There are increasing concerns that Russian authorities will take advantage of lockdown measures.

As Covid-19 continues to spread around the globe, its presence is starting to be felt in Eastern Europe and Russia. So far, Ukraine has had more than 6,000 people test positive for the virus. In Russia, the situation is far worse. At the time of writing around 52,000 cases have been confirmed across the country.

Similar to what is happening to other parts of the region, Russian occupied Crimea is suffering from Covid-19 too.

Although official figures of the number of Crimeans testing positive for Covid-19 can be measured in the tens, nobody knows the real picture on the ground. Russia restricts international access to the region. 

Freedoms of the press and media have been significantly curtailed since the takeover in 2014. Only drips and drabs of information regarding the situation in Crimea have made its way out. 

For example, mass gatherings have been banned in Crimea since March 17. Hotels have been banned from letting rooms. Schools have been closed. 

It was recently reported that paramilitaries and ‘Cossacks’ are being deployed to Crimea, alongside the regular police and National Guard to impose Moscow’s new restrictions. 

Many Crimeans will remember the arrival of the paramilitaries and the Cossacks that preceded the Russian invasion and annexation in 2014.

There is one community in particular that will be concerned by Russia’s new measures to combat Covid-19, and that is the Crimean Tatars.

More than six years since Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine, the Tatar population remains under pressure, persecuted, and marginalised by Moscow. 

The Tatars are the original inhabitants of Crimea. They observe Sunni Islam. Culturally and linguistically, they are Turkic people. 

The Crimean Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, survived for 300 years until Russia’s Catherine the Great conquered Crimea in 1783. Since then the Tatars have experienced centuries of oppression by Russia. 

During the aftermath of the Crimean war (1853-56), hundreds of thousands of Tatars left Crimea to avoid persecution by Russia after the conflict ended. 

After the Bolshevik Revolution, thousands of Tatars perished as a result of the Moscow orchestrated Soviet famine of 1932. And even though many Tatars fought bravely for the Soviet Union during the Second World War (eight Tatars were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union), in 1946 around 180,000 were forcibly deported to Uzbekistan under the orders of Joseph Stalin. Some estimates claim that as many as 45 percent perished en route.

With Russian authorities implementing new restrictions to fight Covid-19, there is a concern that the Tatars’ situation will become more precarious. 

Few doubt the genuine need for schools to close or massed gatherings being prevented in Crimea in the wake of the virus. This has been standard practice all over the world. But looking at Russia’s track record of human rights abuses in Crimea, there are legitimate concerns that Moscow will use these new measures to combat the virus to crackdown on the Tatars even more.

Since Russia took over Crimea, the Tatars have been persecuted and targeted because of their culture and their faith. 

Russia has severely cracked down on education of the Tatar language. Lessons are allowed to be taught only one day a week (on Saturday), for example. Moscow has closed down the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars. Other Buildings associated with the Tatars are routinely vandalised. 

Many mosques across Crimea have had CCTV cameras installed and are monitored by Russian security services. Some prominent Tatar leaders have been barred from re-entering Crimea. 

Over the past six years, scores of Tatars have been arrested under dubious charges of “terrorism”.

More recently, Russia has been accused of not providing adequate medical care to some of the Crimean Tatar activists they have locked up.

In October 2017 Russia arrested several Crimean Tatar activists on trumped-up charges of “terrorism”. They are currently standing trial in a Russian court in Rostov-on-Don where they are also being held in pre-trial confinement.   

One of those in pre-trial confinement, Server Mustafayev, has shown symptoms related to Covid-19. But even with the outcry of some in the international community, Russia has failed to provide proper testing or medical care.

The situation with the Tatars is already bleak thanks to Russia’s heavy-handed tactics. Adding a global pandemic like Covid-19 makes the situation even worse. 

But perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that the international community is virtually silent on their plight. 

Turkey is pretty much the only country in the Muslim-majority world that raises the issue of the Tatars on the international stage. From time to time, the US State Department will issue a tweet or a statement. But for the most part, the world remains silent. 

In reality, President Putin‘s persecution of the Tatars is simply a continuation of Russian policy that goes back to Catherine the Great. As the world struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation for the Crimean Tatars will get worse, before it gets better. 

Russia should take measures to genuinely and humanely look after the wellbeing and health of all those in Crimea and especially the Tatars — and the international community should be watching closely.

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