What You Need To Know:
✅ 20,000 out of 300,000 Crimean Tatars chose to leave the annexed territory;
✅ “We don’t recognize the referendum held in 2014. We don’t recognize the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation in Crimea... And most importantly, we continue to live here;”
✅ There is no need to fight for the minds of the pro-Russian population in Crimea;
✅ “Now we need to care about the legal issues in the international arena: in the United Nations, the Council of Europe, to negotiate with the leaders of major world powers to return everything to the original state.”
Three years after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke to Ilmi Umerov, Deputy Head of the Mejlis, who had been detained by the Russian authorities and charged with membership in Hizb-Ut Tahrir terrorist organization.
What has changed in Crimea for the last 9 months?
The actions of the occupying power have taken a new form lately. They’ve started to restrict the rights and opportunities of our lawyers. Unfortunately, few of them have left Crimea. There is no freedom of speech, human rights aren’t respected, and there are no fair courts in Russia.
Attacks on the office of lawyer Emir Kurbedinov took place. We see it as a signal. Anytime it can happen again, and criminal proceedings can be opened after that. If a publication of 2013 was considered an administrative offense, then criminal proceedings can be opened for more substantial publications. In case the criminal proceeding is opened, you are automatically under threat of disbarment.
Crimean Tatar lawyer Emil Kurbedinov in the court, Sevastopol. Photo: Edem Semedliaev
There was a period when I was sent to a psychiatric hospital to undergo a forced psych evaluation. And at this time, the lawyer Polozov in my interest went to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, where he called me a member of the Mejlis, even a deputy chairman of it. Now they demand his testimony to find out whether it’s true. Despite the fact that he refused to testify, the FSB investigator recorded it and now he turned into a witness in this case.
Another “innovation” that was introduced is that instead of opening criminal proceedings that require a long procedure of hearings, they have now taken over the practice of opening administrative proceedings. They accuse a person in an administrative offense, usually it’s a publication or repost in social networks, and imprison him for 10-15 days.
A resident of Simferopol Margilen Mustafayev has recently been imprisoned for 11 days. But another “innovation” has turned up here. They were taking photos and filming on their phones, and for that, they were imprisoned for 5 days. 10 people were imprisoned for 5 days, and Margilen Mustafayev – for 11.
What actions can you take now? What can the Crimean Tatar people do? The Mejlis?
The actions we can take are rather limited. We don’t recognize the referendum held in 2014. We don’t recognize the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation in Crimea. We don’t recognize the annexation of Crimea, the occupation authorities. That’s our silent non-violent protest. And most importantly, we continue to live here. We are a real thorn in their side - the majority of the Crimean Tatar people still live in Crimea. Only few people have left.
How many people have left and how many have remained?
According to our calculations, 20 thousand people out of 300 thousand have left. All the rest still live in Crimea.
What is Crimea after 3 years of annexation like?
Materials in the Ukrainian media have appeared recently saying that it’s necessary to postpone the issue of returning Crimea, proposals on renting it out. Someone has ideas that it’s better to forget that Crimea is Ukrainian. We have to understand that Crimea is Ukraine, there are the Crimean Tatar people, who disobey and continue to live in Ukraine. You may notice that we have only Ukrainian TV channels in our homes. Actually, we live in a parallel world to the majority in the Crimea, who believe that we joined Russia. They are a bit frustrated, but they still constitute the majority.
A lot of bureaucrats were replaced by Russians. What actions can be taken now to get ready for the fact that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine?
In fact, any action taken by Ukraine won’t have any influence in Crimea. There is a need to work on the increase of economic sanctions against the Russian Federation. I don’t see any other ways. Sanctions should be expanded and the Russian Federation itself should finally realize that it can’t pretend about Crimea and some parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
It should be Russia’s initiative to return Crimea. I don’t see other solutions, because the peninsula is too militarized and there are no military forces able to resist the military power established nowadays in Crimea.
What should be the economic relationships with the Crimeans on the social level at this stage?
I consider that Russia is guilty in all the negative things about what has happened over the last three years. Crimea was Russian even when it belonged to Ukraine--the only fact is that it wasn’t a part of Russia. I mean the Russian language, ideology, pro-Russian majority. Everyone except for the Crimean Tatar people voted for the Party of Regions here. In such a situation, it was nonsense to scare the supporters that Ukraine will seize the Ukrainian territory. But people believed in that and organized a referendum. It was the imitation. In fact, the troops entered Crimea then. The Main Intelligence Agency (GRU) organized the seizure of the first administrative buildings (of the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers of Crimea). It wasn’t a problem for Russians to enter Crimea. There was no oppression of the Russian language. And now, the non-Tatar population is frustrated by their actions or the actions of the Russian Federation. They got neither decent pensions nor high salaries. Prices in Crimea are much higher than in Moscow or Kyiv.
