In sharp contrast to his handling of Western leaders in the course of the Ukrainian crisis, Vladimir Putin and the Russian occupation authorities in Crimea have consistently underestimated the Crimean Tatars and their irreplaceable leader, Mustafa Cemilev. Putin thought he could buy off the Crimean Tatars by offering them an autonomous republic if they supported his annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, but the Crimean Tatars generally, and Mustafa Cemilev personally, made clear that they are Ukrainian citizens, see their future in Ukraine, and would not participate in the referendum charade that Moscow organized.
The Russian occupation authorities then thought they could decapitate the Crimean Tatars by banning Mustafa Cemilev from returning to his homeland, only to see some 5,000 Crimean Tatars break through the illegal Russian border posts to meet with him, to see him win support for his much-persecuted people at the United Nations and especially from Turkey, and to watch the Crimean Tatars gain the sympathy of public opinion in the West as the public face of resistance to Moscow’s aggression.
And then, Moscow and the Crimean authorities decided that they could crush the Crimean Tatars by refusing to recognize their land holdings, cutting off the limited supplies of water to Crimean Tatar areas in order to weaken them economically, charging their leaders with extremism, and threatening to suppress the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, that nation’s de facto quasi-governing assembly. But instead, these actions only pushed the Crimean Tatars to unite even more firmly behind Cemilev and their leader to declare that the Mejlis is ready to go underground if need to be to continue the struggle his people have been engaged in since they were deported by Joseph Stalin in 1944. The 70th anniversary of this tragedy will be marked less than two weeks from now, on May 18 (15minut.org/article/dzhemilev-ne-iskljuchaet-chto-medzhlis-mozhet-ujti-v-podpole-2014-05-05-13-02-00).
It is entirely possible that Putin and his Russian proxies in Crimea hope that driving the Crimean Tatars underground, tarring them with “Islamist” denunciations, and organizing provocations will give the Russian security services a free hand to crush the Crimean Tatars once and for all. But again, the Kremlin and the local Crimean authorities are underestimating the Crimean Tatars, their resilience and the support that this nationality has abroad (echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1313408-echo/).
The Crimean Tatars have been fighting for their rights for 70 years. And unlike some embattled nations, the Crimean Tatars have an important ally in Turkey, to which they are closely linked linguistically and culturally. As some in Moscow have already noted, the last thing Russia needs right now is to antagonize the Turks—and a sweeping crackdown on the Crimean Tatars would certainly lead to that (echo.msk.ru/blog/aiderm/1313194-echo/)
Despite Moscow’s hopes and expectations, the Crimean Tatars and Cemilev show absolutely no signs of backing down. Aleksandr Formanchuk, a political analyst on that Ukrainian peninsula, says that Cemilev has effectively “declared war on Putin” and that everything Putin and his regime have done in response has worked to the advantage of the Crimean Tatars and their leader. Indeed, Putin’s policies may boost Cemilev’s chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize (ru.krymr.com/content/article/25373969.html).
Denying Cemilev entry to Russian-controlled Crimea (see EDM, April 28), in fact, has allowed the Crimean Tatar leader to demonstrate his continuing influence there. And his longstanding struggle for “national self-determination” has now gained energy because he and his people are “fighting against Russian aggressors,” Formanchuk says.
What is likely to happen next? Clearly, the Russian occupation forces are looking for anything they can use to blacken the reputations of the Crimean Tatars and Cemilev personally, and they are prepared to stage provocations on the May 18 anniversary. Indeed, Cemilev has already warned his people and the world that such provocations are coming.
Those are likely to take three forms. First, Moscow will seek, as it has in the past, to paint the Crimean Tatars as Islamist radicals in order to deprive them of support from the West. But however hard Russia tries, this charge will not stick: the Crimean Tatars and their national hero Ismail bey Gasprinski have been the leading promoters of moderate and modernized Islam.
Second, the Russian authorities in Crimea will attempt to trigger new conflicts over land, sending Russian “settlers” to claim territories that belong to the Crimean Tatars. But Moscow’s ability to play this card is limited: if it turns Crimea into a Palestine, as some have suggested it is already doing (polit.ru/article/2014/05/05/ukraine/), the Russian authorities will never be able to attract investment there, and the cost to Moscow of integrating Crimea into the rest of the Russian Federation will rise.
And third—and this is the most likely—the local authorities may move to arrest Crimean Tatar leaders still in the peninsula. However, many of them have been in Russian prisons before, and Cemilev, whom they have exiled, will continue to speak out abroad and attract support from Turkey and the West.
In short, Moscow will continue to underestimate the Crimean Tatars, and it will pay a high price for that.