Under governments desperately trying to centralize power, it’s often minority groups who suffer the most. From Nazi Germany to Yugoslavia and present-day Myanmar, governments have labeled minorities as non-citizens, insurgents, and harmful to the safety of the state. And we are seeing the seeds of this historic theme unfold again today in Crimea.
In the four years since Russian forces annexed the peninsula, living conditions for its inhabitants have shown little sign of improvement. In September 2017, the United Nations released their first report on the state of human rights in Crimea since the conflict began, concluding that conditions had “significantly deteriorated” following the occupation.
Although the international media has grown quiet on Crimea, the struggle for freedom of identity and political rights continues for one group in particular.
Crimea’s Tatar community continues to bear the brunt of this declining humanitarian situation. A Turco-Mongol people, the Tatars arrived in Crimea long before their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts and now make up around 13 percent of the population. Yet the Muslim ethnic minority group faces persecution for their religious identity as well as their continued stance against the Russian invasion.
There are historical reasons why Tatars continue to oppose Russian occupation. The community-wide boycott goes back to Stalin’s forced deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia on charges of Nazi collaboration during the Second World War. The journey saw large numbers perish and the exile lasted decades, and only the collapse of the Soviet Union would permit their eventual return to Crimea.
Today, the government justifies the incarceration of anti-annexation Tatars by conflating their anti-Kremlin position with Islamic religious and political extremism. In doing so, authorities have dubiously linked a number of Tatar protestors to the pan-Islamist political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. By barring them from contact with their families and access to legal representation, the government has enabled rumors to circulate about the conditions of imprisonment, including accusations of incarceration in asylums and torture.
But the Tatars aren’t the only Muslim group facing persecution in the Russian Federation. In Chechnya, a heavy military presence and high levels of unlawful incarceration have similarly come to define public life for Muslim Chechnyans. If anything, the Crimean example shows how the policing of Muslim bodies is nothing new in Russia’s imperial project.
The situation faced by Crimean Tatars can be seen as part of a global pattern of Muslim minority discrimination. Like the Tatars, Muslim groups in the former Yugoslavia and present-day Myanmar were able to trace their ancestors to these regions for centuries, yet their governments forced many of them to return to an imagined homeland. The Rohingya, for instance, have resided in Myanmar for centuries, yet they are called Bengalis because of their Islamic heritage.
Governments denying Muslim minorities a sense of national belonging has taken on many forms throughout the years. In recent history, their policies have resulted in the violent expulsion of Muslims from Serbia to the “Muslim” state of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the breakup of Yugoslavia; Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tartars to Central Asia; and the ongoing and violent dispersal of the Rohingya people to the borders of Bangladesh. These events are warnings that governments that strip minorities of nationhood can shift their efforts to genocide with deadly speed.
The persecution of Crimean Tatars has already carried on into 2018, with authorities raiding two homes in the city of Simferopol on January 5. The NGO Crimean Solidarity claimed the raids were overseen by a branch of Crimea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs known as “The Center for Countering Extremism,” which reportedly found and seized Islamic literature. The raids show how the conflation between politicized individuals and religious identity, and in particular militant Islam, continues to be an easy way for the government to stifle democratic protest against the regime.
The question of how many Tatars have been imprisoned for government opposition remains unclear. Tatar representatives claim that over a hundred children have parents in prison while many more individuals have been subjected to heavy fines. Although the numbers are initially small, the incarceration of Tatars invokes memories of the Bosnian War, which saw the mass imprisonment of Muslim men and boys eventually give way to genocide.
Mass incarceration and other human rights abuses enacted against Muslim minorities in Crimea should send a forewarning to the international community. Current events in Myanmar, the Bosnian legacy and the Tatars’ own history are reminders that we must recognize the early warning signals and prevent the further escalation of abuse.
If we do not, we may risk a humanitarian crisis in Crimea like the one presently taking place along the Bengali border.