Crimean Tatars are fighting for their “rights to choose their future,” Akhtem Chiygoz, a representative of the Crimean Tatar community, told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington in March.
Russian authorities arrested Chiygoz in 2015 and imprisoned him for two years for organizing a demonstration to peacefully protest Russia’s attempted annexation of his native land. “It’s difficult for me to speak about Crimea without thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are broken,” Chiygoz said in connection with the fifth anniversary of Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea.
The U.S. position is unwavering: “Crimea is Ukraine and must be returned to Ukraine’s control,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated earlier this year. “During the past five years, Russian occupation authorities have engaged in an array of abuses in a campaign to eliminate all opposition to its control over Crimea,” Pompeo said.
Masked Russian security forces in occupied Crimea frequently raid Tatar homes and terrorize their families. In late March, Russian forces arrested more than 20 individuals, prompting a rebuke from the United States. “Russia, release these men and the 70+ other unjustly imprisoned Ukrainians,” the U.S. Department of State said.
In addition to its attempt to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russia’s ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine has resulted in approximately 13,000 Ukrainian deaths and displaced 2 million Ukrainians.
Why target Crimean Tatars?
Russia has a long history of persecuting Crimean Tatars — a Turkic-speaking population indigenous to the region — because their very existence invalidates a Kremlin myth that Crimea has always been part of Russia.
In fact, the Crimean Tatars, most of whom adopted Islam in the 14th century, formed their own independent state, called a khanate, in the 15th century. Russian Empress Catherine the Great proclaimed Russia had annexed Crimea in 1783 in her campaign to expand the Russian Empire.
Over the next 100 years, tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars were deported or emigrated because of discriminatory Russian social and economic policies as Russian rulers parceled out Crimean territory to European immigrants and Russian elites.
The Crimean Tatars suffered even further in 1944 under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. He falsely accused Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and ordered a mass deportation of the entire population of Crimean Tatars — around 230,000 people — into exile into Soviet-controlled Central Asia. According to some estimates, nearly half died from starvation and disease during the forced removal.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean Tatars in exile began to return to their homeland by the tens of thousands. They organized a representative body in Crimea, called the Mejlis, and established a political voice in Ukrainian politics that looked after their interests. Chiygoz is a deputy chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.
“Every step that the world takes to protect us,” says Chiygoz, “gives us hope.”