A report prepared by an unofficial delegation of Turkish academics has determined that Crimea’s unrecognised Russian government has purposely and persistently violated the rights and freedoms of the Crimean Tatars following the Russian annexation of the peninsula in March 2014.
The delegation, led by Zafer Uskul - the former head of the Human Rights Watch Commission at the Turkish parliament and a constitutional law professor - visited Crimea between April 27 and April 30 and undertook a field study interviewing 100 people in order to examine claims connected that Crimea’s Tatar ethnic minority population has suffered from human rights violations.
The report has determined that the rights of the Tatars have been violated in a range of areas including identity issues, political representation, education in their native language, freedom of press and property rights.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he delivered the Russian version of the report to his counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 13 in a private meeting in Baku, speaking to journalists on his plane while returning from the 2015 European Games hosted in the Azeri capital .
The report stated that officials from the unrecognised regime governing the peninsula constantly kept an eye on the Turkish delegation and participated in some of the interviews during the field study.
In an interview with Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency (AA), Uskul said, “Obviously they didn’t want us to talk to anyone who might be considered an opponent of the regime. We were forced to split into two. This way, some of us had an opportunity to travel around without any regime people, and gather information by themselves.”
However, people were anxious about talking even in interviews that didn’t suffer from any direct regime interference - indicating that they were under regime pressure, the professor added.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic also commented on the report, saying that it illustrates “many human rights violations, acts of oppression and suppression continue and [are] systematically practiced,” speaking to journalists on June 18.
Turkey is committed to support the Crimean Tatars and has promised $10 million in aid to Ukraine which will also be used by the Crimean Tatars, he added.
The Crimean Tatars constituted the majority of Crimea's population until mid-19th century before the Russian Empire annexed the Crimean Khanate, violating the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca which was signed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1774 which accepted the independence of the peninsula.
In the following years, the Tatars were subjected to harsh treatment by Russian settlers and regarded as unreliable by Russia’s rulers following the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) which caused waves of mass migration of Tatars to Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The plight of the Tatars was not over however, with the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population of 240,000 people being exiled in May 1944 to Central Asia, mainly to Uzbekistan. The order was given by Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union established following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
The exile brought further tragedy to the Tatars, who were already hurt by the previous mass migrations from Crimea. Half of the Tatar population died of cold, hunger, exhaustion and disease when the group was deported to Central Asia.
Following the period of Perestroika (restructuring) launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland and their exile was condemned by the Soviet parliament in 1989 as inhumane and lawless.
More than 250,000 Tatars have gradually returned to the peninsula and now constitute approximately 13 percent of Crimea’s population.
Crimea became part of independent Ukraine following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Crimean Tatar leadership was able to found a parliament (Kurultai in Turkish) in 1991.
However, the Crimean Tatars feared further persecution following the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014 after the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by pro-European Union protesters and political groups. The Russian government declared that it would not recognise the new government as legitimate and forced an independence referendum in Crimea with the support of pro-Russian groups in the peninsula.
The peninsula was annexed by Russia on March 21, following the referendum which was held on March 17, against the wishes of the Western powers including Turkey and Crimea’s native Tatar population.
Uskul said the National Assembly of Crimean Tatars (KTMM), the single highest executive-representative body of the Tatars, was closed by the new unrecognised regime following the annexation. The building of the KTMM was also apparently confiscated by Crimea’s new authorities.
The majority of the Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum over whether to annex Crimea to Russia, following a call from the KTMM to do so.
The Turkish report has found that prominent members of the KTMM, including former chairman Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu and current chairman Refat Chubarov, have been banned from entering Crimea for five years. Many other members have also been systematically interrogated by the regime, the report stated.
Kirimoglu is a former Soviet dissident and spent many years in Soviet prisons because of his struggle for the rights of the Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland. Now the Russian Federation has once again banned him from living in the land from where he was deported with his family when he was just 6 years old.
The report also said that the Crimean Tatars were forced to accept Russian citizenship because non-Russian citizens have been denied of all public services including health and education. In addition, the Russian government enacted a regulation specifying that only 5,400 foreigners could legally have a residence permit to live in the peninsula following its annexation.
Uskul said the Crimean Tatars can not receive a proper education in their native language, though Tatar was recognised as an official language along with Russian and Ukrainian in the republic’s constitution. There are 15 schools which offer an education in Tatar in the peninsula, however, “We have been told that they need 200 schools more,” he added.
The report also mentioned a lingering issue for the Crimean Tatars, which is overlapping claims to property rights after they returned to the peninsula.
Uskul said, “When they returned, they saw that their houses had already been occupied. They have not been able to get their title deeds. Although the new regime established in the wake of the annexation has announced that everything would be re-arranged, the Crimean Tatars are still concerned about their houses being taken away from them,” AA reported.
In addition, the report stated that the assets of the Crimean Foundation, which is a source of funding for the KTMM, and also the assets of some Tatar media organisations have been seized by the Russian authorities.
Moreover, the Uskul delegation said that the unrecognised regime has imposed a crackdown on Tatar media. The only Crimean Tatar TV channel, ATR, was forced off the air because the Russian communication watchdog did not give it a broadcasting licence on time.
The de facto regime has also forbidden the Tatars from commemorating May 18, the day when their ancestors were deported en masse from their homeland.
The report concluded that although the Crimean Tatars are suffering from many economic problems, their primary concern is to protect their national identity.
Turkey does not recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea.