On March 21, 2014, three days after he signed the treaty that “legalized” the annexation of Crimea as a new subject of the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin officially annexed Crimea. The March 18 treaty was co-signed by the speaker of the Crimean Parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov; the chairperson of the Crimean Council of Ministers since February 26, Sergey Aksyonov; and Alexei Chaly, a Russian citizen and the new mayor of Sevastopol. Chaly’s “appointment” defied electoral procedures when he was simply declared as the “new” mayor by a large crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered in a rally at Naumov Square in Sevastopol on February 23 (https://glagol.in.ua/2014/02/23/20-tyisyach-zhiteley-sevastopolya-vyibrali-na-mitinge-novogo-mera-grazhdanina-rossii/#ixzz2uADvpUTg). Chaly is the founder, CEO and CTO of Tavrida Electric holding, which was registered in Sevastopol in 1990 (https://tavrida-ua.com/company/). The holding makes equipment for Russian nuclear submarines, RAO “UES,” Gazprom, secret military bases of the Russian government, and the National Bank of Ukraine. He also controls the Sevastopol television channel NTC. In 2011, Chaly received the “Faith and Faithfulness” award from the Kremlin for “propagating the glory of Russia” (Forbes Ukraine, No. 2 (36), February 2014).
While the signing of the March 18 treaty was rejoiced in Crimea with celebratory concerts among the pro-Russians, for Crimean Tatars, this was the realization of their worst fears. In fact, they defined this event as the “third” annexation of Crimea—the first being in 1783, when the peninsula was conquered by Imperial Russia, and the second being in 1944, where the entire Crimean Tatar population was tragically deported from its ancestral homeland (https://zn.ua/UKRAINE/krymskotatarskiy-narod-zayavil-o-svoem-prave-na-samoopredelenie-v-sostave-ukrainy-141204).
Crimean Tatars have been trying to prevent this third annexation. They boycotted the so-called referendum of March 16 on the status of Crimea (https://news.bigmir.net/ukraine/801272-16-marta-v-Krimy-bydet-ne-referendym-a-kloynada-i-cirk). Before the referendum, thousands of Crimean Tatars participated in “living chains” at the city entrances and protested for hours, holding signs that read: “Do not go to the referendum—Crimea is Ukraine” (https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2014/03/14/7018790/).
On March 12, Putin carried out a 30-minute phone conversation with Mustafa Cemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, which was facilitated by Mintimer Shaimiev, the former president of Tatarstan (https://tvrain.ru/articles/kto_vam_skazal_chto_nas_nado_zaschischat_mustafa_dzhemilev_o_besede_s_vladimirom_putinym-364892/). During their talk, Putin asked for Cemilev’s support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He promised the complete the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars in Crimea (https://vesti.ua/krym/43053-putin-poobewal-zavershit-reabilitaciju-tatar-v-krymu-posle-podpisanija-dogovora), and Putin also guaranteed that Crimea would have three official languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/03/18/7019399/).
Cemilev, in turn, told Putin that Crimean Tatars support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and that any separatist activities aimed at the annexation of Crimea by Russia is a gross violation of the 1994 Budapest Agreement (https://kavpolit.com/articles/rbk_pust_tolko_poprobujut_glava_krymskih_tatar_pog-1628/).
Consequently, Cemilev related to the Russian president his concerns about attacks against the Crimean Tatars due to their pro-Ukrainian stance as well as the possibility of ethnic cleansings on the peninsula, to which Putin firmly replied: “Let them just try!” (https://kavpolit.com/articles/rbk_pust_tolko_poprobujut_glava_krymskih_tatar_pog-1628/).
Regardless of Putin’s assurances, a day after this conversation, pro-Russian groups pulled down the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar letters from the façade of the Crimean Parliament building (https://www.0652.ua/news/497387; https://uainfo.org/yandex/295372-v-krymu-nachali-unichtozhat-vyveski-na-krymsko-tatarskom-yazyke-foto.html).
On March 14, the tortured, naked body of Crimean Tatar Reshat Ametov, wrapped with duct tape, was found in Belagorsk, eleven days after his disappearance. According to eyewitnesses, the 38-year-old Ametov was last seen on March 3, when he took part in a peaceful protest in front of the Council of Ministers building in Simferopol against the “invasion” of Russian troops to Crimea. A few hours after the rally, Ametov was approached by three men (two in uniform and one civilian) and after that nobody saw or heard from him again (https://www.ukrinform.ua/rus/news/ubitiy_v_krimu_reshat_ametov_v_den_ischeznoveniya_bil_na_mitinge_u_sovmina_1614321). Ametov left behind his wife and three children—the youngest is two and a half months old (https://qha.com.ua/iskenceyle-oldurulen-resat-ametov-topraga-verildi-131369tr). After the funeral, numerous Crimean Tatars posted the following as their status on Facebook: “Putin! You promised in a telephone conversation with our leader that the Crimean Tatars will be under the special protection of your soldiers. You said ‘Let them try!’ Now one of us is dead at the hands of torturous thugs. Do you have something to say about this? We have something to say about this: Go home and take your soldiers with you!”
On March 17, filmmaker Yaroslav Pilunsky and his cameraman Yuri Gruzinov (an ethnic Russian) vanished. Yaroslav is the son of Leonid Pilunsky, the head of the Qurultay-Rukh Crimean parliament faction, which includes eight deputies, seven of them being Crimean Tatars. Leonid Pilunsky is pro-Ukrainian and he openly boycotted the March 16 referendum. The day the two filmmakers disappeared, they were supposed to take boxes of food and some supplies to a Ukrainian military base near Simferopol. The next day, Yaroslav Pilunsky’s car was found wrecked and abandoned in an isolated area (https://crimea.comments.ua/news/2014/03/17/132657.html).
Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar homes in Bahkcesaray have been marked with crosses by unknown individuals (https://obozrevatel.com/politics/21579-dzhemilev-doma-v-kotoryih-prozhivayut-kryimskie-tataryi-metyat-krestami), and masked gunmen continued to intimidate Crimean Tatars by patrolling their neighborhoods (https://rus.azattyq.org/content/krym-tatary/25291779).
In a meeting with United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Shimanovich, on March 21, Refat Chubarov, the head of the Mejlis (the de-facto representative body of the Crimean Tatars), requested the presence of 250–300 international observers on an ongoing basis in all settlements of Crimea. He also called for the constant presence of a UN mission for Human Rights in Crimea (Author’s interview, March 21).
Many Crimean Tatars state that the discrimination they are currently enduring “is only the beginning.” They worry about their and their children’s future in Crimea. They affirm that they have no other homeland than Crimea—their ancestral homeland to which they were able to return only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of Ukraine. Their homeland is now occupied by a neighboring country as well as local masked “thugs” who feel their own sense of “entitlement” and “ownership” of Crimea, which is intensified by the fast-moving process of the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. These armed pro-Russian forces express open disdain for Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, and they label anyone who boycotted the March 16 referendum as “Banderavtsy”—that is, anti-Russian, Nazi collaborators, from whom they were assigned to “clean up” Crimea. Under the circumstances, Crimean Tatars see their future in obscurity (Author’s interviews, March 14–20). As Chubarov sums it up: “Crimean Tatars will never support Russia and we are collectively worried that under Russian rule we can be deported again” (https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/26024106.asp).