Kremlin Targets Crimean Muslims as Part of Crimea Crackdown

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 19

Since Russia occupied Crimea with its strategically important naval port and the Russian military base in Sevastopol this past February (UNIAN, February 27), life there has become increasingly dangerous for those who do not share the political views of the Russian leadership.

It was the Crimean Tatar community, not the half-million-strong population of ethnic Ukrainians living in Crimea, which became the first target of persecution by Russian officials after seizing control of the strategic peninsula (, December 27). The Ukrainian authorities also were wary of the Crimean Tatars previously and preferred to observe from a distance how the interests of the indigenous Crimean Tatars clashed with the interests of the ethnic Russians who were artificially settled in the area by the Soviet government to balance out the locals. It is possible that bad relations between the ethnic Ukrainians and the Crimean Tatars were the reason for the muted reaction of the large Ukrainian population in Crimea to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. The Ukrainians may have hoped that a Russian occupation would relieve their ongoing conflict with the Crimean Tatars (, O?tober 10, 2012).

In 2012, Mustafa Cemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars’ executive-representative body, the Milli Mejlis, said that both the Russian and Ukrainian security services were splitting the ranks of the Crimean Tatars (UNIAN, May 30, 2012). To counter the influence of the Mejlis, the Russians came up with something called the Milli Firka (National Party), which portrayed itself as a mature pro-Russian party (, accessed October 9).

However, the Crimean authorities are concerned not so much about the Milli Mejlis and other political forces as they are about people labeled radical Islamists by Moscow. Above all, it is the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation), which enjoyed strong support among locals on the peninsula prior to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Pro-Moscow analysts say that the support base of the organization could be up to 30,000–40,000, compared to about 3,000 supporters of Salafism (, January 17, 2011).

Habashi—the followers of Abdullah Al-Habashi—as well as Sufis, also cannot be disregarded. Estimates of the number of followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami are probably exaggerated and were based on the number of people who attended the party’s public demonstrations. The number of people attending protests cannot provide reliable estimates of the number of party members. The number of Salafis is also exaggerated, as the Russian authorities often conflate them with the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami. The group that really stands out is made up of militants fighting in Syria under the command of the Crimean Tatars’ emir, Abdul-Karim Krymsky (see EDM, May 22).

It is not surprising that the Russians attacked, first of all, those who could be associated with an Islamic movement on the peninsula. Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami were the first to sound the alarm and leave the peninsula for Ukraine proper (, April 28). Not all members of the Islamic organization could afford to relocate from Crimea to Ukraine proper, however, which complicates the Russians’ task of trying to pacify the Crimean Tatars.

The regional mufti in Crimea, who is under Russian control, decreed that Islamic literature banned and designated as extremist by Russian legislation should be outlawed on the peninsula (, August 5). The first list of banned Islamic literature consisted of 77 books, newspapers and booklets, which the Crimean Tatars were, under Ukrainian law, free to circulate prior to the Russian occupation.

Simultaneously, the Russian authorities decided to undercut the material base of the supporters of Mustafa Cemilev, who actively opposed the Russian occupation of the peninsula. They deprived the group of its office in central Simferopol. Even though the building did not officially belong to the Mejlis, it was nevertheless sealed and the property inside it confiscated (see EDM, September 23;, September 17).

At the same time, the Russian authorities decided to use a criminal case against Cemilev’s son Khaiser to neutralize the Milli Mejlis leader’s active opposition to the Russian occupation. Khaiser Cemilev has been accused of accidentally killing his bodyguard, a childhood friend (, May 29, 2013). The Russian authorities decided to transfer him from Crimea to Krasnodar region—a move that Mustafa Cemilev said was an attempt to put pressure on him (, September 29). Earlier, the Russian authorities offered him Russian citizenship in exchange for shutting down the criminal case against him and dropping false charges that he had been involved in the illegal arms trade (, July 17).

Along with pressure on Cemilev, there was a wave of arrests and searches by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Crimea. Speaking to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on October 1, Mustafa Cemilev said that during the first six months of Crimea’s occupation, 18 young people connected to him and the Milli Mejlis had disappeared (, October 2). He also said that in the previous two weeks, the Russian security services carried out over 40 searches of Crimean Tatar homes, schools and mosques.

It is easy to see that the Russian authorities are doing everything in their power to expel anti-Russian voters from Crimea as quickly as possible (, October 3). This prompted Cemilev to appeal to the Crimean Tatars not to leave the peninsula (, October 4). Of course, the Russians cannot simply deport the Crimean Tatars from the peninsula in the same way as Joseph Stalin did in May 1944, but the Russian government can force politically active individuals to leave and curb their influence by banning their reentry.

As of today, the only political opposition Russia has encountered in Crimea is that of the Crimean Tatar community. The opposition of the Islamic radicals, including the jihadists, has not manifested itself yet, so Russia is making substantial effort to contain a potential Islamic radical movement. It is likely, however, that the jihadists of the North Caucasus and of Crimea may eventually join forces in their struggle against Moscow.