Home | Global News | Future of Crimean Tartar Muslims hangs in the balance

Future of Crimean Tartar Muslims hangs in the balance

Sakeena Suliman – Cii News

The Crimean Tatars’ assembly voted on March 29 in favour of seeking “ethnic and territorial autonomy” for the indigenous minority on the Black Sea peninsula. The region is annexed from Kiev by Moscow.

The meeting was attended by the Head of the Republic of Tatarstan and the chair of the Russian Council of Muftis. Decisions as to whether the Tatars will accept Russian passports or whether the autonomy sought would be within the Russian or Ukrainian state have been deferred pending further discussion.

The Muslim minority of 300 000 make up less than 15 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million and has so far been overwhelmingly opposed to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

Following news of Crimea’s planned referendum on March 16, 2014, the Tatar population voiced concerns of renewed persecution and threats of deportation similar to that of 1944.

On March 18, it was announced that Crimean Tatars will be made to relinquish land they occupy and be given land elsewhere in Crimea. Crimea stated it needed the relinquished land for “social purposes”, since part of this land is occupied by the Crimean Tatars without legal documents of ownership.

The Soviet Union’s (and later Ukraine) inability to give back to the Tatars on their return the land they owned before their forced deportation, has given rise to this situation. As a consequence, Crimean Tatars settled in squatters, occupying land that was and is still not legally registered. Hundreds of Crimean Tatars have fled to the most western city of Lviv, Ukraine due to the Crimean crisis.

Cii Radio spoke to Professor Crimean Tatar, Idil Izmirli. Izmirli has a PHD and is a visiting scholar and adjunct faculty member at the George Mason University’s School for Conflict, Analysis and Resolution. She is also an expert on the Crimea, Ukraine and Russia issue.

“But Crimean Tartars are not just a little minority group that just appeared there. They are the indigenous people of Crimea and between the 1400s and 1783 they had the Crimean Monarch there, it’s almost like [the] Ottoman or Hungarian Empire. They had their own military, they had their own money, and they minted their own coins,” said Izmirli.

In 1783 Catherine II from Imperial Russia annexed Crimea, “and says Crimea [should exist] without Crimean Tartars. They did not want Crimean Tartars there because Crimean Tartars are religious Muslims. Sunni Muslims, Hanafi madhab”.

She forced them to migrate to other countries, but then the remaining in 1944 on May 18 Stalin deported the entire nation, because of Hitler’s invasion of Crimea.

“… Not some of them, the entire nation of Crimean Tartars to Central Asia. And during the train ride 46% of the population died. They couldn’t return to their homeland until the independence of Ukraine and since 1991, 300 000 returned so now they are a big part of the Crimean socio – political structure.”

They have their own governing organ, The Majlis. Izmirli said she fears (another) genocide of the Crimean Tatars could happen overnight. Crimean Tartars “vehemently” support Ukraine’s integration to Europe “and their biggest fear is annexation with Russia because the last two times they ended up with genocide. This is why they are scared of Russian annexation”.


Izmirli lives in Crimea as a Fulbright scholar conducting research. She has had the opportunity to interview pro Russian groups who have been training since 1991, during her stay.

“One problem I want to mention is the whole media focuses on the Russian soldiers. And that’s fine. There are 30 000 Russian supporters right now occupying Crimea,” since the independence of Ukraine, there are pro Russian forces in Crimea, “They have been training the youth in their special camps and I had the chance of seeing one as a researcher.”

Boys are trained in special camps from around the age of 12, explained Izmirli. Until 18, they are taught how to shoot, target practice and combat. “All these masked guys that you see in fatigues outfits they are these internal forces, they are these pro Russian groups. They are more dangerous to me as an expert opinion because Russian soldiers, they have to answer to Russia, they have to answer to Putin, so they are listening to his advice. But his internal forces, they are just committed to their commanders.”

The call for autonomy comes after the February 2014 Ukrainian Revolution which saw an outbreak of violent and clashes between Ukrainian protestors, law enforcement officers, and pro – Russian forces.

Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s signing of a treaty with Russia sparked civil unrest in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev earlier this year. As tensions rose, Yanukovych fled the country and has not returned ever since.

Russia refused to recognize the new interim government, and regarding the revolution a coup d’etat seized control of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine citing its need to protect its interests in the region. The newly appointed interim government of Ukraine ended up signing the association agreement with the European Union (EU) that Yanukovych ultimatey refused to sign before his ouster, considering its contingencies to be detrimental to Ukraine and its people.

The agreement – a measure designed during Yanukovych’s presidency – was set up to provide the country with funds needed to maintain its standard of living, conditional to several reforms in almost all aspects of Ukraine’s judiciary and political system, as well as in its financial and economic policies.

Being unable to fulfill several contractual agreements after the revolution and receiving external investments from the International Monetary Fund in order to do so, the interim government has also adopted further changes, conditional to Ukraine adopting reforms in almost all aspects of society.

Today, Ukraine remains unstable due to protests in its eastern region, a dispute with Russia regarding the accession of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation, as well as an amassing of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders, particularly those closer to Kiev.

“Putin always had expansionist ideas, that’s called the Putin Doctrine. In 2008, just like Hitler when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, he was saying it’s for the Deutschland, part of Southern Germany and they need to save their ethnic Germans from there, so Putin used the same scenario for 2008 South Ossetian War. And he went in there and said we need to save our ethnic Russians. Similarly he used the same reasons for Crimea,” explained Izmirli.

After Yanukovych was sworn in as president he extended the lease of the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2042 which was to expire in 2017. The fleet is a large operational-strategic sub-unit of the Russian Navy, operating in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea since the late 18th century.

Russia has begun preparations for terminating bilateral agreements with Ukraine related to this lease. In exchange for the fleets extended stay, Ukraine received a discount of $100 on each 1 000 cubic meters of natural gas imported from Russia. This was provided for by cutting export duties on the gas, money that would have gone into Russia’s state budget.

The fleet is headquartered in Sevastopol, a city with special status within Crimea, which became Russian territory upon its annexation – after 60 years as part of Ukraine. The Kremlin said earlier this month that as the base is no longer located in Ukraine, there were no legal grounds for the discount to be continued. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would seek a reimbursement of the $11 billion Russia lost while the discount was in place.

“This is ridiculous. Imagine another country having a port and a 30 000 military force in your back yard. This is very dangerous and Yanukovyh is to blame and he is the one who “invited” Putin soldiers in there anyway. The main aggressor here and from all points of view is Russia and the strange thing about this the referendum that everybody signed, Russia, Great Britain and the US, and they said in case there is the use of force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine would be secured.”

This “security” was promised in return of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal – Ukraine was the third largest arsenal holder in the world. The US and Great Britain have not lived up to the referendum when Russia attacked “as if Crimea is just collateral damage including the 300 000 Muslim people who are also seen as collateral damage to the Western forces”.

LISTEN to a Cii Radio Interview about the Crimean Tartar’s HERE


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