Global Europe Brief: Russia’s crackdown on Crimean Tatars

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In this week’s edition: Ukraine’s independence and Crimea summit, Belarus border, and Kabul attacks.

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While the geopolitics of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is important, one should not turn a blind eye to the plight of the Crimean Tatar community, which has so far had little impact on international public opinion.

Five years ago, a dark song by Jamala, a Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar descent, about the 1944 mass deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia on Stalin’s order, won the Eurovision Song Contest, a usually rather jolly continent-wide celebration.

However, it raised immediate objections from Russian officials, who claimed it to be a hidden attack on the Kremlin.

Jamala said her song had nothing to do with recent developments in Crimea, but for Crimean Tatars, the song has become a rallying cry.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a military invasion, pressing on to fulfil its century-long desire for access to the strategically important Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Many Crimean Tatars, a Muslim community indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula who accounted for nearly 15% of Crimea’s 2.3 million people, remain wary of Russia. Tatars vehemently opposed Moscow’s rule in a forced referendum widely considered a fig leaf for an illegal invasion that placed the peninsula’s future in Moscow’s hands.

As a result, they’re paying the price for their loyalty to Ukraine.

An estimated more than 30,000 Tatars have fled Crimea since then, while life disintegrated for the remaining 250,000-odd Tatars, with many of them having been denied work, their culture and language, and facing political representation.

Moscow started subjecting them and others who opposed annexation to discrimination and politically motivated prosecution on trumped-up charges of extremism, separatism or membership in banned organisations. Many Tatar activists and journalists were arrested, several disappeared.

“In the recent years, we were witnessing how more and more Crimean Solidarity activists have been victims such as persecution,” Maria Tomak from the Media Initiative For Human Rights told reporters in Kyiv.

Crimean Solidarity is a civic human rights initiative created in 2017 with the aim to support the families of Crimean Tatar activists and journalists, that have been victims of persecution.

Russia banned the Crimean Tatars’ main representative body, the Mejlis, and some religious groups deemed as Islamic terrorist organisations. But Moscow has strongly rejected accusations of discrimination against Crimean Tatars.

In 2017, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the closing down of the Mejlis was wrong and called on Russian authorises to allow them to continue to meet, but the ruling has been ignored. Many of their members have since then fled into self-imposed exile in mainland Ukraine. 

According to local human rights organisations, there are already more than a hundred political prisoners on the peninsula, some of them convicted to prison terms ranging from 12 to 18 years.

Only last week, Russian authorities detained five Crimean Tatars after their homes were searched in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Crimea region. About a dozen human rights organisations demanded that Russia release the detained Crimean Tatars, but to no effect.

“We are working upon the submissions for imposing the sanctions precisely for the violations of human rights in Crimea and ask those countries having the respective mechanisms not only to cover occupations of Crimea or illegal infrastructure projects but also related to human rights,” Tomak said, referring to the US, Canada and EU’s Magnitsky-style sanctions regimes.

The human rights abuses are “only the tip of the iceberg”, Alim Aliev, human rights activist and co-founder of the Crimea SOS initiative, told reporters.

“What we are witnessing is a new colonisation in Europe,” he said.

Crimea has also become one of the targets of Russia’s so-called passportisation, and seizures of property of more than $1 billion in real estate and other assets, activists say, including banks, research institutions, shipyards and other economic assets.

Another Russian decree entered into force in 2020, prohibiting people without Russian citizenship from owning land in all the territories of the peninsula that have access to the Black Sea.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government made efforts to demonstrate support for Crimea, whose officials and residents had long complained of neglect from Kyiv, even before the invasion.

A recent law, put forward by Zelenskiy, guarantees indigenous peoples such as the Crimean Tatars the right to education in their native language, protection of their historic heritage, the establishment of their own media outlets, and the creation of representative bodies to defend their interests.

“We understand that Russia is not going to talk about Crimea now, but I think that we’re obliged to create some kind of platform, where we join up with our international partners who support the territorial integrity of Ukraine where we can discuss mechanisms of de-occupation and reintegration”, Tomak said.

“And when the moment comes, with the pressure, Russia will be ready to talk, and we will have a very, very concrete way to reintegrate Crimea.”

However, the status quo in Crimea remains, seven years into the Russian occupation, followed by the deteriorating human rights situation, but no one has moved to stop the slow-motion cultural and ethnic elimination of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.

The international community, including the EU and NATO, has condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and refused to recognise it but this has had little practical effect so far.

In a bid to draw international attention to their fate, Ukraine recently set up the Crimean Platform, which held its first meeting in Kyiv in the past week, aiming to bundle efforts to bring Crimea back under Ukraine’s control and increase international pressure on Russia. 

The question is, will it be successful?

Putin has made clear that he views the annexation of Crimea as a non-negotiable fait accompli.

Top officials at the summit reiterated messages of support for Ukraine, but big shots Merkel and Macron were missing, and in fact, many Western Europeans were only represented by ambassadors.

→ More coverage from Kyiv here:


EU IN THE WORLD

KABUL ATTACKS | As Afghanistan descends further into chaos, with at least two blasts and gunfire rocking the Kabul airport area, EU interior ministers are set to meet next Tuesday for yet another emergency meeting on Afghanistan, but EU officials say that they are unlikely to agree on how many Afghan refugees the EU might accept.

At the same time, 76 mostly left-leaning EU lawmakers from nearly a dozen countries circulated a letter calling on the EU to immediately offer Afghans temporary protection, referring to the “Temporary Protection Directive.” Although the mechanism had never been used before, EU chief diplomat Joseph Borrell suggested it last week, which would allow the EU to offer instant protection to a specific refugee category, to be used.

In Germany, meanwhile, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is raising fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis in Germany as the country presses ahead with the evacuations of vulnerable Afghans and local staff. But according to academics and civil society, such fears are unwarranted.

At the G7 summit earlier this week, EU leaders urged US President Joe Biden to continue securing Kabul airport until operations to evacuate vulnerable Afghans are completed past the 31 August deadline, apparently without success.

BELARUS BORDER | The European Court of Human Rights told Poland and Latvia to provide aid and care for dozens of Afghan and Iraqi migrants stranded on the border with Belarus.

Lithuania said it would complete a 508-km fence along its border with Belarus by September 2022 to stop migrants, while Poland said it will also build a fence along its part of the border with Belarus and double the number of troops there.

DEFENCE CORNER

NEXT CRISIS | The fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the chaotic international evacuation effort shows that Europe needs to develop its own military capacity independent of the United States, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell argued once argued. For him, this must include a deployable joint military reaction force.

TWO PERCENT | In view of the developments in Afghanistan, CSU boss Markus Söder has called for a new German strategy for military operations. “The belief that you can only take part in international missions with training and medical service has proven to be a fallacy in terms of security policy,” Söder told Bild am Sonntag.

To be politically relevant and taken seriously to become, Germany must take part in robust operations. “For this we finally also need new weapon systems such as armed drones,” the CSU chairman said, adding that it is due to an SPD-led veto “that we are not yet able to use these weapon systems to protect our own soldiers “.

Söder also said he wants to increase spending on defence after the federal election: We will demand two per cent of the gross domestic product for the defence budget and the new deployment tactics in a coalition agreement.”

EURASIA DIGEST

‘GEOPOLITICAL WEAPON’? | Earlier this week in Kyiv, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an agreement to extend Russian gas transit through Ukraine, in an attempt to reassure Kyiv over the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the recent German-US agreement, which was interpreted by some in Eastern Europe as playing into Moscow’s hands.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, however, was unconvinced and called the ideas “far too general”. He is set to visit President Biden in the White House next week for the first time, with this issue to take likely centre-stage in the talks.

Biden remains reluctant to sanction German or European companies and risk a rift with Berlin and Brussels.

At the same time, the Nord Stream 2 offshore gas pipeline is not exempt from EU rules that require the owners of pipelines to be different from the suppliers of the gas that flows in them to ensure fair competition, a German court ruled this week.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s everyday business awakens from summer break.

  • TV debate between candidates to succeed German Chancellor Merkel
    | Sunday, 29 August 2021 | Berlin, Germany
  • Biden meets Ukrainian President Zelenskiy
    | Monday, 30 August 2021 | Washington DC, United States
  • EU interior ministers meet  on Afghanistan
    | Tuesday, 31 August 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • US expected to complete troop withdrawal
    | Tuesday, 31 August 2021 | Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Joint meeting of the European Parliament’s AFET and DEVE Committee plus Afghanistan delegation
    | Wednesday, 1 September 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • UK aircraft carrier strike group makes port calls
    | Wednesday, 1 September 2021 | Japan
  • Informal meeting of defence ministers
    | Wed-Thu, 1-2 September 2021 | Kranj, Slovenia
  • Bled Strategic Forum
    | Wed-Thu, 1-2 September 2021 | Lake Bled, Slovenia
  • Informal meeting of foreign ministers (Gymnich)
    | Wed-Thu, 2-3 September 2021 | Kranj, Slovenia

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