- Share to or
‘We don’t have another motherland’ Nine years into Russian occupation and oppression, Crimean Tatars hold out hope for Ukraine’s return
Story by Gleb Golod. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
It’s been one year since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, but residents of Crimea have been living under Russian occupation for nearly a decade. And while Moscow’s oppressive policies and arbitrary arrests have affected people of all stripes, there’s no question that the peninsula’s Crimean Tatar population has been disproportionately targeted. Dozens of Crimean Tatars have been arrested on charges of “extremism,” while many more have been forced to leave the peninsula altogether. After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s proxies in Crimea cracked down on local Tatars even harder; human rights advocates have compared the mobilization campaign there to genocide. Meduza explains how nine years of Russian occupation have affected the Crimean Tatar population, and how Moscow is forcing this group to fight a war against the country it considers its own.
A standoff on the eve of the invasion
On February 26, 2014, less than a month before the annexation of Crimea, two groups of roughly the same size met outside of the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol. Altogether, there were more than 12,000 people in the crowd. The first group, headed by then-Crimean State Council deputy Sergey Aksyonov (now the head of Russian-occupied Crimea), contained supporters of the pro-Moscow party Russian Unity who wanted a referendum on the peninsula’s status. Their opponents, led by the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (an official representative body of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, along with the Qurultay), had come to prevent the parliament from meeting to discuss the republic’s secession from Ukraine.
“We said, ‘Don’t schedule a [parliamentary] session, don’t blow up the situation in Crimea,’ because it was clear yesterday that the session had been scheduled with a single goal in mind: to initiate Crimea’s withdrawal from Ukraine,” Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov said that day.
At that point, a massive influx of Russian troops had arrived in Crimea six days earlier, while residents who supported Russia had joined the “Crimean self-defense forces” — volunteer units that Aksyonov had created with Russia’s support. Their main goal was to keep supporters of the Maidan Revolution away from government buildings. A cordon of Ukrainian police officers was also stationed outside of the Crimean parliament building to maintain order.
Nonetheless, the gathering turned violent. Approximately 30 people were injured, and two people died: 21-year-old Igor Postny had a heart attack during the demonstration, and senior citizen Valentina Korneva was trampled by the crowd. Both were advocates of Crimea joining Russia. Four years later, Crimea’s Russian-installed parliament would posthumously award Postny and Korneva “for defending the Crimean Republic.”
Many Crimeans consider the February 26 demonstration to mark the start of their resistance against Russian occupation. The scheduled parliamentary session didn’t occur that day; not enough deputies were present to constitute a quorum. The following day, however, Russian soldiers without identifying insignia seized control of Crimea’s government buildings. Sergey Aksyonov was declared the speaker of Crimea’s Council of Ministers, and less than a month later, on March 17, he became the head of the region. Crimean Tatars have been facing repressions from the Russian authorities ever since.
According to human rights advocate Afize Karimova (whose name has been changed at her request), Crimea Tatars’ disloyalty to the Russian authorities is “linked to historical memory” — memory of the Crimean Khanate’s economic collapse that was artificially induced by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, the pressure on Muslim clergy and the forced emigration of Crimean Tatars to Turkey in the early 20th century, and the 1944 mass deportation and the execution of the Tatar intelligentsia under the Stalin regime. For Crimea Tatars, the 2014 annexation of Crimea was not an anomaly but a continuation of centuries of oppression.
Still, some Crimean Tatars supported Russia even after the annexation, including, for example, Russian State Duma deputy and former Crimean Tatar Qurultay member Ruslan Balbek. In 2019, he went as far as to say that Crimean Tatars are still faithful to the oath they pledged to Catherine the Great in 1783, when Russia first annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Balbek called the oath a “precursor” to the 2014 referendum.
Pro-Ukrainian Crimean officials have essentially disowned Crimeans who have taken the side of the Russian authorities. Permanent Ukrainian Presidential Representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva told Meduza that people like Balbek are “collaborators” who don’t deserve any dialogue. “They’ve betrayed their people, and [they’ve betrayed] those whom the occupiers killed, tortured, or imprisoned,” she said.
