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Manufacturing Extremism

The Crimea’s de facto authorities follow up a ban on a Tatar leader with harassment of the Tatars themselves.

by Halya Coynash 5 May 2014

On 3 May around 50 Russian OMON riot police were deployed to prevent renowned Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from entering Crimea. Later that day the so-called Crimean prosecutor announced she was seeking to have criminal proceedings initiated against Crimean Tatars involved in the ensuing peaceful protest. She called the protest “public actions of an extremist nature” and threatened to dissolve the Crimean Tatars’ representative body, the Mejlis. Peaceful protesters have also received court summonses on administrative charges.


It remains unclear whether Russia and its puppet government in Crimea are deliberately provoking conflict with the Crimean Tatars, or whether the authorities under former KGB boss Vladimir Putin simply cannot function in any other way. What is unquestionable, however, is that silence from the EU, United States, OSCE, and other international players is unacceptable.


As reported, Dzhemilev first learned of the five-year ban on 22 April. The next day the Kremlin’s propaganda channel, Russia Today, quoted both Crimean and Russian officials as denying any such ban. The lie became clear on 2 May, when Dzhemeliev was prevented from flying to Crimea from Moscow and forced to return to Kyiv.


The ban is an appalling affront to Dzhemilev and the Crimean Tatars. By Friday evening the Mejlis had decided to cancel all events marking a Crimean Tatar festival on Saturday. It invited Crimean Tatars to come and greet Dzhemilev at Armyansk, on the border between Crimea and the Kherson oblast.

Mustafa Dzhemilev takes part in 2012 ceremonies commemorating the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea in 1944. Photo from the website of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.


Around 5,000 people arrived in approximately 1,000 cars. They formed a live corridor for the 70-year-old veteran Crimean Tatar rights defender who is also a longtime member of the Ukrainian parliament. The acting Crimean interior minister, Sergei Abizov, also turned up and stated that Dzhemilev would not be allowed in, underscored by the deployment of OMON and Crimean “self-defense” vigilantes.




Dzhemilev is a former Soviet political prisoner. His commitment to nonviolent defense of the right of the Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland and to human rights in general allied him with Andrei Sakharov, Petro Grigorenko, and others. It made him an enemy of the Soviet regime, and it is galling that 35 years on, and just months after Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian Federation should be treating him in a similar vein. 


Despite assurances that the rights of the Crimean Tatars would be protected and attempts to woo them with various promises, the authorities installed under Russian occupation are resorting to direct repression.


Natalya Poklonskaya, the prosecutor installed following Russian intervention, has issued a formal warning to the head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, about supposed “extremist activities.” She refused to read the warning in the Crimean Tatar language and did not provide a copy of it, even though it can supposedly be appealed through the courts. A recording can be heard here.


Poklonskaya states that “if the Mejlis does not stop its extremist activities … it will be dissolved and prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation.” On 3 May she announced she was sending the Russian Investigative Committee and FSB [Security Service] documents initiating criminal proceedings over what she termed “unlawful public protests of an extremist nature.”


These actions, as well as several summonses on administrative charges relate to the peaceful protests on the road from Armyansk to Simferopol and in various cities. The roads were briefly blocked in protest at the ban on Dzhemilev, however the decision was then made that Dzhemilev would return to Kyiv mainly in order to avoid any risk of physical confrontation.




Former President Viktor Yanukovych made many attempts to sideline the Mejlis, but even he stopped short of threatening to dissolve it. The newly ensconced authorities in Crimea have clearly understood that in Putin’s Russia “extremism” can be defined very broadly.


The charge is being used, the Russian Human Rights Council warns, to turn Islam “from a religion into a protest ideology.” Similarly, the movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is banned as extremist in Russia, has never been prohibited in Ukraine, yet a community linked with it is now coming under serious pressure. 


Ihor Semyvolos, director of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Middle East Studies, has warned of mass conflict if Dzhemilev is not allowed into Crimea on 18 May, the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars. This can only lead to an increase in radicalism among Crimean Tatars, which will in turn annoy Russian nationalists and could cause clashes.


Since Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised to ask Putin to get the ban on Dzhemilev’s entry lifted, Semyvolos suggests that Russia might agree but see this as a defeat and expect loyalty from the Mejlis in return. The Kremlin might demand that the ceremonies on 18 May go according to a Russian scenario. Semyvolos does not believe the Mejlis would agree to this. A third option would be a kind of compromise, with Dzhemilev being allowed in and the Crimean Tatars avoiding “radical slogans and Ukrainian flags.”


Following the aggressive moves made against the Mejlis and peaceful protesters, compromise is already difficult. It is likely that the final trigger prompting the imposition of the ban on Dzhemilev was the reinstatement of the Ukrainian flag over the Mejlis following his arrival in Simferopol on 19 April. The demand for any such compromise is surely unacceptable. The Crimean Tatars did not ask for their homeland to be annexed and they have every right to retain their allegiance to Ukraine.


Over recent years, international bodies, including the OSCE, have called for dialogue and measures aimed at resolving the problems faced by the Crimean Tatars. If it was difficult to find an excuse for the West’s weak response to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, it is simply impossible to understand silence in the face now of overtly repressive measures against the Crimean Tatars. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website this commentary originally appeared.

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