Politics & Policy

Putin’s Threat to Crimean Minorities

As the Kremlin's claims of Crimean democracy collapse, pro-Russians turn on Tartars.

Minorities aren’t faring well in Vladimir Putin’s Crimea. Russian-backed officials Monday claimed they had identified extremist behavior among leaders of the Tartars, a Turkic ethnic minority group whose members are largely Sunni Muslim. Russia is threatening a crackdown on the Tartars.

Crimea’s Russian-backed chief prosecutor, Nataliya Poklonskaya, threatened to dissolve the Mejlis, a Tartar self-governing council, citing allegations of “extremist activities.” Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have forbidden Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former Soviet dissident widely viewed as the leader of the Crimean Tartars, from returning to the territory.

Russia’s state-run media reported that last weekend “thousands of Crimean Tartars” turned out to protest against Dzhemilev’s exile from Crimea. Euronews reported that “several thousands of Crimean Tartars unsuccessfully attempted to get [Dzhemilev] across the border.”

There are not consistent English-language, non-Russian reports regarding whether the Crimean Tartars’ demonstrations were peaceful. But Poklonskaya has claimed that the Crimean Tartar parliament “has been behind illegal public activity, which has been of an extremist nature. There have been riots, roadblocks have been set up and there’s been violence. People have been crossing the border illegally.”

And Russian propaganda outlets are using this weekend’s protests to justify further repression against the Tartars. “The incident seems to vindicate analysts’ earlier warnings that the Muslim ethnic group’s disaffection with Russian authorities may lead to instability in the region,” the Moscow Times writes.

Such repression, largely religious in nature, has been a fear among Tartars since Russia seized control of Crimea. Last month, I spoke with a young Tartar refugee who seemed scared to talk and identified himself only as Sultan. He told me: “After 20 years of building our lives [in Ukraine], it is very painful to begin our lives again in Russia. In the Russian Federation, for us, life was very uncomfortable. . . . We enjoyed full freedom of religion in Ukraine. We don’t know how it will go [under Russia].”

Crimea’s Tartars have already proved irksome to Putin; a population of nearly 400,000, they account for 10 to 15 percent of Crimea’s total population. But because the Soviet Union presided over the forced deportation of thousands of Crimean Tartars to Uzebekistan, the ethnic minority remains largely opposed to Russia. It’s a safe bet that most did not vote for annexation — and that compromises the Kremlin’s claims that support for secession was upwards of 95 percent.

Now, new reports are further calling into question the legitimacy of the Crimea vote. Paul Roderick Gregory, a contributor at Forbes, writes that

according to a major Ukrainian news site, TSN.ua, the website of the President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights (shortened to President’s Human Rights Council) posted a report that was quickly taken down as if it were toxic radioactive waste. According to this purported report about the March referendum to annex Crimea, the turnout of Crimean voters was only 30 percent. And of these, only half voted for the referendum — meaning only 15 percent of Crimean citizens voted for annexation.

PolicyMic reports on another assessment of these numbers from Ukraine’s Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group:

According to almost all of the citizens and professionals [whom Russia’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights] contacted, while turnout in the peninsular city of Sevastopol reached 50–80%, the turnout for all of Crimea was only 50–60%. Of those people, only 50–60% voted in favor of annexation by Russia.

So, according to the panel, just 35% of Crimeans at most officially voted in favor of joining the Russia Federation — a far cry from the Kremlin’s claims of overwhelming 95.5% in favor. On the low end, it could be 25%.

So what do these numbers tell us? Well, to some extent, what we already knew: that when an authoritarian claims near-unanimous approval of anything, he’s certainly cooking the books. Even so, Russia’s threats against a Crimean ethnic minority undermine even its sham democratic pretensions.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Jillian Kay Melchior — Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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