“Where There is Unity, There is Victory”: Crimean Tatar Resistance to Russian Occupation

A man at a rally commemorating 70 years since the forced expulsion of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union. (Roman Pilipey/EPA)

A man at a rally commemorating 70 years since the forced expulsion of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union. (Roman Pilipey/EPA)

On March 15, 2014, in the days leading up to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the Crimean Tatar political activist Reshat Ametov was abducted and brutalized by Russians participating in the military invasion. This was the first in a series of ongoing atrocities which represent a strategic effort to intimidate, disband and silence the Crimean Tatars, who are viewed as a threat to Russian state interests.

The Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula is a highly controversial action from an international perspective; however, it has received widespread domestic support from the Russian population. The Russian government gathered support by carefully constructing an image for itself as the protector of Russian speakers throughout the former Soviet Union. Russia justified the initial invasion using the claim that the Ukrainian government was failing to protect Russians living in Crimea, and occupation since then has been propped up by the assertion that Crimea is historically Russian territory. Importantly, the legitimacy of such justifications is contingent on the assumption that Russians and Russian speakers are the most demographically significant group in Crimea. The Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group who are indigenous to the territory and currently make up over 12 percent of the population, pose an inherent threat to this assumption. As a result, Russia had a strategic interest in quickly silencing the group before the occupation had officially begun.

In addition to these politics of ethnicity, Crimean Tatars have also been persecuted in response to their role as active opponents of Russian activity in Crimea. The group largely boycotted the 2014 referendum, signaling an immediate rejection of Russian authority. Since then, they have formed a major resistance movement determined to prevent Russian rule in Crimea from gaining popular legitimacy. Crimean Solidarity, a non-governmental organization mainly composed of Crimean Tatars, has emerged as an important source of support for anti-Russian political activists. The organization, founded in 2016, has helped keep the opposition movement alive by providing legal support to victims of persecution and documenting incidents of Russian offenses.

The Russian crackdown on Crimean political activity has constituted a series of significant human rights violations. So far, 422 Crimean Tatars have been documented as victims of Russian misconduct. Russian law enforcement and officials have engaged in a variety of tactics ranging from harassment and detention to unlawful arrests and torture, primarily targeting members of Crimean Solidarity and other important community leaders. Twenty-three political activists are currently being illegally detained on dubious charges of Islamic extremism, all without access to a lawyer. In an act that was condemned by the U.N., Russia outlawed the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar governing body, as a way of denying affected people recourse to their own local authority. This is a strategic campaign of gradual widespread intimidation intended to break up the organization of the Crimean resistance movement and force the population into assimilation.

A major dimension of the Crimean Tatar’s struggle against occupation is Russia’s historical policy of restraining the practice of Islam. The Russian Federation is an ethnically diverse country operating under a strong centralized state. The Crimean Tatars are just one example of a Muslim-majority ethnic group whose needs and interests do not necessarily align with those of the secular and Orthodox Russian majority. In order to address the perceived threat of disunity in Russia, the government has defined a specific type of “acceptable” Islam, termed “Traditional Islam”, in an attempt to co-opt and control the Muslim populations. Muslims who deviate from state-sanctioned religious practices risk being denounced as “terrorists” and facing harsh prison sentences. A number of Crimean political activists have been charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization that remains legal in Ukraine but was banned as a terrorist organization in Russia. Of the accused, many have confirmed and defended their involvement with the organization on the grounds that Russian law does not have legitimacy in Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars’ refusal to accept occupation also has roots in a long history of Russian animosity toward their people. In 1959, Crimean Tatars made up virtually zero percent of the territory’s population due to a massive forced exodus under Stalin in an act that has since been recognized as genocide. The descendants of deported Crimeans were not able to begin returning to their ancestors’ home until the late 1980’s, during the era of Gorbachev’s reforms. Russia’s tactics have not changed much since then. The narrative du jour has shifted from portraying the group as Nazi sympathizers to Islamic extremists, but the impact remains the same. The Russian government is attempting to associate the Crimean Tatars with established enemies of the Russian people in order to spread ethnic hate and diminish the group’s political power.

With talk of a second referendum on the annexation of the Crimean peninsula beginning to surface, the role of Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian politics becomes increasingly critical. To some extent, the situation is not optimistic. In addition to the hundreds of Crimeans who have been directly silenced at Russian hands, thousands more have left the territory in fear of persecution. The demographics of Crimea are being further altered by programs designed to relocate Russian citizens to the peninsula in a calculated effort to dilute the non-Russian population. By some estimates, as many as 800,000 Russians have already entered Crimea under such programs, most of whom are affiliated with the government and will doubtless serve to inflate the “yes” vote on any future referendum.

However, the Crimean Tatar resistance movement is well-organized and backed by a number of important institutions. In addition to Crimean Solidarity, other organizations including the Crimean Human Rights Group, the Center for Civil Education “Almenda” and CrimeaSOS have dedicated themselves to publicizing Russian atrocities, providing legal and financial support to affected families, preserving the Crimean Tatar ethnic identity and continuing to organize peaceful protests and demonstrations. Furthermore, although international attention toward the situation has been remarkably weak, the recent massive series of arrests targeting Crimean Tatars in March did manage to extract a condemnation from both the U.S. and EU. Despite the Russian Federation’s harsh tactics, the movement’s robust organization combined with support from abroad is likely to protect the group from the possibility of fully succumbing to silence.