Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Mustafa Dzhemilev: the man who might clip Putin’s wings

A former Soviet dissident and prominent Tatar leader in Ukraine will be the moral voice against Russia's annexation of Crimea, writes Alan Philps.

To understand the next stage of the crisis over Crimea, you need only study a few census figures and the extraordinary career of one man who is almost unknown outside the former Soviet Union.

To start with the census: figures from 1926 showed that 180,000 Crimean Tatars, the original inhabitants of the peninsula before the Russian conquest, lived there, making up 25 per cent of the population, against 42 per cent who were Russian. By the 1959 census, there were only 193 Crimean Tatars in the whole of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, an area the size of France.

What happened to the rest? In the whole of the Soviet Union there were only 49,000, most of them in Uzbekistan. These are the bald statistics of what the Crimean Tatars call the Sürgün, the deportation on Stalin’s orders of the whole population on February 18, 1944.

Up to half of them died on the journey to Central Asia. One month later, Stalin expelled the main non-Russian minorities from Crimea – Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians. These deportations opened up space for Russian settlement, which by 1959 increased its share of the population to 71 per cent.

The official reason for deporting the Crimean Tatars was collaboration with the invading German army in the Second World War. While this is no doubt true to a certain extent, a German researcher, Rolf-Dieter Müller, estimates that 800,000 Russians collaborated with the Nazi advance on Moscow, and the figure would have risen to two million if Hitler had not treated the Russians as expendable slave labour.

The true nature of the land grab is proved by subsequent Soviet history. After Stalin’s death, several deported peoples, including the Chechens, were absolved of their so-called crimes and allowed to return to their homes.

After a long campaign, the Crimean Tatars were also rehabilitated, but unlike other deported peoples, the decree was kept secret and no provision was made for them to return to their homes. Russian dominance in Crimea was thus assured. Only in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed, were the Crimean Tatars formally allowed to return, while still suffering many forms of discrimination.

The life of one man has been identified with that struggle: Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former Soviet dissident and leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, is a rare example of resolutely non-violent protest in the face of overwhelming odds. He was six months old at the time of the deportation, and at the age of 18 founded the Union of Crimean Tatar Youth that formed the basis for the eventually successful campaign to rehabilitate his people. He spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps and conducted one of the world longest hunger strikes, 303 days, during which he was force fed. Now, at the age of 70, he has retired from leading the Majlis of the Crimean Tatar People, though he sits in the Ukrainian parliament.

The world will be hearing more from him. His is likely to be the voice that carries most authority in challenging the referendum under which the people of Crimea are said to have voted overwhelmingly to join Russia.

While the demographics of the peninsula suggest a solid basis of support for annexation by Russia, Mr Dzhemilev can make two important points. He can challenge the official results: 96.7 per cent in favour of union with Russia, on a turnout of 83.1 per cent. Some Crimean Tatar leaders say that the turnout figure is impossibly high, and actually only 34 per cent of the total population of the peninsula voted for annexation by Russia. In recent years, polls have shown that support for annexation by Russia has never exceeded 40 per cent.

In addition, Mr Dzhemilev has a strong moral point to make: how can a referendum be legitimate if the indigenous inhabitants, even if only 12 per cent of the total, were given no option to retain the status quo and mostly boycotted the poll?

This point has been reinforced by the Ukrainian parliament, which has issued a statement recognising the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous population. If this declaration was taken to its logical conclusion, it would give them the right to decide their own fate. Mr Dzhemilev has described the Ukrainian change of heart as “belated”, which indeed it is.

The old dissident now finds himself at the centre of a bidding war between Ukraine and Russia.

Earlier this month he received a phone call from Vladimir Putin, who addressed him respectfully as Mustafa Agha and promised language rights for the Crimean Tatars if he accepted Russian annexation. Having suffered so many years at the hands of the KGB, Mr Putin’s old employer, Mr Dzhemilev is not one to be swayed by flattery and the promise of Russian money.

The problem is that Mr Putin does not understand the essence of the Crimean Tatar complaint. In his speech to the Russian parliament on March 17, Mr Putin made an early reference to unjust treatment of Crimean Tatars, but added: “Millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.”

By failing to use the word deportation, he failed the test. Even worse, he declared that the Crimean Tatars were “leaning towards Russia”, which may be what he has been told but does not accord with any eyewitness report from the peninsula.

In one respect the Crimean Tatars are unique. Unlike just about every other minority in Russia, they have nowhere to call home but the peninsula.

Mr Dzhemilev has politely dismissed Mr Putin’s statement, insisting that foreign troops – meaning Russians – should withdraw immediately. With Mr Putin’s troops in control of Crimea, it is unlikely that any politician or campaigner could reverse Russia’s annexation. But the next stage will be legal and diplomatic arguments at the United Nations and other forums. With a 50-year record of non-violent activism, Mr Dzhemilev will remain a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps

Updated: March 27, 2014 04:00 AM