In addition to local politicians, the Russian authorities have received support from the Spiritual Directorate of Crimean Muslims, a religious organization that selects Crimean Tatars’ religious leader. The position is currently held by Mufti Emirali Ablayev, who first took the post in 1999, and retained his position after Crimea’s 2014 annexation. “For 30 years, we lived and moved in the same direction, and now we find ourselves in a different system. Some people like it, and some people don’t. But on the whole, there are no problems. There are misunderstandings, but that’s inevitable. These problems are fixable,” Ablayaev said in a 2016 interview about repressions against Crimean Tatars.
Crimea has effectively undergone a religious schism: Mustafa Dzhemilev, who served from 2014–2019 as the Ukrainian president’s commissioner for the affairs of the Crimean Tatar people, has accused the Spiritual Directorate of Crimean Muslims of betraying the “aspirations and ideas of Crimea’s Muslims.” At a meeting in Kyiv in November 2016, a group of delegates from various Crimean Tatar organizations decided to create a new Spiritual Directorate of Crimean Muslims and elected Aider Rustemov, a former editor from a Ukrainian Muslim publishing house, as the new mufti. Unsurprisingly, the pro-Russian Spiritual Directorate called the new organization illegitimate.
Rustemov said the same thing about his accusers. “By definition, there can’t be [mufti] elections in occupied Crimea, because it’s occupied territory. Emirali Ablayev isn’t reelected — he’s appointed by the [Russian] FSB. All of this is illegal from a legal perspective and from a religious perspective. Emirali Ablayev is a traitor to his own people,” said Rustemov after Ablayev retained his post in 2018.
The repressions begin
About a year after the February stand-off, eight Crimean Tatars were arrested in Simferopol for taking part in the demonstrations. Among them was Mejlis Deputy Chairman Akhtem Chiigoz, who was charged with organizing mass riots and sentenced to eight years in prison. In 2017, after he had spent three years in behind bars, Chiigoz was extradited along with fellow Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov to Turkey, which has long supported Crimean Tatars and considered them compatriots due to their Turkic roots. According to Mustafa Dzhemilev, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally lobbied for Chiigoz and Umerov’s release, though Erdogan hasn’t commented publicly.
By the time Chiigoz and Umerov left prison, the Crimean Tatar Mejlis had been declared an “extremist organization” by the Russian-installed Crimean Supreme Court. At one court session, Crimean Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya called Mejlis leaders “puppets” and claimed that “big Western puppeteers” were using Crimean Tatars as a “bargaining chip.”
The “extremist” designation gave Russian security forces free rein to repress Crimean Tatars. According to Mejlis First Deputy Speaker Nariman Dzhelyalov, approximately 15 activists from the organization have disappeared since 2016, and to this day, none of them has been found. Crimea’s Russian-installed Investigation Committee has claimed that “there is no mass disappearance of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.”
In 2017, Mejlis leaders filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, and it began reviewing the case in 2021. Also in 2017, in a response to a claim from Ukraine, the International Court of Justice demanded an end to Russia’s persecution of Crimean Tatars, but the Russian authorities ignored the ruling.
A majority of Mejlis members were forced to flee Crimea. Many of them managed to go to Ukrainian-controlled territory, including former Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov. “In Kyiv, they maintained their composition, and they continue to work. They actively collaborate with the Ukrainian authorities on issues related to their people’s rights,” Permanent Ukrainian Presidential Representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva told Meduza.
The pipeline explosion case
One of the roles of Tasheva’s office, which was first established in 1992, is to provide support to Ukrainians who have stayed in Crimea despite the repressions from Russia. One of those people is Mejlis First Deputy Speaker Nariman Dzhelyalov. According to Tasheva, he worked for years to support political prisoners on the peninsula, including by attending their trials. “In 2021, [however], after he visited the Crimea Platform summit in Kyiv, Russian security forces arrested him and charged him with sabotage,” Tasheva said.
