Given the collapse of Kyiv’s power on the Crimean peninsula, the Tatar population remains a bulwark of resistance to the plans of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed secessionist leadership to join Russia. bne visited the heartland of Crimean Tatars at Bakhchysarai and spoke to its leader, Ilmi Umerov, who threatened “an underground partisan movement” if Russia annexes the region.
Umerov is head of the state administration in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai – the historic heartland of Crimea’s Tatar population – and one of the leading stalwarts resisting the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula. With Crimea’s secessionist leadership gearing up to hold a referendum of dubious legality March 16 on whether to quit Ukraine for Russia, Umerov is one of the few to stand up to the Russia-backed authoritarian rule of Crimea’s prime minister, Sergei Aksionov. Umerov is refusing to hold the referendum in his region.
“The referendum is illegal and being held under the gun sights of occupying forces,” Ilmi Umerov tells bne, referring to incognito Russian forces that are roaming the peninsula, penning Ukraine’s servicemen in their bases. “There is no question for me of holding it. Those responsible will later be held to account.”
Umerov says this is his “personal position, based on principles”. “They will probably find some mechanism using the local election committees to circumvent my boycott,” he acknowledges, “so that the referendum will be held in the district, although not to the full extent.”
Umerov’s position may be personal, but it derives from his ethnicity as Crimean Tatar – the people with the oldest historical roots in Crimea, but decimated after deportation to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Stalin in 1944. Umerov, like many of his townsmen in Bakhchysarai, grew up in Uzbekistan, before returning to Crimea in the 1980s and 1990s.
The leaders of newly independent Ukraine embraced the return of the Tatars in the 1990s, cementing an unlikely alliance of Ukrainian nationalist politicians with the Muslim Tatars. Crimean Tatars constitute only 14-15% of the roughly 2.2m population of Crimea, compared with around 70% ethnic Russians. Since their return, they have looked to Kyiv for protection against the Russian majority in Crimea, while Ukrainian politicians have cultivated allies in Crimea to keep Russian separatist tendencies in check. The Crimean Tatars have their own representative body, the Medzhlis, which has likewise urged a boycott of the referendum.
According to Umerov, the March 16 referendum will be a farce intended to legitimize Crimea’s secession. So what happens after the referendum? “I think we all know what the result of the referendum is going to be. There will need to be an adequate reaction to that result on the part of Kyiv, as well on the part of the international community,” says Umerov. “Adequate, in this context, means an equivalent response to the fact that a foreign country has occupied part of Ukraine. There has to be use of force structures, there is no alternative.”
“But the process will take time and we will be patient,” Umerov adds.
Ominously, Umerov lays out what will happen if a lack of help is forthcoming. “If nothing is done to turn back the occupation, our only remaining option will be to launch an underground partisan movement against it,” he says. “This is the land of our ancestors and we are united in our desire to resist the invaders.”
Bakhchysarai is the former capital of the Crimean Khanate, and boasts the Khan’s magnificent palace of Hansaray. Many Tatars settled here on returning from deportation in the lands of their ancestors in and around Bakhchysarai.
Ethnic Russians often express positive views about the proposed annexation by Russia, but the opposite is true of Bakhchysarai’s Tatars, independent of age and education. Two Tatar law students, Dzhennet Seythalilova and Evelina Ametova, both 19, may chat in Russian with each other in a Bakhchysarai cafÃ© – but they are far from wanting to join Russia. “If you want to go to Russia, then it’s perfectly possible to emigrate,” says Evelina. “Just because you don’t have the money to emigrate, that doesn’t mean you should simply transfer Crimea to Russia,” she says emotionally. “Crimean Tatars want Crimea to stay in Ukraine and join the EU,” her friend Dzhennet underscores.
The topic is a hot potato in a mixed Russian-Tatar town like Bakhchysarai: when other customers hear the students’ views, they get involved. “Russia is where all my family live,” says one woman, “and Crimea has always been Russian. What has Ukraine ever done for us?” “No one’s keeping you here,” retorts Evelina. “And by the way, before the deportation, we were in the majority here.”
The Kremlin has been trying to neutralise Crimean Tatar resistance to its annexation plans, by leveraging its own Kazan Tatars, concentrated in the Russian constituent republic of Tatarstan. The president of Tatarstan flew to Crimea on March 5, offering to be a guarantor of Crimean Tatars’ rights within the Russian Federation, and promising investment. In addition, the pro-Moscow first deputy prime minister of Crimea, Ruslan Temirgaliev – regarded by many as the brains behind the current operation – is of Kazan Tatar descent.
But this cuts no ice with the law students. “The Kazan Tatars have a very different language and culture,” says Evelina. “We are related, but we don’t want to be their little brother within Russia – we want to join Europe.”
The town of Bakhchysarai is mixed Tatar-Russian, but some surrounding villages are almost entirely Tatar, due to land distributed to the returning population in the 1990s. In the village of Viktorovka, 65-year-old Enver Zaidullaev, says: “We have just got things set up here after returning [from Uzbekistan]. That was many years of hard work. Now they want to change everything again.” He says he is nevertheless convinced that “Crimea will never belong to Russia again.”
Enver describes increasing threats against the Tatar population of Bakhchysarai: poison-pen letters and stories of Tatar houses being marked. “These are not done by locals,” he says. “We have good relations with Russians, ethnicity has never played an important role here, except when politicians from outside have tried to fan the flames.”
Mother of the village’s Imam, Aziz, tells bne that her son had prayed for stability and a Russian pull-out. “We can’t do anything to stop them, we are a small minority now. Our only hope is international help – and especially Turkey,” she says. There are an estimated 5m Turks of Crimean Tatar descent. “If things go further down this road, we will call on Turkey to help us. They will come.”