Since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, it has been clear that a conflict between Moscow and the Crimean Tatars was only a matter of time. Arguably, the Crimean Tatars, with an estimated population of only 250,000 (Ukrainian Census, 2001), cannot play an important role in the decision-making processes in Crimea. The prevalence of ethnic Russians, outnumbering Crimean Tatars by a factor of four or five, renders the Tatars a powerless minority on the peninsula.
From the minute Moscow took over Crimea, it has been clear that the Crimean Tatars will have to make concessions. However, few Crimean Tatars realized that the changes would impact them so soon. After barring the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Cemilev, from entering Russia (censor.net.ua, May 2), other bans against wider circles of Crimean Tatars followed. Several thousand followers of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which is banned in Russia, hastily left Crimea (vesti.ru, April 28). The party is not banned in Ukraine, but in Russia it was designated as an extremist organization and officially outlawed by a court decision (cisatc.org, November 13, 2008). Entire families of the movement’s members left Crimea, constituting a not insignificant portion of the general population of Crimean Tatars. It is also unlikely that any of the students from Crimea who are studying in the Middle East and Turkey will be able to return home (qha.com.ua, February 13).
The new situation will also have an impact on members of the Crimean Tatars’ jamaat in Syria, which has become one of the most combat-ready units of the Syrian insurgent group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and is also well known in Crimea, thanks to its emir, Abdul-Karim Krymsky (YouTube, May 13). The leadership and members of the Crimean Tatars’ representative body, the Majlis, which opposes the Russian occupation, have stayed outside of Crimea. Also, under pressure from Moscow, Crimean Tatars were coerced to not hold mass public events dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the deportation of their ethnic group to Central Asia in 1944 (mk.ru, May 17).
Moscow artificially divided the Majlis, which is the unofficial political organization of the Crimean Tatars (BBC News, June 17). Among the Crimean Tatars, a group supportive of Vladimir Putin has emerged and is prepared to push through ideas unpopular among the Majlis members (kirimtatar.com, June 3). The Russian authorities intend to stop making any further concessions to the Crimean Tatars and accustom them to the idea that they make up only a small fraction of the peninsula’s population. Another signal of the looming confrontation came when police took over a Crimean Tatar children’s school for the study of the Quran in the village of Kolchugino, situated in the western part of Simferopol district, 19 kilometers away from the city of Simferopol, where one of the largest Russian naval bases is located. The proximity of this Muslim center to the naval base may have been the reason for the police operation against the center. Reportedly, masked gunmen stormed and took over the building on the morning of June 24, when 13 children and two teachers were in the school. Muslims from nearby villages hurried to the school, but were kept from entering. The spokesman for the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea, Aider Ajimambetov, stated that the armed individuals were members of the Russian special forces’ Berkut unit, and that the Russian Center for Combatting Extremism was carrying out a search in the Muslim school (uainfo.org, June 24).
According to the school’s principal, the unknown individuals who stormed the premises without explanation or documentation were members of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Two buses full of servicemen drove onto the school’s backyard. Servicemen from one of the buses and from armored trucks stormed the building, while those in the other bus remained inside the vehicle (halidahamid.livejournal.com, June 24).
The mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea, Said Ismagilov, wrote on his Facebook page that several days prior to the raid on the school, the government launched a campaign against the Tatars and their leaders. “Various figures from Russia and local non-canonical Muslim organizations accused [Ukrainian] People’s Deputy Mustafa Cemilev, Crimea’s mufti Emirali Ablaev and the most authoritative religious and national organizations of Crimea of extremism” (facebook.com/said.ismagilov, June 24). The people who stormed into the school in Bulganak (Crimean Tatar name for the village of Kolchugino) took away its senior teacher, Aider Usmanov, and several computers. According to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea, the arrested teacher was interrogated by the FSB in Simferopol (arab.com.ua, June 24).
Thus, for the first time since Crimea’s “voluntary” accession into Russia in the spring of 2014, the Russian authorities have begun terrorizing the Islamic schools that functioned in this part of Ukraine on a lawful basis. According to Russian law, all these schools are illegal because they are not registered with the Russian Ministry of Justice. The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea notes that out of all 286 Islamic buildings in Crimea, 84 are newly built mosques, 48 are old mosques that survived and were returned to the Muslim community, and 146 are prayer houses that were bought by individuals or Muslim communities. Apart from that, two new mosques are being built on the peninsula and 6 madrasahs are functioning (news.allcrimea.net, July 29, 2008).
The future of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea is also unclear. Several Muslim centers exist in Russia, but it is unclear which one of them Crimean Tatars will choose to align themselves with. It is highly probable that they will prefer to stay independent from other centers.
Indeed, on the peninsula itself, there is also a multitude of other parties and organizations that sometimes oppose each other, such as the Spiritual Center of Muslims of Crimea, which is in opposition to the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea and is based on the principles of Sufism (dcmk.org, May 2012). This allows Russia to play these organizations against each other and prevent the Crimean Tatars from making unified statements against Moscow. Over time this could be used to great effectiveness to neutralize Crimean Tatar nationalism and their support for being part of Ukraine.