Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has put the Crimean Tatar community in a very difficult situation, presenting it with a number of critical choices.  Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar community and human rights activist, argued that the future of the community is in Ukraine, and that Crimean Tatars will not accept a separate solution to their problems.

March 16 Referendum

The Crimean Tatar community challenges the results and the legality of the March 16 referendum.  

  • Turnout: Though official figures claim that over 80 percent of Crimeans voted, Dzhemilev maintained that the turnout was seriously exaggerated. He claimed that according to the FSB’s own estimate it was closer to 32 percent.  Crimean Tatars support the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, and many participated in the Maidan protests.  The overwhelming majority of the community boycotted the referendum in Crimea.
  • Inter-Ethnic Tensions: The ethnic make-up of Crimea, with 58 percent Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians (many of them Russified), and 14 percent Crimean Tatars, is the result of years of mass, often forced, migrations of Crimean Tatars from, and ethnic Russians and Ukrainians to, the peninsula. The desire of ethnic Russians in Crimea to rejoin Russia is understandable, but, Dzhemilev asked rhetorically, why they insist on taking the ethnic Crimean Tatar homeland with them?

Accepting Russian Citizenship: A Forced Choice?

  • Russian Citizenship: April 18 will be a major turning point for all residents of Crimea. On that date, all residents of the peninsula will automatically become citizens of Russia, unless they explicitly reject Russian citizenship and submit a personal statement expressing their desire to remain citizens of Ukraine.
  • Keeping Ukrainian Citizenship: Those who decide to keep their Ukrainian citizenship will not be able to hold government positions or state jobs, nor will they be able to vote or receive state pensions. “We will lose all of our civil rights, and be considered foreigners in our own land,” Dzhemilev said. They will, however, be bound by Russian laws, including the criminal code which treats any discussion of territorial autonomy to be an act of separatism punishable by five years in jail.

Possible Violence in Crimea

  • Flashpoints: Having personally survived Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Soviet prisons as punishment for his human rights advocacy, Dzhemilev said that he is not concerned about his personal safety, but that he fears the possibility of violent clashes in Crimea. The tensions in Crimea are likely to escalate, possibly as a result of deliberate provocations by Russian nationalist or criminal groups, leading to clashes and heavy-handed Russian reprisals against the Crimean Tatar community, he said.  
  • Tatar Outmigration: Some 5,000 Crimean Tatars have already left Crimea and are now in western Ukraine where they have been well received.  However, if the situation in Crimea deteriorates and more Tatars leave the peninsula for western Ukraine, he worried that local resources will be exhausted and international assistance will be needed.
  • Threats of Radicalization: The leaders of the Crimean Tatar community adamantly oppose any violent resistance but they may not be able to control younger Tatars and Islamist factions who don’t recognize the authority of the Mejlis, the highest representative body of the Crimean Tatar community, Dzhemilev said.
  • Interaction with Government Bodies: The Mejlis continues to function, Dzhemilev added, although there have been divisions over the appropriate level of cooperation with the pro-Russian government in Crimea. They have decided to appoint temporary representatives to the positions of deputy prime minister and head of the Committee on Ethnic Minorities, after Russia promised to include figures from the Crimean Tatar community in the new government of Crimea.  Dzhemilev expressed concern that Crimean Tatar pragmatism in the face of an impossible choice is being perceived by some in Kyiv as collaboration.

Institutions Under Threat

  • Pressure Tactics: Ukrainian and Tatar-language media and schools in Crimea are already under pressure from local Russian self-defense forces and the Crimean government, Dzhemilev said. It is unlikely that the new government will commit to maintaining the 14 Ukrainian and 7 Crimean Tatar language schools currently operating on the peninsula.
  • Media: One of the two trilingual (Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar) TV channels broadcasting on the peninsula has already been shut down, Dzhemilev added. The other is currently being physically guarded by a group of 40 men against forceful entry by Russian self-defense forces.  Dzhemilev expressed hope that the station can soon be relocated outside of Crimea with a strong enough signal to broadcast onto the peninsula.

Western Response to an Unpredictable Putin

  • Sanctions: Dzhemilev maintained that the West had a responsibility to assist Ukraine. He called for severe sanctions against Russia, including targeted sanctions aimed at the gas and oil sector. Realizing that it will be costly for the West, he predicted that if severe sanctions are not imposed now, “later we will spend a hundred times more money” trying to curb Russian expansionism.
  • Putin’s Next Move: Though Putin may not be planning to invade Ukraine beyond Crimea, Russian forces may attempt to occupy gas and water distribution facilities in the Kherson region, on which the Crimean peninsula is heavily dependent, stated Dzhemilev. The Russian troops massed at the border with Ukraine will likely be used as a bargaining chip to pressure the West to accept the legitimacy of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. This would set a disturbing precedent of allowing powerful states to occupy their weaker neighbors without paying a price. “Pretty soon,” Dzhemilev warned, “we’ll see Russian troops in Brussels.”

Mustafa Dzhemilev

Mustafa Dzhemilev is a Crimean Tatar, former Soviet-dissident, and politician who has been a member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine since 1998 and has been a longstanding leader in the Crimean Tatar National Movement since its foundation. From 1991 to 2013, he was the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean People. In 1998, Dzhemilev received the Nasen Medal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for his advocacy for the right of return for Crimean Tatars.

Andrew S. Weiss

Andrew S. Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia. Prior to joining Carnegie, he was director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Russia and Eurasia. Weiss previously served as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton.