Crimean Tatars numbered around 248,200 in the 2001 census (0.5 per cent of the total population), a figure that does not include an additional 73,300 Tatars elsewhere. Predominantly Muslim, they have been resident in the region for centuries.
Crimean Tatars have long struggled to achieve formal status as an indigenous people. While Russia still does not recognize their claim, in March 2014 the Ukrainian parliament finally adopted a resolution designating Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people. However, Ukraine has subsequently failed to adopt the national legislation on indigenous peoples that was promised to Crimean Tatars. Even a draft bill, recognizing the non-numerous peoples of the Crimea, such as Crimean Karaites and Krymchaks, as indigenous peoples, fell short of being passed by the Ukrainian parliament in June 2015.
Their vulnerability is reinforced by their long-standing marginalization in the country and the uncertain legal status of many Tatars as Formerly Deported People (FDP, referring to the mass deportations in the 1940s by the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin).
Following the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 and the Soviet policy of relocating them to other republics in 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the jurisdiction of the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Though many returned to Crimea following the collapse of communism, the community continued to struggle with unemployment, lack of access to basic services and ongoing barriers to the restoration of their former lands. Ukraine itself never resolved the issue of providing land or other housing opportunities to returnees. The temporary solution was so-called ‘fields of protest’ – places where illegal settlements of Tatars were built. The authorities did not legalize the settlements, but also did not prevent them from being set up.
With large numbers of Russians living on the peninsula following independence, Crimea became the centre for pro-Russian and secessionist sentiments in Ukraine. Tension in the area stems from a mixture of fear of Ukrainianization and Crimea’s difficult socio-economic position in the region. The return of Crimean Tatars also continues to cause friction. Although supported by the authorities in Kyiv, Crimean Tatars received insufficient financial assistance and repatriation was not supported by legal guarantees. The absence of adequate state policies with regard to property rights, coupled with issues such as corruption and illegal land distribution, meant that Tatars have been forced to settle in the least fertile parts of Crimea.
Even before the occupation of Crimea, Crimean Tatars were facing a range of challenges. The 2012 Ukrainian Progress Report, for example, specifically highlighted clashes over land property in rural Crimean Tatars settlements, a decrease of representation of Crimean Tatars in local administration and the delay in the adoption of the law on the restoration of Formerly Deported People’s (FDP) rights due to a lack of governmental support to the return process and property issues. With regard to the restoration of FDP rights, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities noted in a 2013 Needs Assessment that, because the draft legislation had not been officially adopted by the Verkhovna Rada (or parliament), the legislation could continue to be postponed. Crimean Tatars have not been able to reclaim land owned before the deportation, nor has a compensation scheme been in place. While the large majority of Crimean Tatars were living in rural areas, they have no access to agricultural land. As there is no law on the restitution of property, respective claims cannot be brought before the court.
In 2014, following the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian protesters in Crimea demonstrated against the new Kyiv interim administration. Pro-Russian forces began to gradually take control of the Crimean peninsula, and a referendum on whether to join Russia resulted in an affirmative vote of over 95 per cent, though it was condemned by Ukrainian officials as well as the EU and the US as breaching international law. In the run-up to the referendum, Crimean Tatars became increasingly exposed to threats and physical aggression, including from paramilitary organizations.
Although following the annexation the Russian government initially wooed the Tatar population with promises to address housing and other pressing concerns, since then the behaviour of the authorities towards the community has become increasingly draconian. Political bodies and civil society organizations representing Tatars face constant intimidation. The Mejlis, or the parliament of the Crimean Tatar people, has served as the representative body to the Ukrainian government and international community, was banned as ‘extremist’ in 2016 and has been forced to resume its operations in Kyiv. The deputy leader of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in 2017, having been found to have organized an illegal demonstration; Amnesty International denounced the trial as a ‘sham’. He was later released and allowed to leave the country.
There have also been a number of cases of forced disappearances of Crimean Tatar activists, with a number brutally killed and others detained, tortured or threatened, including many who have advocated on issues such as land rights for their community.
This is part of a general crackdown on freedom of expression that has particularly affected minority and indigenous communities. All Crimean Tatar media outlets but one – the newspaper Yeni Dunya – were forced to close down on 1 April 2015, as they could not re-register under Russian law (as required by the de facto authorities in April 2014). While Russian-language media outlets generally received new licences, Crimean Tatar-language media outlets – such as the news agency QHA, the television channel ATR, as well as the children’s television channel Lale – were denied re-registration, despite repeated attempts. The denials were routinely linked to technicalities, leaving the media outlets no option but to close down to avoid facing substantial fines and criminal charges.
Tatars, most of whom are Muslim, have also found themselves affected by a climate of increasing nationalism and religious chauvinism in Crimea. Muslim communities have been attacked, religious literature burned and members of the remaining Tatar population have been pressured to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship. Other communities, such as members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, have also faced persecution. In this climate, the possibility of Crimea’s Tatars finally achieving a resolution to decades of injustice seems slimmer than ever.