Concerns for Crimean Tatars increase


After boycotting the referendum, Crimean Tatars became open targets for the local militia and Russia as well, experts warn.

By Zeynep Cermen for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 31/03/14


Demonstrators hold a combination Ukrainian-Crimean-Tatar flag during a rally at Independence Square in Kiev on March 23rd. [AFP]

Russia's annexation of Crimea has once again placed the Tatar community in a precarious position that scholars and security analysts fear could result in assimilation, forced migration or worse.

Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union forcibly removed Tatars from Crimea in 1944. Decades later many were able to return, and today 300,000 Tatars live there, constituting 14 percent of the population and representing significant opposition to Russia's policies in the region.

"Unfortunately there is no good scenario for Crimean Tatars," Can Kasapoglu, a security analyst at Istanbul's Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) told SETimes. "The worst case would be the local militia forces turn the life of Tatars into hell. They would follow the intimidation policy through systematic acts of violence, which could result in serious losses."

Togrul Ismayil, an international relations scholar at TOBB University in Ankara, echoed Kasapoglu's assessment, saying that Russia has deployed people in the region and distributed weapons to them.

"In the streets you can see people walking with their guns. It is almost impossible to control these people from committing violent acts," he warned, adding that such militias have started to threaten Crimean Tatars. "Every day we hear of another incident."

A father of three, Reshat Ametov was found dead after being tortured in Simferopol on March 18th. His murder sparked fear among Crimean Tatars.

"Nobody knows what the future will be for those people. They are in a hostage position in their homeland," Ismayil said. "It is not clear whether Russia would provide them passports or whether the Tatars would accept Russian passports. On the other hand, they could be forced to leave the country once again."

In the 19th century, during the Ottoman Empire, Turkey received a mass exodus of Crimean Tatars. Fleeing from the tyranny of Russian rule following the Crimean War of the 1850s, they found refuge in Anatolia.

According to records of the 1944 deportation, Tatars were given only 30 minutes to leave their homes. Many died as they were moved to Siberia and Central Asia -- punishment from the Soviets who accused Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea. Many Tatars also migrated to Turkey.

Ismayil said the return period of Tatars to Crimea, which was completed in 1988, was also painful. Neither land nor homes were provided for them.

"They had to start everything from all over," he said.

Hakan Kirimli, a Crimean Tatar international relations professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, said the community's cultural identity was lost long ago due to the assimilation policies of the former Soviet Union.

"I don't even want to think about what could happen to them under the rule of [Russian President Vladimir Putin] Putin. That guy killed 500,000 people in Chechnya. He closed all the schools in Tatarstan to prevent locals from learning their original language," he said.

Kirimli added that the Russian move in Crimea does not have any legal basis.

"The Russian argument about the Crimean people wanted Russia to rule the country is not true. It is real demagogy," he said.

Crimean Tatars are the original inhabitants of the region, not Russians, he added.

"Russians currently living in Crimea settled in the country after 1944. Most of them are even not Crimean born. The real Crimean people do not want Russia," he said.

Kasapoglu said Turkey and Europe's hands are tied due to their energy dependency on Russia. However Kirimli pointed out that no country is dependent solely on Russia in supplying their energy demands.

"Russia is not the only country which possesses rich energy resources. Furthermore it does not distribute the gas for free," Kirimli said, adding that the international community should not fear Russia's energy dominance.

"There are always other options," he said.

Kasapoglu said imposing economic sanctions on Russia would also place a burden on European countries.

"When we analyse the trade volumes we can say that the biggest threats for Russia would be originated from Europe. But the coin has two faces," he said.

Analysts agree that military intervention to protect the Tatars is unlikely.

"This is the worst case ever that Turkey has been facing with in protecting the rights of Turkic people living outside the country," Kasapoglu said.

While the international community tries to find an effective solution, daily life in Crimea is getting worse each day.

Ismayil described the current situation in the region as tense. Power outages, and food and water shortages are affecting people's lives, he said.

"Everything that was supplied from Ukraine has been stopped," he said.

Without getting any outside help, the Crimean Tatars are trying to find their own way out of the crisis.

They will try to use their self-determination rights in their upcoming congress of the national parliament of Crimean Tatars next month, Ismayil said.

Ergun Sevimsoy, head of the Association of Crimean Turks, told SETimes that pressure from the international community may not affect Russia.

"They only took Russia out from G8, but Russia could still say that 'I will follow my own policy, you can do whatever you want,'" Sevimsoy said, adding that the Tatar national parliament in Crimea is likely to ask Russia to sign promises to the Tatar community before an international arbitrator such as the UN.

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"But we do not have any trust to Russia," he said. "It could cancel all its agreements after five years."

Cihan Kirimli, a Crimean Tatar, lives in Ankara, his family having migrated to Turkey from Crimea in the 19th century.

"Crimean Tatars have been giving a struggle for their existence for a long time," he said. "They are different than others. They are very peaceful people. They definitely do not want war but the situation is very tragic for the moment for them."

What steps should be taken to protect the rights of the Tatar community in Crimea? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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