Anna Gussarova, Director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies (CAISS)
In what was positioned as a goodwill gesture, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky set up a working group for Crimean Tatar’s affairs on May 18 in an attempt to address some grievances of the country’s ethnic minority. Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi madhhab (school of thought), who have deep roots on the peninsula. There are around 250,000 Tatar Muslims, comprising more than 12 percent of Crimea’s population.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, these Muslims have been culturally and ethnically subjugated. They have been denied work, their language, their newspapers and their very way of life in a bid to push them off the peninsula. After the annexation, Ukraine became the first country to recognize the Soviet Union’s 1944 deportation of the Tatars as genocide, a recognition granted by three other countries since then. However, Zelensky’s move to address Crimean Tatar grievances was largely viewed as a PR stunt to deflect attention from the fact that he was unable to get Russia to return Crimea.
The Importance of Reintegration
Crimean Tatars have been seeking autonomy for decades. Prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Muslim community has been trying to get their demands on the state’s agenda. The return of land, cultural and religious sites such as mosques and memorials and financial assistance are just some of the promises that local authorities have been slow to deliver on. The annexation has complicated their pursuit of self-governance, as Russia has made it clear that it has no intention of returning the peninsula back to Ukraine. As a result, Crimean Muslims believe that in order to keep their identity alive in the country, reintegration into Ukrainian society through cohesion is vital.
A Shared Democratic Vision
A pro-European and pro-democratic path is vital to Ukraine’s success and the Muslims of Crimea share this vision. In fact, Crimean Tatar community leaders openly supported the former and pro-European Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko during the last elections. He did not end up winning and now the Muslim community is working with Zelensky in a bid to advance their interests. The cooperation has paid off, as evident in the introduction of new state holidays for Muslims and, for the first time, a Muslim was appointed as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. These developments have been viewed as first steps in the long process of Crimean Tatar reintegration.
Disenfranchisement and Radicalism
While there isn’t enough research available on the radicalization of Crimean Tatars, their deep social and economic disenfranchisement is widely known. This has only been exacerbated by the Kremlin’s controversial approach to counterterrorism. For example, Russia banned the Crimean Tatar Majlis — their executive body — labelling it as an extremist organization and filed a criminal case against its leader. Moscow has also persecuted and arrested hundreds of Crimean Tatars for their participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir — a proscribed terrorist group in Russia, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan On their part, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and other European states have not designated it a terrorist group. In must be mentioned, however, that the group was close to be labeled a terrorist organization twice in the UK after it was discovered that some terrorists there had previously belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir and/or had been indoctrinated by its beliefs.
Political and Religious Persecution
Those convicted for participation in terrorist activity in Crimea are believed to be persecuted for political and religious reasons and, thus, unfairly sentenced to long prison sentences by Russia. Human rights organizations have stated that members of Hizb ut-Tahrir have been unlawfully targeted, pointing out that they have not committed any terrorist attacks. While the group seeks to restore the caliphate, it rejects violence as a means to achieve this. Also, according to the group’s press secretary, Fazyl Amzaev, the group does not want to establish a caliphate in Ukraine. In fact, Hizb ut-Tahrir has never worried Ukrainian authorities, as no member has ever been arrested, which has not been the case for far-right extremists in the country. In response to Russian aggression against Crimean Tatars, Ukrainian authorities have submitted legal cases against Russia to the International Court of Justice — accusing Moscow of crimes against humanity. This demonstrates Ukraine’s commitment to international law in the face of Russia’s repeated violations.
In conclusion, there needs to be a strong emphasis on creating inter-faith harmony. Slow progress in addressing the grievances of the Crimean Tatar community has led to an increased sense of vulnerability and anxiety in the Muslim community. Tensions between Muslims and Orthodox Christians have existed well before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, resulting in mutual distrust and, in some cases, clashes. Therefore, it is critical to build trust and bring local communities together to foster inter-faith harmony.
It is clear that promises of change and political slogans are not enough to preserve the status quo. Whether or not Zelensky’s promise to defend Crimean Tatar rights is genuine or just a PR move, has yet been determined. However, many hope that his promise will lead to the reintegration of Crimean Tatar’s into Ukrainian society — a painful yet important process which is crucial in strengthening the country’s democracy.
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