, including Ukraine, left us with no other choice," said Mr Islyamov, whose assets in Moscow and Crimea have been seized. "Most of us don't want to go to war – we want to make sandwiches, take our children to school, go shopping – but we've been forced to do this."

A billboard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the road outside Simferopol, Crimea.
A billboard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the road outside Simferopol, Crimea.  Photo: AP

Deliberate power outages have also become widespread. In November, unknown attackers blew up electricity pylons in Ukraine and tied Crimean Tatar flags to them, leaving 2 million people without heating. No one claimed responsibility for the explosions, but Tatar activists were suspected.

Tatars in Crimea cheered the power cuts, saying the blackout returned the world's attention to the situation in Crimea. Muzafar Fukala, community leader of the village of Voinka, said losing light was "nothing" compared to the hardships Tatars had survived in the past.

Tatar businessman Bekir Umerov in his shop in Simferopol. Troubles began for the 57-year-old after authorities found out ...
Tatar businessman Bekir Umerov in his shop in Simferopol. Troubles began for the 57-year-old after authorities found out he was a brother of Ilmi Umerov, a prominent Tatar community leader from Bakhchisarai. Photo: AP

"I'm prepared to live in a complete blackout until this scum leaves," he said, referring to supporters of the annexation. To avoid police harassment, Mr Fukala spoke to the AP in the home of friends in a neighbouring village.

Both the border blockade and the power outages have put a big hole in the Kremlin budget at a time when plummeting oil prices have left Moscow with little to spare on shoring up its newest acquisition. Russia had to fly in supplies and thousands of generators, and speed up the construction of underwater power lines.

Journalist Zair Akadyrov says Tatar businesses with purported ties to the blockade leaders have faced closures or legal ...
Journalist Zair Akadyrov says Tatar businesses with purported ties to the blockade leaders have faced closures or legal onslaught. Photo: AP

Mr Islyamov is also working to set up a "battalion" of 500 Tatar activists to be stationed just a few kilometres from the border. Tatar activists in military fatigues, some of them carrying automatic weapons, now stand in the winter cold by the roadside of their tent camp. They used to search cars crossing into Crimea and back until blockade leaders announced that Ukrainian border guards and customs officials would now do so instead.

In November, Chechen intelligence officers called on Mr Islyamov's 17-year-old son in Moscow, where he studied, and threatened him unless he denounced his father publicly. Several hours later, Mr Islyamov arranged for his son to leave Russia.

Officials in Crimea in charge of ethnic minorities did not respond to the AP's requests seeking interviews and comment. Officials in the Crimean government have accused Tatar leaders who opposed the annexation of betraying the interests of the Tatars and being agents of Ukraine. Under Russian law, people can be punished for calling for the return of Crimea to Ukraine.

The Crimean Tatars have a long history of repression. In May 1944, all 200,000 Tatars, who then made up a third of Crimea's population, were put on trains and shipped to Central Asia in the space of three days. Thousands died during the gruelling journey or starved to death in the barren steppes upon arrival.

Unlike other peoples deported during World War II by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the Tatars were not allowed to return to their native land until the 1980s.

A visit to a Tatar home today opens a window to a parallel world far from the throngs of flag-waving Russians who gave Mr Putin a Hollywood star reception on the streets of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on his visit last summer. Tatars here all watch ATR, a Crimean Tatar channel owned by Mr Islyamov, which was banished from Crimea and now broadcasts from exile in Ukraine. They talk of "better times" and a future "victory", alluding to the eventual return of Crimea to Ukraine.

In almost equal measure, Crimean Tatars feel betrayed by Kiev, after Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula surrendered to Russian forces in February 2014 without putting up any resistance. Later on, most of these troops took Russian citizenship and joined the Russian armed forces.

Left on their own, the Tatars at first made a foray into the new Crimean government. Mr Islyamov, who had Russian citizenship, was dispatched in April 2014 by the Mejlis, the Tatars' self-governing body, to become a deputy prime minister. Less than two months later, he resigned. He said Russian leaders were not interested in Tatar problems and every conversation turned into a dispute about Russian supremacy.

"We saw that Ukraine had ditched us, that it was inevitable that Russia was going to swallow Crimea and the global community was doing nothing," he said.

When pro-Russian politicians tried to push through a motion in the local legislature for a vote about Crimea's future, the only visible force opposing them was the Crimean Tatar minority. Six people are now on trial in the capital, Simferopol, on charges of rioting dating back to fist fights between rival rallies of the pro-Russian party and Crimean Tatars on February 26, 2014. Not a single pro-Russian protester has faced charges.

One of the six people is Ali Asanov, husband of Elnara Asanova.

Last April, when she was seven months pregnant, police grabbed him from the streets of their village because he had taken part in a Tatar protest against Russian annexation of Crimea.

She's not allowed to visit him, so she travels to every court hearing. Once she took seven-month-old Mustafa, so her husband could glimpse the child as he was led from the police van to the courtroom. The court has refused to release him on bail, describing him as a flight risk.

"They say he will run away. But where to?" said Ms Asanova, a meek young woman. She points to her children. "We live in the country. You can't survive here without a husband."

Tatar businesses with purported ties to the blockade leaders have faced closures or legal onslaught, according to local journalist Zair Akadyrov. "The blockade is drawing more attention from the law enforcement agencies to Crimean activists because everyone gets unwittingly associated with that movement" on the border," he said.

Bekir Umerov, who owns a two-storey home improvement store on the outskirts of Simferopol, is one of the few Tatar businessmen in Crimea willing to speak publicly.

His troubles began after the authorities found out he was a brother of Ilmi Umerov, a prominent Tatar community leader from Bakhchisarai. For a year and a half, Bekir Umerov's store has been saddled with audits and checks from fire inspectors, the consumer rights agency and the economic crimes department.

"They've told me several times they are not interested in my documents, but they have been tasked to run the store into the ground because of the political views of my brother and my own," Bekir Umerov said. He feels his only option is to rent out the store before officials find cause to close it down.

The reaction of the Crimean authorities to any display of allegiance to Ukraine sometimes borders on farce. A shop assistant at Mr Umerov's store says inspectors once asked them about a mailbox that happened to be in the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag.

More and more Tatars in Crimea and outside now say they want more than a return to Ukraine's fold, after its passive stance toward Russian annexation. What they want is Tatar autonomy within Crimea.

However, unlike other nations of the former Russian Empire with a troubled past, Crimean Tatars do not have a history of armed resistance. Nariman Dzhelyal, who leads the Crimean Tatar self-governing body since its leader has been barred from entering Crimea, argues that any suggestion of a guerrilla resistance is "complete nonsense".

"The landscape does not help," he said, suggesting that Crimea's windswept steppes offered no place for potential guerrillas to hide. "And there are no weapons."

AP

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