In late September 2022, Crimea’s Supreme Court sentenced Dzhelyalov to 17 years in prison. Prosecutors claimed he orchestrated an attack on a gas pipeline in southeastern Crimea in August 2021. Initially, Crimea’s Interior Ministry reported that a pipeline had been “damaged,” but on September 4, the authorities accused Dzhelyalov and two other activists of “blowing up” the line. That same day, 60 Crimean Tatars staged a protest outside of the Crimean FSB building in Simferopol. Police arrested 40 of them.
Lawyer Nikolai Polozov, who represented Dzhelyalov in court, stressed to Meduza that prosecutors didn’t offer a single piece of firm evidence in the “sabotage” trial. According to investigators, Dzhelyalov organized the attack, while the other two activists planted the explosive device and detonated it.
To support their case, prosecutors relied in part on testimonies from Dzhelyalov’s co-defendants, brothers Asan and Aziz Akhtemov, who later reported that FSB agents had tortured them with electric shocks to extract confessions.
Nariman Dzhelyalov said the following in his closing statement:
The criminal proceedings against me, an activist of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, a Qurultay delegate, and the first deputy speaker of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, are intended to outlaw and label as “terrorism” Crimean Tatars’ entire system of representative institutions. And, in so doing, to open the way to mass repressions against Ukraine’s indigenous people.
Nikolai Polozov said that he, too, believes the Russian authorities intend to declare the Crimean Tatar Mejlis a “terrorist organization” — rather than just “extremist” — in the foreseeable future:
The Mejlis isn’t just a few dozen people who are elected to serve as a governing body. It’s a system that has regional, city, and village divisions; it’s several thousand people, all of whom will be categorized as “terrorists” if the Mejlis is declared a “terrorist organization.” The [full-scale] war has interrupted these plans somewhat, but it hasn’t affected the work of the repression apparatus.
According to Polozov, the case against Dzhelyalov and the Akhtemov brothers was fabricated for one purpose: to intensify the pressure against Crimean Tatars, who have shown a lack of loyalty to the Kremlin since the start of the occupation. Meanwhile, the Kremlin began opening numerous cases related to another Islamic movement, which, unlike the Mejlis, has already been declared a “terrorist” organization: Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Russian authorities have sentenced dozens of Crimean Tatars to jail time on terrorism charges for allegedly being active members of the organization.
‘Terrorists’ and lawyers
No weapons, no explosives
Russia’s Supreme Court first banned Hizb ut-Tahrir back in 2003, putting it in the same category as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Moscow’s not alone in considering the organization a terrorist group; it’s also banned in Germany and multiple Arab countries. At the same time, Hizb ut-Tahrir rejects violence as an acceptable means of achieving its goals and has never taken part in even a single known terrorist attack anywhere in the world.
In Ukraine, Hizb ut-Tahrir remains legal, and members regularly held public events in Crimea until 2014, including conferences, seminars, and training sessions about religious and political topics. As a result, human rights advocate Afize Karimova told Meduza, it’s fairly easy for the Russian authorities to find Crimean residents with connections to the group. “Furthermore, we [human rights advocates] are certain that many intelligence officers who previously worked in Ukraine’s security forces switched over to the FSB after 2014, which caused Ukrainian Security Service materials to end up in the hands of Russian intelligence agencies.”
Of the 106 Crimea residents arrested since 2015 on charges of cooperating with Hizb ut-Tahrir, 104 have been Crimean Tatars. Not one of the defendants was in possession of any weapons or explosives.
The Russian-controlled Spiritual Directorate of Crimean Muslims has supported Moscow’s policy regarding Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its press secretary, Zera Emirusein, has called the pan-Islamist organization “a cancerous tumor on the body of the Crimean Tatar people,” and he has accused its participants of “destroying the national identity, language, and culture of the Crimean Tatars”:
In 2014, when the first arrests began, Mufti [Emirali Ablayev] asked the security forces to implement a moratorium [on prosecuting Hizb ut-Tahrir members]. They gave them two years, and during that time, the [pro-Russian] Muftiate conducted outreach work with adherents [of Hizb ut-Tahrir]; [they explained to them] that in Russia, the party had been declared a terrorist organization and that they could be jailed for it. Some people went to the mainland, to Ukraine, others went underground, and others continued their activities in the open. Naturally, arrests followed.
