EU Renews Sanctions on Crimea but Overlooks Plight of Crimean Tatars

In April 2016, Crimea’s de facto authorities banned the Crimean Tatar Mejlis—the organ of political representation for Crimean Tatars on the peninsula—under the pretext of “extremism.” Increasingly, Crimean Tatars seem to be framed as “extremist” just for being themselves.

A historically nonviolent community, Crimean Tatars were the most visible and vociferous opponents of the region’s annexation by Russia. Since then, they have been a main target of repression by Crimea’s current authorities and the Russian regime.

Beatings, murders, kidnappings, and arbitrary internments of Crimean Tatars are continuing, and yet fail to be fully investigated by Crimean authorities. Ervin Ibragimov, a well-known Crimean Tatar activist and member of the Executive Committee of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, was recently abducted from his home in Crimea. Mumine Aliyeva, a Crimean Tatar, was recently murdered on the peninsula. Lilia Budzhurova, a well-known Crimean Tatar journalist, was warned in May 2016 by security services about her “extremist” comments: she had published on Facebook about the impact on Crimean Tatar children whose parents were arrested. Buzhurova was previously a prominent journalist with the ATR Crimean Tatar TV station, before it was closed by Crimean authorities and relocated to Kyiv.

Within Ukraine, and among Crimean Tatar leaders, there is concern that the international community is not doing enough to condemn this repression. A report by the Council of Europe in April 2016 concluded that repression was predominantly “targeted against individual opponents, whether they are Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, or others.” However, at that time, the Council argued there was no “collective repression policy against the Crimean Tatars as an ethnic group.”

The report concluded with the hypothetical point that banning the Mejlis would “indicate a new level of repression targeting the Crimean Tatar community as a whole.” However, the Mejlis was banned around the time that the report was released—and yet the Council of Europe has yet to act. By contrast, the European Parliament condemned the Mejlis ban as constituting a “systemic and targeted persecution of the Crimean Tatars.” Oliver Loode, a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, also described the Mejlis ban as an attack on “Crimean Tatar people as a whole.”

Ukraine was slow to recognize Crimean Tatars as an indigenous minority, but finally did so in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea. Russia still does not recognize the community as indigenous. Therefore, as suggested by the European Parliament, it could be useful if the international community recognized Crimean Tatars as an indigenous community within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, at least as a way to increase awareness about them internationally—though recognition of the group as indigenous would be unlikely to decrease its repression by Crimea’s current authorities.

A Russian report to the OSCE denies repression of Crimean Tatars. Rather, Russian authorities argue that they are improving the “legal rights and interests” of the community which, under Ukraine, were “ignored or grossly violated.” Since banning the Mejlis, Crimean authorities have proposed creating a National-Cultural Autonomy for Crimean Tatars. Such a status will not recognize the community as indigenous, but will divide Crimean Tatars between those who are and are not loyal to the regime. The National-Cultural Autonomy would allow the regime to control and co-opt the organizational capacity, and autonomy, of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, without giving them any real autonomy. It is also likely to be an instrument to show (and confuse) the West that Russia is being “supportive of Crimean Tatars,” when in fact it is doing just the reverse.

What, then, should the international community do?

First, it should continue to be firmly critical of Russia’s repression of Crimean Tatars. International actors should not be swayed by Russian discourse that the situation is not deteriorating, nor by Russia’s efforts to woo the West by creating a National-Cultural Autonomy. Rather, the voices of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, which are labeled as extremist when speaking out against the regime, should be heard, if not amplified.

Second, it is important for the West to address the issue of Crimean annexation and Crimean Tatar repression together. For example, when the EU extended sanctions on Crimea until 2017, there was no mention of the deteriorating human rights situation for Crimean Tatars, nor any mention of the Mejlis ban. This was a missed opportunity. (The EU is expected to formally renew its sanctions on Russia at its June 28-29 summit; sanctions on Crimea are a separate issue.)

Third, the international community should recognize Crimean Tatars as precisely that—Crimean Tatars. Too often, international media and policymakers refer to the community as simply Tatars, or as a Muslim minority within Crimea. This shorthand divorces Crimean Tatars from Crimea and their claims to the region. It elides Crimean Tatars with other Tatar communities elsewhere in Russia, such as the Volga Tatars, who are subject to different political and social contexts, as well as to varying degrees of repression from the Russian regime.

Finally, the international community, in particular the US and EU, should be steadfast in maintaining a coherent front in condemning and sanctioning Russia for annexing Crimea. Former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock recently claimed that “Ukraine is better off without Crimea.” This overlooks the immense impact that annexation has had on everyday Crimeans, in particular Crimean Tatars, whose lives, rights, and freedoms as Ukrainian citizens were improving before 2014.

Eleanor Knott, a UkraineAlert contributor, has just completed her PhD in political science on ethnic politics in pre-annexation Crimea at the London School of Economics. She tweets at @ellie_knott.

Image: People gather to commemorate the anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944, in Bakhchysarai district of Crimea, May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY