In 1944, the Soviet regime deported over 190,000 Crimean Tatars from their homes – an act of ethnic cleansing. Today, Kyiv calls Russia’s actions against Ukraine a genocide. What are the historical parallels?
When we speak about Crimea, it is essential that we know the history of its indigenous population: Crimean Tatars, Qarays [also known as Karaims and Crimean Karaites], and Krymchaks. It kills the myth about Crimea being a “traditional Russian land” – a narrative that Russia has been selling for centuries and a historical myth that Ukraine tries to dispel today. The Crimean Tatar history is that of statehood – the Crimean Khanate. Being Muslim themselves, Crimean Khans used to build churches, which was very tolerant of them in the 15th century.
When Russia annexed Crimea for the first time in 1783, Catherine II immediately began oppressions against those Crimean Tatars who refused to bow to her. It was a policy to shape a new geopolitical project – the Province of Tauria or the Taurida Governorate of the Russian Empire that would no longer be Crimean Tatar. Within 100 years following the first annexation, one-third of the indigenous population had left the peninsula. These were hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars who had to abandon the peninsula and leave for Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye. This is why we have millions of ethnic Crimean Tatars living in Türkiye today.
The second stage of this genocide happened in 1944. We have to keep in mind that during the Khanate era, Crimean Tatars made up 95% of the Crimean population.
Then, in 1944, Stalin used the false pretence of Crimean Tatars’ collaboration with Nazi Germany as a justification for his own crime. Upon his decision, a two-day “secret operation” – deportation of the Crimean Tatars – began on 18 May. Every single Crimean Tatar – women, children, seniors – was exiled. They were put in cattle wagons and driven for over 20 days without food or water, with dead bodies just being thrown out along the way. In only a couple of years, every second Crimean Tatar died, either during the deportation or in exile because of diseases and inhumane living conditions.
As a result of that tragedy, Crimean Tatars became a minority. For decades, it was not allowed to speak about the Crimean Tatars. We were “a banned nation.” We were branded as “collaborators” and denied education. We could not escape from the places of exile until the death of Stalin. And even after that, the best we could do was to travel to Crimea as tourists. We were not allowed to live there.
When the Soviet Union had collapsed, Crimean Tatars started to return to their homeland. It was difficult because our old houses had already been occupied by resettled Russians. The practice is the same today as it used to be – that is, changing the demographics and transfer of population, which is a war crime. But Crimean Tatars did not fight for their rights at the time – it was a very wise decision by the leadership not to step on the rights of other people, not to force them out of their houses. They were striving to have land plots allocated, which Ukraine was not able to solve in due time. Although that process of repatriation was difficult, we never had any terrorist attacks. Everything went smoothly, day by day, step by step, and Crimean Tatars were recovering.
Russia’s atrocities did not begin in 2022 but in 2014. Since the annexation of Crimea, Moscow arrested many Crimean Tatars on trumped-up “terrorism” and “extremism” charges. With the global focus now on the fate of Ukrainian POWs, what has Kyiv been doing so that the world remembers these political prisoners of the Kremlin?
In 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea, we had absolutely the same feeling: repressive Russia is again here to destroy us. Although it is not about the numbers, the number of political prisoners reveals the tendencies and the same repressive practices. The majority of political prisoners are Crimean Tatars. They have been imprisoned for nothing and labelled “religious extremists,” “Muslim extremists,” and “terrorists.” Yet, as I just said, we had not had a single case of terrorism before 2014, and immediately after the Russian occupation, we started living in this distorted reality of “Muslim extremism.”
For instance, Nariman Dzhelyal, the first deputy head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, was put in prison for his participation in the inaugural summit of the Crimean Platform [in Ukraine]. In 2016, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled to ban the self-governing bodies of the Crimean Tatar people, such as Mejlis, as “terrorist organisations.” Performing Crimean Tatar identity – as well as performing Ukrainian identity – in occupied Crimea is a matter of great risk. This is the reality.
Domestically, the most important thing that happened in Ukraine is the Crimean Platform. There was an obvious need to bring the issue of Crimea back to the international agenda. We have to learn the Crimea lesson. It teaches us that when aggression is not stopped, it grows. After Putin invaded Crimea, neither Ukraine nor the rest of the world was able to push back and stop this evil. The world has chosen the language of appeasement instead. The same happened with Hitler: the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Anschluss of Austria, and the Munich Agreement in 1938.
A year later, World War II broke out. The same parallels can be drawn here – with Crimea, Donbas, and “Putler” (excuse my domestic slang).
Since 2014, we have seen many Western leaders choosing the language of appeasement. We all have been looking for the proper language to speak with Putin and for the proper leaders to whom he would listen. But that was a failed strategy. At the end of the day, Putin chose to commit yet another act of aggression on 24 February. Russia has been committing thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity: barbaric torturing, killing both Ukrainian civilians and troops, decapitating soldiers, and executing them for nothing other than saying “Slava Ukraini!” This is our reality today.
Aggression must be stopped. This is what the Crimean Platform is about. It started with a piece of paper; I remember how I put it into words. It was a dream of mine. Today it is a unique coordination platform that unites more than 60 countries and international organisations. We are united over one thing – that is, the sacredness of international relations, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and cannot be traded for the benefit of the aggressor.
Emine Dzhaparova has been the First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine since 2020. She is responsible for policy planning, cooperation with international organisations, public diplomacy, and activities of the Ukrainian Institute representing Ukrainian culture to the world. Ms Dzhaparova is also a Chairperson of the National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO and coordinates cooperation with the organization. She was awarded the 2022 Mark Palmer Prize for her support of the Ukrainian people, especially Crimean Tatars, and her leadership in the fight against Russia’s aggression.
You have made a point of how important it is to remember history, to remember that the war began not in 2022 but with the annexation of Crimea, and to right those wrongs of history. Which steps has Ukraine taken on the diplomatic front as it pushes to exclude Russia from international organisations and remove it from the UNSC?
It is a very frank position of Ukrainian diplomacy. By invading Ukraine in 2014, Russia violated numerous statutory documents of numerous international fora, platforms, and organisations, starting with the United Nations. Since 24 February 2022, we have launched this initiative to isolate Russia. It is about Russia enjoying impunity for years, and the only way how we can hold Russia accountable is by squeezing it out from different organisations. Today, Russia is no longer a member of the Council of Europe. Russia was suspended from the UN Human Rights Council, as well as from 25 other organisations where it had membership or observer status. This is driven not by the Ukrainian people’s emotions but by our belief that it is an act of aggression that violates the very essence and the philosophy of these organisations. Russia has misused its seat and exploited those fora to propagate its false reality and mislead the international community. Therefore, we believe that Russia has lost its moral right to participate in international organisations.
The peak of this Russian falsification is its permanent seat in the UN Security Council. If we go back to history and try to analyse how Russia gained its seat – it happened automatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One critical detail is that Russia escaped the procedures. In the United Nations Charter, there is no such a P5 member state as Russia. There is only the Soviet Union. According to the procedure prescribed, the issue was supposed to go through discussions in the UN General Assembly, upon the recommendation of the Security Council, which did not happen. Essentially, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN brought a new plate saying “Rossiyskaya Federatsiya” instead of the old one that said “The Soviet Union.” The procedure has not been followed, and Russia is, therefore, a usurper. Russia has discredited itself as a P5 member. The P5 countries took on the responsibility to protect and guarantee international security. Instead, we have one of the biggest troublemakers in the world, not just an average country but the one that has the second largest army in the world and nuclear weapons.
Ukraine, by an act of its own will, denuclearised in 1994 for the sake of global security and was promised that its security would be guaranteed. Our neighbour that gave such a guarantee was the one who later attacked us. This is the most cynical thing that can happen. If the bigger attack the smaller, it can only mean one thing: no one in the world can feel secure. If one’s neighbour uses the language of force and attacks, if a P5 country and a nuclear state attack a smaller nation that gave up its nuclear weapons for the sake of international peace, no one can feel secure. It sends a very strong signal to all UN member states.
By advocating the isolation of Russia, insisting that sanctions should be upheld, requesting weapons for self-defence, and refuting Russia’s falsehoods, Ukraine has taken a very dignified and honest position.
Ukraine scored one major victory last year when it was granted the status of a candidate for accession to the EU. Almost a year has passed. Where do things stand today?
It was, indeed, a victorious decision to grant Ukraine the candidate status. This is what millions of my compatriots have been fighting for years. This was the reason for two revolutions in my country, which led us to real independence and distanced us from the remnants of the Soviet past.
Russia wanted us to live in the past by defining our future. It thought we were an “appendix” of its existence with its perverted, imperialistic, and chauvinistic approach to Ukraine. This European future is a path that we have been fighting for. It triggered the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Behind the revolution was the popular sentiment towards European integration, which President Yanukovych tried to artificially prevent after his visit to Sochi. This status is a recognition that Ukraine belongs to the European family. This status is also a recognition of the transformations that Ukraine has been demonstrating for years despite the harsh challenges of occupation and, now, the full-fledged war.
The European Commission has put 7 criteria against which it will assess Ukraine, with the relevant document being prepared. Ukraine started the self-screening in February based on the analytical report that it had received from the Commission on the eve of the Ukraine EU summit. We intend to achieve maximum results in the implementation of those 7 criteria and recommendations before the European Commission update takes place in May and June 2023. For the assessment to be positive, we have maintained fruitful cooperation with the Venice Commission which will soon visit Ukraine. It will study three legislative initiatives: national minority legislation, approximation of Ukrainian legislation on media, and anti-corruption laws. We are on the right track with the homework that Ukraine has been doing.
By the end of the year or at the beginning of next year, we might open accession negotiations. Then, it will be about technical issues. The war is, of course, an objective reality. However, what we have achieved – as of now – is a huge change in political will. Today, there is no longer a question of whether Ukraine is part of the European family. Today, there is a clear feeling that Ukraine is a part of the European family, and we have been pouring our blood for it. This is the most crucial and essential thing that has happened. The rest is a matter of technicalities and a matter of time.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.