Human rights activists and lawyers divide the cases against Crimea residents for Hizb ut-Tahrir affiliation by region: law enforcement often arrest a group of residents in a certain part of Crimea and call them “a local terrorist cell.” In some cases, multiple groups have been “found” in the same area; in 2017–2018, for example, eight people were arrested for their alleged membership in the “second Bakhchysarai group” and given prison sentences between 13 and 19 years. The group included teachers, activists, and business owners.
The largest group of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members so far has been the “second Simferopol group.” The case against them has 29 defendants, four of whom are still being sought by the authorities; the other 25 have already been convicted. Because the group is so large, the case was divided into five subgroups. The first subgroup includes the alleged “organizers” of “terrorist activity”: journalist Remzi Bekirov, attorney Riza Izetov, construction workers Farkhod Bazarov and Shaban Umerov, and plumber Raim Ayvazov (who was charged only with “participation” in the organization).
All five defendants denied the charges and called the case politically motivated. Raim Ayvazov has claimed that in April 2019, as he tried to leave Crimea, FSB agents caught him and tortured him. The officers who arrested Aivazov haven’t commented on the allegations.
“The powers that be, hiding behind anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws, destroy all dissent. Our politically motivated case, just like the cases against hundreds of other Crimean Tatars and Crimean Muslims who have either been convicted or who are in prison awaiting sentencing, are prime examples of that,” said Remzi Bekirov in his closing statement in March 2022.
All of the defendants from the Remzi Bekirov’s subgroup were given between 15 and 19 years in prison. The last sentences in the case against the “second Simferopol group” were handed down in January 2023; all five of those defendants were given 13 years in prison each. One of them, 62-year-old Servet Gaziyev, had a stroke before her sentence and now requires constant medical care, which she hasn’t received in prison. Another defendant, a 60-year-old disabled man named Djemil Gafarov, died in prison on February 10, 2023.
Since the Russian authorities began prosecuting Crimean Tatars for alleged involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, only one person has been acquitted: journalist Ernes Ametov, a defendant from the “second Bakhchysarai group.” His case was subsequently returned to the courts, however, and the police arrested him again on the same charges in May 2022. Seven months later, Ametov was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
In 2021, the peninsula witnessed its first known case in which the attempted arrest of a Crimea resident on charges of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir turned deadly. Simferopol FSB agents broke into the home of Uzbek citizen Nabi Rakhimov. According to law enforcement, Rakhimov opened fire first, forcing the officers to use their weapons in self-defense. The lawyer representing Rakhimov’s wife, Sokhiba Burkhanova, later told journalists that during an interrogation, police tried to blame Rakhimov’s death on the couple’s 15-year-old child.
Rakhimov’s body hasn’t been returned to the family, and the officers who shot him are reportedly now fighting in the war. After Rakhimov’s death, Sokhiba Burkhanova was arrested for violating Russian immigration rules, and she’s currently being held in a deportation center in Krasnodar. Her children are living with family friends.
The most recent arrests of Crimean Tatars on Hizb ut-Tahrir-related charges came on January 24, 2023, in Crimea’s northern Dzhankoi district. The following day, six defendants appeared before a Simferopol court, which placed them in pretrial detention centers for two months, pending hearings. When more than 30 Crimean Tatars gathered outside the courthouse in a show of support, police officers arrested them, and a judge jailed everyone for 10 days on charges of “the mass simultaneous presence of citizens in public places resulting in a violation of public order.”
Streets with no men
The widespread persecution of Crimean Tatars that began after Russia annexed Crimea has affected women in distinct ways. In 2018, Anastasia Moiseyeva, a lawyer from the group CrimeaSOS, said the authorities’ targeting of women was on the rise, calling it a “new trend in Crimea.” In August of that year, for example, Crimean Tatar poet Aliya Kenzhalieva was charged with “rehabilitating Nazism” for poems that criticized the war in the Donbas. Several days later, she was released due to a lack of evidence.
