Life In Crimea Three Years After Annexation, Explained
28 February, 2017

What You Need To Know:

✅ “Politically, the persecution of the Crimean Tatar minority is the biggest issue;”
✅ ”It’s not a place where you are expressing your political view if you disagree with the current situation.”
✅ There is criminal punishment if you deny the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

On the third anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk joined us from Simferopol to discuss the situation in the occupied territory.

“Politically, the persecution of the Crimean Tatar minority is the biggest issue,” says Gumenyuk. Approximately 20,000 Tatars have fled the territory, 20 have been imprisoned and even more accused and detained for having connections to terrorism.

Apart from the persecution of Tatars, there are various violations of human rights in Crimea. ”It’s not a place where you are expressing your political view if you disagree with the current situation.” And there is criminal punishment if you deny the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

“It’s very hard to count public opinion,” adds Gumenyuk, as the Russian media is working on the territory to tell its own story there. It’s almost impossible to conduct a poll on the territory, because of the political situation there.

Hromadske’s Christian Borys spoke to Hromadske journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk via Skype on February 26th, 2017 in Kyiv.

Can you describe what the situation is in Crimea right now?

That’s very interesting. It’s been 3 years since occupation. I would remind you that this is the exact day when the uniformed gunmen occupied the Parliament of Crimea on the 26th of February 2014. We can already see some results. There are a number of things; political, social and some things connected to human rights in Crimea. I’ve been there from time to time over the last three years. Now I’m talking to the people, asking them how  they feel.

First of all, let’s agree that there is, of course, a huge violation of human rights in Crimea. Of course, this is not a territory of freedom. It’s not a place, where people can express their political views. If you disagree with the current situation you will receive criminal punishment and  if you deny what the government says. It’s very interesting to see how easily things have been changed, all the name tags. 

Politically, the biggest issue is, of course, is the persecution of the Crimean Tatar minority. What is most important to understand- there are the people who don’t have any other land. They were deported during the Stalin times. It’s a sacral land for them. The idea, really, is just to stay. 20,000 out of 300.000 have moved from Crimea in the last three years. Though there are more than 20 political prisoners. Some of them are practicing muslims accused of having connections to terrorism. We’ve spoken to a lot of  their lawyers and we can prove that there is a very little evidence to the accusations. We are speaking now about people being detained for a year or two years. What is interesting is that theirs families stayed together. There are volunteers collecting funds to help them. 

If we talk about the silent majority, that is probably the most misleading concept you have here. It’s really very hard to count public opinion. Of course, there are people who agree with the war. We have all the Russian media working here and constantly telling people all the stories about how bad the situation in Ukraine is. 

Though we should agree that Russian salaries and pensions are higher, the prices are also higher. Most of the goods have to be shipped to the Crimea from the Russian mainland by ferries. There is no lack of goods. There should be no myth about some kind of deficits of goods. People have everything here, they are travelling to Rostov. There are more than 100.000 of civil servants that have come from Russia. First of all, there are people from law enforcement, from courts and police, prosecutor office. They have the highest salaries, so they bring their families here. 

Tourists still come here. Crimea does have tourists from Russia, but it’s a difficult kind of tourism. You also can’t forget that there are people who maybe disagree with the status quo. This could be the minority, but it’s very-very unclear how you quantify this number, because you can’t really make a poll. There is, of course, the political situation, in which the opinions aren’t expressed. These are the Crimean Tatars who understand that their houses are here and they can’t leave just because they disagree. For them it is very important to preserve this situation.

For a lot of people success in Ukraine could probably be the biggest sign of hope. They hardly can see that there is very poor connection with Ukrainian mainland policy. The Crimean peninsula isn’t very clear, but probably, what is most interesting for me here that, is that in particular, Crimean Tatars are telling us that they are offended by the people outside the peninsula creating all kinds of ideals. They say that they aren’t slaves, that somebody also decides what country should they belong to. There is an international law, so it really matters to them. Of course, I should admit it’s not a military zone, there is no conflict here. It’s still a resort, it’s definitely closer to the Soviet style resort, but the capitalism is coming anyway. There are Russian shops and restaurants here, but definitely the best way to stay here is probably to be a civil servant. If you get this job and if you pretend that you are outside of politics, you can pursue this career, you can live. But for a lot of people, the story is not over yet. 

And you mentioned political prisoners. Are those strictly Crimean Tatars? Or are there other political prisoners that you wanted to mention at all?

So there are different types. There are Crimean Tatars but there are a few different articles. So the practicing muslims are usually detained under charges of extremism or terrorism, or belonging to the Islamic party Hizb Ut-Tahrir. You basically do not need to prove anything to claim that a person belong to this group. Also we have the civil gathering of the Mejilis. This is the self-governing organ of the Tatars. So if you used to belong to that organisation- which is a political, secular organisation that has also been named as an extremist organisation. There are also famous Soviet dissidents that were members of this organisation, so one of  the current deputy heads Akhtem Chyyhoz has been in prison for two years. In particular, what is interesting is the fact that he is accused of creating a riot, on this day, on 26th of February 2014, in front of the Crimean Parliament. So all the video records prove that he was the exact person who tried to maintain law and order and peace, at that protest. 

Besides that you have Ukrainian journalists- most of them have left the territory, well I can’t say most of them, I mean the journalists that are Ukrainian by ethnicity- they don’t accept the annexation. Of course, a lot of people moved to the pro-government, pro-regime TV channels which are pretty rich. For example, the Mykola Semena case is interesting, he has also been charged. This person is an incredible man. He wrote his first article 50 years ago, he’s been writing for 50 years, during the Soviet times up until 2017. He is not allowed to write anymore. So there are less of this type of political prisoners, but Crimean Tatars are considered  to be the targeted group. They are the most active, the most openly opposed. They do not resist because the idea behind this group is that that they are a non-violent resistance of the occupation. Although, most of them had to take Russian passports. This was almost automatic, without that you can’t really do anything. If you decided to obtain permanent residency but also are considered a foreigner, you can’t really have a proper life. It’s really really hard. You really need to have a strong personality to do that.