On September 14, 2014, Crimea held its first post-annexation local elections. Since after the takeover, all the political posts of the Crimean parliament were filled with self-appointed actors. For pro-Russia groups, these so-called democratic elections to the local legislatures of Crimea and Sevastopol as well as regional municipalities was a “legitimizer” of the occupation of Crimean territory. And in their eyes, the vote reinforced Crimea’s position as firmly within the legal system of the Russian Federation.
For Crimean Tatars on the other hand, these elections were another turning point that could speed up the process of increased security threats they have been facing on a daily basis. Especially within the last few months, political pressures on Crimean Tatars were increasing, with nightly raids on the minority community’s homes, businesses, schools and mosques (krymr.com, September 19). Crimean Tatars also acknowledged that these elections could represent the beginning of the end of their nationality’s representative body, the Mejlis, which was started in Simferopol in 1991. In fact, on September 12, two days before the elections, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov stated that, in Crimea, no quasi-ethnic parliament—whether it is Tatar, Russian or Ukrainian—was going to be allowed. Such organizations only create non-unity and grounds for division in society, he claimed (krymr.com, September 12).
Against this political backdrop, the vast majority of Crimean Tatars, who support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, ended up not participating in these Moscow-mandated local elections. In Bakhchisarai (located roughly half way between Sevastopol and the Crimean capital of Simferopol), local women’s organizations organized a non-violent protest—the “chibureki instead of elections” initiative—and held flash mobs at kindergartens where they fried traditional Crimean Tatar meat pies known as “chibureki” and shared them with the visitors. In some other schools, Crimean Tatar teachers held parent-teacher conferences and discussed native-language education issues while their husbands prepared large pots of pilov (a traditional rice pilaf dish) that was shared by everybody after the conferences (krymr.com, September 14).
Since the election had no competing parties, there was no big turnout (almost 50 percent of Crimean residents did not participate). The low voter turnout apparently panicked Prime Minister Aksyonov, and he lashed out against the pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars, who boycotted first the referendum on Crimea’s independence in March, and now the local elections.
On September 16, immediately after the vote results were released, twenty members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), along with police and armed military officers, raided the Mejlis building and conducted a 12-hour search of its premises. The Mejlis is located in a two-story building, which houses the offices of the Crimean Tatar–language Avdet newspaper and the “Crimean Fund for Charity” on the first floor and the official Mejlis offices on the second floor. The Mejlis office suite includes the offices of Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Cemilev and Refat Chubarov, both of whom received five-year entry bans to Crimea from the occupying regime. During their search, the authorities blocked Mejlis members from entering or exiting the building and confiscated their laptops, computers, back-up discs and documents/paperwork. They also broke into Cemilev’s personal safe in his cabinet and took all his belongings, including money (Hurriyet, September 17).
While they were leaving, they gave the head of the Crimean Charity Fund, Riza Shevkiev, a 24- hour eviction notice, and stated that if he did not comply, they would impose a 50,000-ruble ($1,295) penalty on him (krymr.com, September 18). Similarly, Shevket Kaybullaev, the chief editor of the Avdet newspaper, was summoned to the local FSB office in Crimea, where he was presented with an official document blaming him of spreading “subliminal” messages and hidden calls through his newspaper for its readers to boycott the September 14 elections. They reminded him that “extremist” newspaper articles written with the intention of preventing the legitimate activities of state authorities constitute “a crime, according to Article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,” which is punishable with court hearings and prison sentences (15minut.org, September 17).
Also on the night of September 16, the house of Eskender Bariev, another member of the Mejlis was raided by the FSB and local police while his two young toddlers slept in the other room. After this illegal search, the authorities took his laptop, certain documents, and some of his books. The same night, a similar search was conducted at the home of Mustafa Asaba, the head of the regional Mejlis branch in Belagorsk district. The following day, law enforcement carried out another series of raids across the peninsula, including a mosque in the Fontani distict of Simferopol, where Crimean Tatars live in compact settlements, a Crimean elementary school in the village of Zuya, and homes of Crimean Tatars in the village of Kol’chugino (krymr.com, September 17). According to witnesses, police even checked out the greenhouses where Crimean Tatars grow their yearly supply of vegetables for their own consumption or to sell in farmers’ markets. In one case, a woman was questioned for two hours when the police found some hryvna inside the pages of one of her books. Moscow has already forced Crimea off of the Ukrainian currency and introduced the Russian ruble. After this particular search, the young woman had a heart attack (krymr.com, September 17).
While Crimean Tatars called these intrusions acts of intimidation, Crimean governmental structures state that they have “no problems” with the Crimean Tatars, and underlined that these searches were justified (krymr.com, September 19). Nevertheless, the doors to the Mejlis remain sealed since September 16.
As Sergei Danylov, the interim director of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Kyiv, stated on September 22, as of today “a Crimean Tatar Mejlis cannot function in annexed Crimea” (krymr.com, September 22). Thus, the Mejlis, which was formed in 1991, shortly after the independence of Ukraine, has apparently been terminated just six months after the occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.