A more common charge against Crimean Tatar women is “inciting hatred or enmity.” For example, the Russian authorities opened a case against a woman named Gulsum Aliyeva in 2018, flagging her Facebook posts about Crimean political prisoners. The case was dismissed in January 2019, but Aliyev has since been arrested multiple times on the same charges.
But many more Crimean Tatar women have suffered from the Russian repressions without being the target of criminal charges themselves. When Crimean men are arrested, they leave their families without fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons — and often, as a result, with no income. In parts of the peninsula with large Crimean Tatar populations, human rights advocate Afize Karimova told Meduza, there are entire streets with no men left.
Meduza spoke to several Crimean Tatar women whose husbands were convicted of alleged involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement about how their lives have changed. Their names have been changed for security reasons.
A woman named Emine recounted how her husband’s arrest negatively impacted her entire family’s health. She says her father-in-law was hospitalized in February 2023, though doctors have been unable to reach a definitive diagnosis. At the same time, her mother-in-law’s diabetes has gotten markedly worse in recent months, and traveling to Rostov-on-Don, where her son’s trial is taking place, is difficult for her.
“We wanted a child for a long time; we went from doctor to doctor,” Emine continued. “When our dream finally came true [and I got pregnant], FSB agents stormed into our home. The stress caused me to lose the baby. My husband didn’t know until we saw each other briefly in the remand prison.” Emine is currently awaiting her husband’s sentencing.
The husband of Dilyara, another woman who spoke to Meduza, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2021. Since then, she’s been raising four children on her own.
“When they arrested my husband, our youngest daughter wasn’t even a year old yet. Before that, I kept our house running and cared for our children, and my husband worked to support us. The rest of the time, he tried to help me out however he could. After his arrest, that arrangement was destroyed: [now I have] four children in my arms, a husband in prison to worry about, work, and elderly parents [both mine and my husband’s] to support,” said Dilyara.
At first, she says, the “constant pressure” kept her from falling into despair, but she was always exhausted, sometimes even falling asleep while driving. Before her husband’s arrest, the family spent a lot more money on their children’s education, but after she became the family’s sole breadwinner, she had to remove the kids from most of their after-school programs.
All of the women who spoke to Meduza said that Crimean Tatars have provided each other with moral, material, and legal support since the start of Russia’s occupation. The Crimean Solidarity movement, an organization of activists, lawyers, and family members working to assist political prisoners on the peninsula, has launched the Crimean Childhood project, where volunteers help Tatar children whose fathers are incarcerated by taking them on vacation and running clubs and art classes for them.
‘I didn’t wait to become cannon fodder’
Seidamet Mustafayev is a 49-year-old psychology professor and a Crimean Tatar activist from Simferopol. In 2014, he was fired from the university where he taught for expressing his pro-Ukrainian beliefs, but he nonetheless chose to remain in Crimea. Mustafayev told Meduza that he’s been threatened multiple times in the years since Russia annexed Crimea — “not just with criminal prosecution, but with physical violence.” Most of the threats, he said, have come from “bots on social media,” but not all of them. “There was one situation where some people drove up to me, opened the window [of their car, and] promised they would ‘take me out’ if I didn’t shut up,” he told Meduza.
After losing his job, Mustafayev created a Facebook page to connect with other Crimeans who opposed Russian occupation. Mustafeyev says he had no desire to leave the peninsula; like thousands of other Crimean Tatars, he’d already lived the first part of his life in exile in Uzbekistan, where the Soviet authorities deported his ancestors.
In 2022, however, he was forced to emigrate. In the summer, he and his 21-year-old nephew were summoned to a local military enlistment office for medical exams. They ignored the orders and remained in Simferopol. On September 21, however, when Vladimir Putin announced mobilization in Russia, Mustafayev and his nephew felt they had no choice but to flee. They left through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, ultimately reaching Germany.
