UPDATE: Crimean authorities say Tatars will have to vacate land; critics call the move "ethnic cleansing."
Vladimir Putin is not exactly a reassuring kind of guy.
Even so, in his Tuesday address annexing Crimea to the federation, the Russian president attempted to calm the fears of the peninsula’s Tatar minority that they are not about to return to the mass deportations and atrocities they suffered under Stalin.
That was two days after the tortured body of a 39-year-old Tatar activist was found in Crimea — the first reported casualty of the invasion. It was also before local authorities announced that they will require Tatars to vacate some of the land they currently live on in exchange for a place to stay somewhere else in Crimea — a move that some observers referred to as a first step towards "ethnic cleansing."
In his speech, Putin half-heartedly acknowledged the persecution of ethnic minorities — including Tatars, a largely Muslim community — in the former Soviet Union, but immediately added that they didn’t have it as bad as Russians themselves.
“True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly,” Putin said in his hour-long address. “There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.”
Still, the president said the 300,000 Tatars living in Crimea will see their rights “restored” and their good name "cleared" under Russia, adding that Tatar will be one of Crimea’s three official languages, along with Russian and Ukrainian. Putin also claimed that Tatars — a community which was deported to Central Asia in huge numbers under Stalin and was only able to partially return to its Crimean homeland after Ukraine’s independence — also “leaned” towards Russia in Sunday’s referendum, a claim refuted by most accounts of the vote.
Crimean officials also promised that Tatar culture and religion would be protected, and that they would be given 20 percent of government positions.
But if any Tatars were among the crowds of revelers watching Putin’s speech on public screens around the peninsula — like the one in Sevastopol in the video below — it’s a fair guess that they were not cheering.
Crowds cheered Putin’s Tuesday’s speech, in which he formally annexed Crimea to Russia.
In fact, Crimea’s Tatars — some 12 percent of the region’s 2.2 million residents — overwhelmingly boycotted the referendum. And some of them even told VICE News that they never received voter cards in the first place, which is hardly an encouraging sign of any inclusive measures yet to come.
“We want to continue living like we have been, with Ukraine,” Makhamad Sadykov, a Tatar resident of Simferopol, told a VICE News reporter there. “There’s no reason to take us over.”
Watch VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky’s latest dispatch from Crimea.
On Tuesday, reports emerged that the very first victim of the invasion was Reshat Ametov, a Tatar father of three, activist, and seasonal construction worker. Ametov's tortured body was found two weeks after he disappeared in Simferopol after taking place in a pro-maidan meeting. At his funeral, religious leaders called for restraint.
“This wasn’t an ordinary death, it was a kind of genocide, an inhuman crime,” Ayder Ismailov, a member of the Crimean human rights group Arkadash, was quoted as saying by the Kyiv Post. “We understand that we have to come together and consolidate and be very wary, because I’m convinced this is only the beginning.”
For many Tatars in the region, Ametov’s murder was a bleak warning — fueling fears already ignited by racist slurs and graffiti that have been popping up around the peninsula in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Tatar homes in Sevastopol were reportedly defaced with large “X”s, allegedly by pro-Russia militias. Hundreds of Crimean Tatars fled the peninsula ahead of the referendum, seeking refuge in western Ukraine.
“There were always people here who didn’t like us, but before, they hid it,” 21-year-old Enver Ablakimov, who attended the activist’s funeral, told the Kyiv Post. “Now with the appearance of the Russian army, they feel protected and understand that no one will do anything, so they’ve started to make trouble.”
Also on Tuesday, Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that the new government in Crimea will "regularize" the land unofficially taken over by Crimean Tatar "squatters" following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tatars returning to Crimea in the early 1990s found that their homes had been taken over by both Russians and Ukrainians. They settled on available land that was never officially recognized as theirs. Today, most Tatars in the peninsula live in areas that often lack access to basic amenities like water and gas.
“We have asked the Crimean Tatars to vacate part of their land, which is required for social needs,” Temirgaliyev said. “But we are ready to allocate and legalize many other plots of land to ensure a normal life for the Crimean Tatars."
Tatars and human rights observers denounced the news, with one analyst describing the policy as "ethnic cleansing 101."
During the recent unrest, most Crimean Tatars threw their weight behind the Euromaidan government in Kiev, largely because of their bad history with the Soviet Union and the fear of ongoing anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment in today’s Russia. But, after two decades of marginalization in an independent Ukraine that allowed them back but offered little more, many remained skeptical of both sides of the conflict.
'We can’t trust anyone at this point; not one side, not the other.'
“It’s a fight between two people: Russians and Ukrainians,” a Tatar woman told VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky. “They don’t consider Tatars at all, since we’re a minority. This is our homeland.”
The woman called the Russians in Crimea “invaders.”
“Is what Russia is doing not terrorism?” she asked. “If even one of the Crimean Tatars went somewhere and invaded like this, the whole world would call them terrorists, extremists, separatists.”
Other Tatars spoke both of the repression and deportation they suffered in Soviet times, and of the marginalization they experienced under Ukraine.
“Let’s put it this way, the level of trust is zero,” a Tatar man told VICE News. “For the 20 years that we’ve lived here no one did anything good for us. And now, all of a sudden, everyone started to care. That’s why we can’t trust anyone at this point; not one side, not the other.”
Some Tatars also warned Russia that annexation will come at a cost, as some of the community’s extremist members have reportedly threatened “jihadi-style” violence against the occupation by Russian troops.
“We have Islamists, Wahhabis, Salafis… groups who have fought in Syria,” Mustafa Jamilev, a Tatar member of the Ukrainian parliament, told the Financial Times earlier this month. “They say: ‘an enemy has entered our land and we are ready.’”
There are already links between Tatars and members of international Islamist groups, as several Tatars — along with foreigners of all nationalities — have fought with the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As Russian troops moved into Crimea, online forums went abuzz with calls for Islamist action, under the hashtag #NafirforUkraine, though analysts said there is no indication any threat is imminent.
For the time being, those who feel threatened are Crimea’s Tatars themselves, and Putin’s reassurances will hardly convince them.
“This is a threat to everyone, to all the Crimean Tatars,” a woman told Ostrovsky, speaking of the annexation. “To everyone who wears a shawl, to everyone who goes to Namaz, and everyone who goes to pray. It’s a threat to the entire population.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi