Before the arrival of Imperial Russian troops in Crimea in 1783, Bakhchisarai was the capital of a Tatar kingdom.
Today’s tense mood, one year after the Russian Federation’s annexation of the peninsula, has brought back old fears among Crimea’s Tatars, who make up around 13% of its population.
In Simferopol, just one independent TV station, ATR, is still serving the region’s Tatars. Human rights groups have expressed concern over a crackdown on the freedom of the media.
The deputy head of policy at ATR, Lilya Budzhurova, said: “We are experiencing serious pressure. You probably know recently here we had a sort of armed raid to frighten us. It was presented as a search. We are afraid we might not be officially registered with the rest of the media. The deadline is 1st April. Our application documents have already been returned to us four times, on the pretext they needed to be reworked.”
The man running a workshop we visited in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, fled Simferopol just before Crimea was annexed. Rustem Skibin told us he was afraid he would be singled out for promoting Tatar culture. Among the many things he crafts are ceramics and musical instruments. He plays one of them for us.
Skibin said: “This is a dumbelek, a traditional Crimean Tatar war drum originally, used to send messages. It’s made of clay and goat hide.”
Tamila Tasheva is a coordinator with the NGO Crimea-SOS, which helps care for some 20,000 Tatars displaced from Crimea.
According to Tasheva: “The main reason why people are leaving Crimea right now is because there’s a mass persecution of Crimean Tatars. Their businesses are being harassed. There are 14 people just ‘missing’, and these cases are not being investigated. Crimean Tatar activists and representatives are being persecuted.”
Yet there are some Crimean Tatars who say they support the Russian annexation, such as the Deputy Prime Minister of Crimea, Ruslan Balbek.
Balbek said: “Crimean Tatars are not dreaming about returning to Ukraine. They don’t remember [leaders] Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov. They just want to get on with their lives. Since Crimea has been a part of Ukraine, their areas haven’t received electricity or roads — not even a basic standard of living.”
Among those who have sought refuge is Mustafa Dzhemilev, revered as a father figure. He says that most Tatars — their basic freedoms increasingly restricted — have no wish to be Russian.
The leader of the Tatars, who opposed Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region, cannot go back. It has been almost a year since Refat Chubarov was temporarily exiled from his ancestral homeland. We talked to him in Kyiv about what he has lost.
“Everything is in Crimea: the nation I am a part of, my homeland, my half-built house, my job in the executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis. They have stripped me of everything.”
The Tatars are the peninsula’s indigenous Muslim people but have long been a minority — of some 240,000. Openly resisting the annexation, many boycotted the referendum on the status of Crimea, organised by the pro-Russia Autonomous Republic within Ukraine.
“The Crimean Tatars were the only people in Crimea who opposed the Russian army entering the peninsula,” according to Chubarov, “who stood for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And that is why a policy of systematic terror is applied against the Crimean Tatars. According to our information, about 150 Crimean Tatars have been already punished by Crimean courts.”
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported all the Crimean Tatars in 1944, moving them to Central Asia, as collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis in World War Two. It was only in the late 1980s that they could return.
Chubarov said: “We had just come back to our homeland when this new misfortune struck, once more from Moscow. Our people understand that if we lose our land again, we will lose it forever. And our people want to stay on their land, whatever the circumstances.”
Tatars describe harassment, intimidation and violence, including abductions and arrests on false accusations.
Amnesty International Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen has said the authorities are using “a vast array of bully tactics to [stifle] dissent.”
Chubarov warns that worse is to come.
“It is a military foothold, an outpost in the south against NATO’s southern flank. Russia is not only increasing its troops, it will restore the military infrastructure that remained in Crimea from the Soviet era. Russian officials are not ruling out stationing nuclear weapons in Crimea.”
Crimea’s de facto authorities have banned Chubarov till 2019.
In the meantime, he urges more international sanctions be brought against Russia.