September and October saw a fresh wave of house searches, arrests and increasing oppression of regime critics on the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula. But last week (October 25), two Crimean Tatar political prisoners, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, were freed and extradited to Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brokered a deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for their release. Their emergency release was unexpected and became possible based on a signed protocol between Turkey and Russia (see EDM, October 30).
During their first press conference, at the Ukrainian embassy in Ankara, the two activists stated that, on October 25, they were taken from Simferopol in different cars and the two did not see each other until they boarded a plane bound for the Russian city of Anapa. From there, they were flown to the Turkish capital. Chiygoz stated that when two Federal Security Service (FSB) agents picked him up from Simferopol’s pre-trial detention center without any explanation, he initially thought he was being sent to Siberia. Umerov, 60, was brought to the plane from a hospital, where he was being treated since October 20, due to his deteriorating health (112 Ukraine via YouTube, October 26).
Over the past month, Erdoğan met with both Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin. Poroshenko said that he had asked Erdoğan for help with releasing Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2017 (Qiriminsesi.com, October 26). According to Chiygoz and Umerov’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, a great deal of legal, diplomatic, and political negotiations took place for their release, which was finally accomplished by Turkey’s President Erdoğan. Confirming this, Poroshenko himself announced on his Facebook page that Erdoğan played a key role in the release by negotiating a deal with the Kremlin leader (Novaya Gazeta, October 25).
Both Crimean Tatar activists were prisoner of conscience. Chiygoz is the deputy chair of the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatars. He was detained in January 2015 for allegedly organizing a February 26, 2014, mass rally of thousands of Crimean Tatars in front of the Crimean parliament, in Simferopol, to prevent the (Moscow-orchestrated) extraordinary session that was about to decide Crimea’s future. It is true that Chiygoz was there in the crowd, but he certainly was not the organizer of the rally (see EDM, March 1, 2014).
That protest was led by Refat Chubarov, the chairperson of the Mejlis. He is still the chairperson in mainland Ukraine. In Crimea, however, the Mejlis was declared an extremist organization by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea; and on April 26, 2016, it was banned across the entire territory of the Russian Federation, including in occupied Crimea (see EDM, May 4, 2016). Since Chubarov was declared persona non-grata in Crimea, he had to leave for mainland Ukraine. Chiygoz on the other hand, still lived in Crimea and became the Russian court’s scapegoat.
On September 11, 2017, Chiygoz was sentenced to eight years in a colony prison settlement for his so-called role in the February 26 protests, in accordance with part 1, article 212 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. His arrest and detainment were politically motivated. After three years in jail (at a Simferopol pre-trial detention center widely known for its deplorable conditions and mistreatment of inmates) and 150 Kafkaesque trials (some of which he was only allowed to attend via videoconference), he was sentenced for an alleged crime he did not commit and that occurred while Crimea was still under Ukrainian jurisdiction (Sprotyv.info, October 26). Chiygoz’s mother passed away while he remained in jail, and he was not allowed to attend her funeral (Avdet.org, October 27).
Ilmi Umerov is the first deputy chairman of the Mejlis. In an interview for ATR television, in March 2015, Umerov stated that sanctions should be intensified against the Russian Federation to pressure Moscow to de-occupy Crimea and Donbas voluntarily (Avdet.org, October 27). On September 27, 2017, the Simferopol District Court found him guilty of promoting separatism, stating that Umerov’s words violated the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Under article 280.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, the Russian court sentenced him to two years in a colony prison settlement (effectively a death sentence for someone with such poor health) and a two-year ban on any public activities because of his political opinions (Qha.com.ua, October 26). Earlier, in August 2017, the court demanded that Umerov needed a psychiatric evaluation and forcefully confined him to a mental institution, where he was kept for three weeks (Qha.com.ua, September 21).
While in Ankara, Umerov and Chiygoz met with Erdoğan. And on October 27, they flew to Kyiv and met with Poroshenko. The Ukrainian president awarded Umerov with the Order of Merit (second degree) and Chiygoz with the Order of Merit (third degree) for their courage, indestructibility of the human spirit, and the ideals of constitutional human rights in defense of the state of Ukraine (Avdet.org, October 27).
Over the past year or so, Putin and Erdoğan have been normalizing relations between their countries, which hit a critical point when Turkish forces downed a Russian jet, in November 2015, that had strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria. According to Putin’s press secretary, Dimitry Peskov, Russia and Turkey enjoy close bilateral “trade-economic, military-technical, and cultural cooperation.” Moreover, they are about to implement two large-scale projects—the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline along the bottom of the Black Sea and the first Turkish nuclear power plant, in Akkuyu. During their September 28 bilateral summit, Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement on the supply of Russian S-400 anti-air missile systems to Turkey—despite the latter being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ankara has reportedly already paid out the first installment for the S-400. According to Turkish officials, delivery of the system will begin within two years (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 28).
As the release of the two Crimean Tatar prisoners last month highlights, Erdoğan—who met with Putin five times and held ten phone conversations in 2017—is a key player in regional security, including in Syria. Crimean Tatars all over the world rejoiced collectively at the release of their two jailed leaders. But the Turkish-Russian rapprochement that allowed Umerov and Chiygoz’s emancipation to occur is posing a real challenge to the unity of the broader Euro-Atlantic community.