Yalta, Ukraine. February, 2017.
You’ve also mentioned that a lot of people have arrived here. They still continue to arrive. If 20-30 thousand left the peninsula, 300 thousand, on the contrary, arrived in Crimea. And I think that when the issue of real de-occupation is raised, everyone who came to Crimea after March 2014 will be forced to leave the peninsula.
But those are the technical aspects that will be discussed when such processes begin. The economic sanctions against the Russian Federation may fasten such processes. If the world's leading countries along with Ukraine strengthen the sanctions, the processes of reintegration and de-occupation will happen faster. I’ll emphasize once again that I do not consider the military options to be appropriate here.
Do you remember February 26, 2014? What was it like? Probably, a lot of people forgot about it. Some people remember only the so-called fake referendum. Do you remember those days before it and the 26th of February, in particular? How was it happening? How did you find out about it?
That period was very tense. Starting from about the 20th of February, each day we received signals that the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea was going to make separatist decisions, and appeal to Putin with a request on Crimea’s joining the Russian Federation. Then almost every day we were gathering at the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, were conducting some meetings, making statements and preparing a resolution. The period was very tense. We even maybe didn’t realize on the verge of what events appeared.
What was the 26th of February like?
We had information about the intention of the speaker of the Crimean parliament Mr. Konstantinov to hold a session and appeal to Putin. We had information that the message should be of separatist character. We neither saw it, nor read, but the subsequent events confirmed our suspicions and intentions of the Crimean – then Ukrainian – authorities to make separatist decisions. We decided to hold a rally in front of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea to show our attitude to the possible development of the events in Crimea. We were against the separatist decisions and stood for a united Ukraine. We were chanting: "Crimea is Ukraine!" In the square from the other side of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea, supporters of the political force "Russian unity" gathered with Russian flags. When we stood with the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags, they, on the contrary, had Russian flags in their hands and were chanting: "Crimea is Russia!" They gathered to put pressure on the deputies, so they made the decision on the referendum (followed by Crimea’s joining Russia) faster.
Russian troops in unmarked uniform entered Crimea in May, 2014. Source: RadioSvoboda.org (RFE/RL)
Was there an understanding of what was happening in terms of the military, security forces of Russia?
To be honest, there was no clear understanding and awareness that it could lead to such things. Even at night, when it was over and Refat Chubarov asked everyone to go home, the majority of people did that. We were saying goodbye to each other and thought that probably there wouldn’t be any separatist movements in Crimea for another 10 years. It turned out that we were terribly wrong. Everything happened not even in the near future, but the same night. It all happened on the night of the 26th to the 27th of February. Russian Main Intelligence Agency (GRU) troops in unmarked uniform conducted the seizure of the Cabinet of Ministers and Verkhovna Rada of Crimea. I think that the leadership of both the Cabinet of Ministers and of the Verkhovna Rada knew about that, because there was no resistance at all. There were no orders to any units. In fact, there were more than 300 military units in Crimea. Among them were "Alpha", "Berkut", the police, and Security Service troops. No single unit received an order to resist or take any action against what was happening in Crimea.
Can the fight for the hearts and minds be effective in this case? The point is that there are people concerned about their life; not all of them are politically active, many of those who weren’t politically active and decided to remain here start to assimilate, get used to the fact that textbooks and flags have been changed. What can be done to win the hearts and minds of these people? Should we just accept the fact that there always will be a part of people ready to live under any political power?
Because of that part of the population, the prosecution of Andrii Sakharov, Vyacheslav Chornovil, Levko Lukyanenko, Mustafa Dzhemilev began. Therefore, I think that at this moment, there is no need to fight for their minds. Now we need to care about the legal issues in the international arena: in the United Nations, the Council of Europe, to negotiate with the leaders of major world powers to return everything to the original state. Ukraine had a chance to struggle for the hearts and minds of the population for 23 years. If you stay in Crimea for a couple of days, you’ll realize that there are two parallel realities here. A Russian world, which has a lot of supporters despite all the difficulties is one reality. The world in which we live, in which people continue to consider Crimea a part of Ukraine, won’t accept the annexation and are ready to wait for de-occupation-- another reality.
/ Translated by Olga Kuchmagra