An interview with Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement. Interviewer: Giuseppe D’Amato
This interview is from the past issue of New Eastern Europe - Ukraine: One year after the EuroMaidan. Learn more about Crimea and Crimean Tatars in in our latest issue.
GIUSEPPE D’AMATO: Reflecting on the situation in Ukraine, would you ever have expected that such events as the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation or the war in Donbas could have been possible?
MUSTAFA DZHEMILEV: Throughout the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many powerful people in Russia maintained their claims to Crimea and Sevastopol. Fairly influential politicians often came to Crimea and made statements that this was Russian land, although the official position taken by Vladimir Putin, and previously by Boris Yeltsin, was that any revision of the borders was out of the question. I viewed such permanent tension as a means of influence over Ukraine, in order to keep it on edge and to prevent it from pursuing independent policies.
Do you believe that Putin and the Russians acted in accordance with a pre-arranged plan, or did it all happen gradually as the situation developed?
I believe that the Russian security services had different plans prepared for different scenarios. Among these, they had an aggressive plan to annex Crimea. Of course, it is the head of state that chooses which strategy to implement. Indeed, there is speculation that apparently an agreement with Viktor Yanukovych was reached regarding the surrender of Crimea. When Crimean military units began surrendering one after another, we were simply overwhelmed.
Who came up with the initiative for you to speak with President Putin? Why did it not work out?
Half a month prior to the invasion by Russian troops, I was requested to attend a meeting with a fairly influential figure of the Russian federal security service. This person was permanently based in Sevastopol. We met at the border of Sevastopol and Yalta and spoke briefly. I was told that he was instructed to let me know that Putin wanted to meet with me. When I asked what Putin would like to discuss, the answer was: “You will meet and talk.” I replied then that this was not my level and there was a head of the state for this.
At that time, we already had strained relations with Russia, the pro-Russian powers had suddenly become active and it was obvious that Russia strongly supported them in every way possible. In this situation, it did not strike me immediately that some horrid events were on the horizon and Putin would like to meet in order to gauge the position of the Crimean Tatars.
In a word, I did not agree to the meeting and I said that I did not think this meeting was necessary. At the same time we discussed a possible meeting with Mintimer Shaimiev, a Russian Tatar and former president of the Tatar Republic, concerning business relationships between Crimea and Kazan. After a while, when the turbulent events had already started, I received a call from Moscow and was told that Shaimiev would like to meet with me. We agreed to meet in Kazan.
Prior to the meeting, I was called again and told that Putin had learned that I was going to Kazan, and that after the meeting with Shaimiev he would also like to meet with me. I said that I had nothing to discuss with Putin, as the occupation was already in progress. There were talks about a referendum and Crimea’s unification with Russia. I again said that Putin should meet with our leadership. But, in any event, I said that I would talk with our leadership and if they agreed then I could possibly meet with Putin.
When I arrived in Russia, I was welcomed very pompously and brought to Shaimiev. We spoke at lengths about the situation in Crimea and how Tatarstan could help its brothers – the Crimean Tatars. I said that Russia was making a huge mistake and that it should promptly withdraw its troops from our territory and that bloodshed was in the air. Shaimiev replied, “You will talk about this with Putin over the phone.”
How would you describe Putin during that discussion? Was he sincere, acknowledging your concerns?
It is hard to tell over the phone. I said to him that I came to Russia in order to voice the view of the indigenous people of the peninsula where Russian troops were being stationed. I argued that Putin was making a big mistake, and that Ukraine is a fraternal country, and that you do not do such things to your brothers. I asked that the troops be withdrawn from the territory of the country as soon as possible and that all controversies be resolved at the negotiating table. Putin replied that the responsibility lies with the bandits, the Banderovites, who came to Kyiv.
I was surprised with this response. It is one thing to say this for propaganda purposes and it is quite another to say this to a person that came from the Maidan. I did not try too hard to convince him. I argued that it was not quite so, that we had got rid of a corrupt regime. Putin countered, saying that the toppling of Yanukovych was illegal and the agreements between him and the opposition were not being observed. The extent of the conversation came down to Putin’s promise to do a lot for the Crimean Tatars and that Russia, within a very short time, could do much more than Ukraine had managed during the whole 23 years of its independence. In essence, he said that Russia would resolve all the social problems of the Crimean Tatars and that Russia had plenty of opportunities that Ukraine lacked.
How did he react to your arguments?
In truth, there was no harshness in his words. However, I suppose that he did not expect such a tone from me. Nevertheless, his central message was: “I fear that the Crimean Tatars could be involved in various acts of provocation”. I said that our views were identical here and that we Crimean Tatars had struggled to return to our homeland for decades and that we were proud that during all those years we had not shed a single drop of blood, neither ours nor anyone else’s, and that we had won our rights solely by peaceful means. But now, when our land was occupied, it was very difficult to promise that there would not be a single bloody event. Nobody could guarantee that.
Putin replied that he ordered the military units to be cautious so that there would be no unlawful acts committed against the Crimean Tatars. I said that there were the so-called “self-defence” forces, which were difficult to control, and that provocations could occur at any moment. In response, he made a harsh statement: “They had better not!”
Now that Crimea has been annexed, what do you see as its future? Will it ever return to Ukraine again, and if yes, in what way?
The attitude of the Ukrainian leadership and the president, Petro Poroshenko, in particular, is the following: to never and under no circumstances agree that Ukraine will become a part of Russia. This is also the point of view of the overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars. Of course there are some people who support the Russian action, as is usual in any country under occupation. But even those people who were actively running around with Russian flags now understand that they have fallen into a trap. There are no democratic freedoms; everything is just as it used to be during the time of the Soviet Union.
The economic situation in Crimea is also deteriorating. The main source of income in Crimea – tourism – no longer exists because there is practically no way to fly there. The only way to get to Crimea is through Russia. Previously, Russians made up only 30 per cent of tourists while Ukrainians were 60 per cent with the last 10 per cent from various countries. Products were almost twice as cheap as in Russia. They had promised us to raise salaries and pensions, which was done; however, prices have increased even more.
Primarily, we expect that the sanctions should be so effective that Russia would be forced to abandon the territory. After my discussion with Putin, I headed to Brussels to the NATO Headquarters, where we discussed the situation. I was the main speaker there. We discussed the rounds of sanctions against Russia that would force it to leave Crimea. I was told that sanctions were also imposed in 1979, when Russia occupied Afghanistan. But we had to wait for more than 10 years until the Soviet Union dissolved. Do we have to wait that long again to see Ukraine liberated? It is unlikely that I will live for so long. In Brussels, they said no. Events now move so dynamically that one does not have to wait so long.
To what extent can you rely on the West? The overall appearance of their policies is not very persuasive. What is your opinion?
Certainly our wishes are one thing and the reality is something else. We all understand the connected nature of trade and the gas industry between Russia and Europe. We understand that such abrupt moves also cause damage to the economies of western states. However, if this price for peace and security is not paid now, then later they will have to pay ten times more. I discussed this issue in great detail with the prime minister of Turkey. We are grateful to Turkey for taking a very clear position and not recognising the referendum and annexation.
However, when it comes down to specifics and I asked him to close the Bosphorus Straits so that naval warships could not pass, he said that they could not do this, that Turkey had to comply with the Montreux Convention. I asked him how they could comply with obligations in relation to a country which itself did not abide by its agreements, such as, for example, the Budapest Memorandum (according to which the US, Great Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukrainian security and territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s abandonment of nuclear weapons). His response was “We are not Russia, we have the rule of law”. Turkey would only close the straits in case of a unanimous NATO decision, but it was not possible as a unilateral act.
There are rumours that the Crimean Tatars are considering abandoning the peninsula and building a town in the Kherson oblast of Ukraine?
We appeal to our compatriots and ask them not abandon Crimea however difficult it may be – Crimea is our homeland! Of course, due to the difficult circumstances, many people have left this territory. According to our estimates, nearly 7,000 Crimean Tatars have already left. The principal motivation of those who have left is that the new regime is even worse than the one during the Soviet times.
The leaders of the Crimean Tatars are not allowed to enter the country and your own son has been transferred to mainland Russia facing enhanced criminal charges. What does life look like for your fellow citizens? Can we call this a comprehensive terror campaign? Or are there only targeted actions?
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who claim to have adjusted to the new reality and have no problems with Russia. What’s more it is not just the Crimea Tatars who have to deal with this new reality; there are also Russians and Ukrainians. The problem is that now their attitudes cannot change anything. There will be no more referenda, and even talks about the need to hold a referendum are considered a criminal offence and regarded as a call for “separatism”.
Of course, serious violations of human rights are taking place. International organisations must monitor the situation and cases should be brought before court. I also said this in Strasburg because as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I am able to speak there. Observers are needed, but they are not allowed in Crimea. The radical solution to this issue is that the population of Crimea be liberated from occupation. Otherwise this will turn into another frozen region where there will be no normal life, like in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Karabakh or Transnistria. Crimea now risks becoming a decaying region. We will become a North Korea isolated from the civilised world.
If you now had the chance to speak with Putin again, what would you tell him? Would you even speak to him at all?
Recently the agent that supervised the organisation of the telephone conversations with Putin told me that Putin would like to meet and talk with me once again. I said that they had a strange state: I was not allowed on its territory and now their “czar” wanted to talk to me. If I agreed, I was told, then immediately after a conversation with Putin my son would be released and I would be allowed to enter Crimea. The head of state was keeping my son as a hostage to dictate terms to me? Naturally, I refused.
Afterwards I met with the Ukrainian ombudsman, Valeriya Lutkovska, who suggested that maybe I should meet with Putin. But what would I tell him? He wants me to accept the occupation, to be happy within Russia. If I do not say this, he will have a legitimate question: “So why did you come?” The European Court of Human Rights ruled that my son should be released from custody. It came to the point that the head of security services suggested exchanging my son for captured terrorists. I said that my son was not a terrorist. When the exchange was suggested, 13 for 13 from each side, if I recall it well, they struck my son off the list. So this matter is under Putin’s personal control.
We witnessed the civil courage of the Crimean Tatars who stood on the streets holding Ukrainian flags before and during the referendum in Crimea. How can you explain that such a small group of people has such strong political features?
I would not say that the Crimean Tatar people are so special. As a people, we have the experience of living under the rule of the Russian Empire. We know what it means. Whatever problems we have with the Ukrainian leadership, we know that life under Russia’s rule is much worse. And when they say that Russia will guarantee this or that, I answer: We do not put our homeland for sale and secondly, we know what Russia’s promises are worth. Russia promised us territorial integrity and security and during a difficult situation decided to grab back Crimea for itself.
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Mustafa Dzhemilev is a former Soviet dissident, former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars and recognised as the leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement. On May 7th 2014 Dzhemilev was awarded Poland’s “Solidarity Prize”.
Giuseppe D’Amato is an Italian journalist and historian based in Moscow who specialises in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union.