“When I found out that I might be sent to serve as cannon fodder in a war against my native country, I didn’t wait around for a draft order. I got my nephew out, too. They definitely would have taken him — he fit all of their requirements,” Mustafayev told Meduza.
Mustafayev said that practically all of the Crimean Tatar men he knows have received draft orders since the start of mobilization. “They even tried to take 60-year-olds, but their lawyers managed to defend them,” he said, adding that most of the people he knows managed to “get out in time.” Several days after the start of the draft, leaving Crimea effectively became impossible due to police checkpoints on the roads.
The Russian authorities haven’t released official data about the number of people drafted from Crimea, but local activists told Meduza that Crimean Tatars received a disproportionate number of draft orders compared to other Crimeans.
Crimea’s Russian-backed authorities have vehemently denied these claims. On September 24, Crimean Military Commissar Evgeny Kutuzov said that reports of “only one nationality” being drafted were false and had been “planted by Ukraine.” Two days later, Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev reported that about 2,000 people in Crimea had been called up, and that they had served in the army “while still under Ukraine.”
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
According to calculations by CrimeaSOS, however, approximately 90 percent of the draft orders issued in Crimea went to Crimean Tatars. It’s unclear how many of those people were sent to the front. Meduza was unable to find other specific data about the number of draft orders sent to Crimean Tatars, and the Russian authorities haven’t commented on mobilization among the peninsula’s Crimean Tatar population.
But Permanent Ukrainian Presidential Representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva’s description of Russia’s mobilization process is consistent with the data provided by CrimeaSOS. She told Meduza that “hundreds” of draft orders were issued in areas with high concentrations of Crimean Tatar residents. “For the already small Crimean Tatar population, these kinds of steps by the occupiers could be disastrous. To avoid mobilization, people have gone into hiding or left Crimea for other countries,” she said.
‘Shells don’t choose their victims’
According to human rights advocate Afize Karimova, many Crimean Tatars view mobilization as a new stage of oppression by the Russian state. Lawyer Nikolai Polozov calls the draft a violation of Article 51 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which prohibits occupying powers from using the population of an occupied territory for military purposes during wartime:
This speaks to the systemic actions of the Russian authorities, and of the genocide against the Crimean Tatars who for nine years have refused to accept the occupation and who have remained loyal to Ukraine. The same pattern can be seen in Russia’s other regions — in the Far East and in Siberia, where it’s predominantly ethnic minorities who are being mobilized.
Mobilization in Crimea effectively ended in mid-October, and many Crimean Tatars have returned home, Tamila Tasheva told Meduza. She also noted that the total number of people who have left the region since 2014 isn’t especially high — according to her office. “Only a few thousand” moved away, she said.
“During the mobilization declared by Russia, the number of people who fled Crimea increased, but not for long. I’m certain that as soon as the danger of being drafted into the army passes, people will return. Crimean Tatars always return home — we don’t have another motherland outside of Crimea,” Tasheva said.
Activist Seidamet Mustafayev told Meduza that he won’t return to Crimea until it’s been liberated by Ukraine — something that many have begun to see as a possibility since Ukrainian forces retook control of the Kherson region.
Even Crimea’s occupation authorities have begun preparing for potential combat on the peninsula itself by conducting inspections of basements and bomb shelters. But the idea of Russian and Ukrainian troops fighting in Crimea makes many residents uneasy. Human rights advocate Afize Karimova told Meduza that she wants Ukraine to regain control of the region but stressed that “you should never be enthusiastic about war or see it as something inspiring.” “Combat on the peninsula will mean a great loss of human life. Shells don’t select their victims based on political or civic views; they don’t take into account how a person viewed the annexation of Crimea,” she said.
But at the same time, she said, real change won’t be possible until Crimea is liberated:
If you imagine [the repressions] continuing at roughly the same rate for several more years, then the most active segment of the Crimean Tatar people will be destroyed. People understand that the only thing capable of fundamentally changing the situation is political change on the peninsula. And despite the threats and the risks that war will bring, people are waiting for these changes.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or