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Crimean crisis reignites resistance

An interview with Ayla Bakkalli, a Representative of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an Executive Member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars and Adviser to the Permanent Mission of Ukraine on Indigenous Matters. Interviewer: Jim Blackburn

January 9, 2019 - Jim Blackburn - Interviews

On December 17, 2018 the United Nations General Assembly passed a 2/3 majority vote on Ukraine’s draft resolution titled, “Militarisation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol Ukraine”. There were 41 co-sponsors on this resolution that included the United States, France, Georgia, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Moldova, Turkey and the United Kingdom among others.

This is a result of Russia crossing a critical threshold in blocking the entry of three Ukrainian naval vessels by cutting off the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. This was in Ukrainian territorial waters off Crimea and has been named the Kerch Strait Incident of November 25th. Three Ukrainian vessels have since been confiscated and 24 Ukrainian sailors are being held at prison facilities in Moscow. Since 2014 an estimated half million Russian military personnel have been transferred to Crimea.

JIM BLACKBURN: The Ukrainian President Poroshenko has been warning the international community for some time that Russia wants the whole of the country, which Crimea and the Donbass region are the first steps towards that goal. This incident is actually another seizure of Ukrainian sovereign territory in maritime form. Is there any hope left for the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians that Russia will be deterred by the international community, especially within the UN where you are an expert?

AYLA BAKKALLI: If I can suggest in my response that whenever the media or a panel discuss Crimea Ukraine, a map appears before the viewer to understand the immense geostrategic  leverage in controlling the navigation waters of the Black Sea. Andrij Dobriansky, Masha Shynkarenko and myself presented a power point at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University in July of 2016 linking the historical maritime waterways that connects the Kerch Bosporus, to the Istanbul Bosporus, opening to the Sea of Marmara, to the third Dardanelles straits and then all the way to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas

Map of Crimea in the Tatar language (source: medeniye.org)

The Ukrainian territorial waters that run through the Black Sea meet up with the Turkish straits that we know have played a significant role in European and world history. What happened on November 25th with the seizure of Ukrainian vessels was without question Russia’s attempt to dominate these straits that started with the construction of the Kerch Bridge, which was built soon after the illegal occupation of Crimea. 

I wonder if in fact this Russian strategy is a replay resembling the Crimean War of 1854 that was fought on the Crimean peninsula,and on the Black Sea, by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia all competing for influence in the Middle East. This translates currently into the larger role Russia has played in Syria, Turkey and the Middle East in general since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. It has been repeated by many intellectual think tanks  that Russia is seeking in some way to replicate its past in the present.

Getting back to the current situation, surely the brazen act by Russia is a result of the cumulative ineffective response by world leaders in the form of sanctions with Russia since the events of 2014. In which, it might have had the unexpected result of making Russia more self sufficient and less willing to resolve issues diplomatically. In other words, the response by the international community has not and is currently not, deterring Russia’s aggression. It has had the opposite effect of emboldening Russia to completely disregard once again, among many other agreements, the UN Charter. This includes the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and 2003 bilateral treaty in which Ukraine gave Russia permission  to sail their ships in Ukrainian territorial waters.  

As we neared toward the end of the session on December 17th, I sensed during the explanation on the vote that Russia’s blockage of Ukraine ships through the Kerch Straits was in fact a red line for the international community. While Russia might not admit it, but attitudes at the UN are beginning to reflect that it has over played its hand  on this, including its occupation of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in 2014. It can be seen at the UN that Russia is increasingly becoming predictable to many UN member states as it no longer can find ways to justify its military aggression and is resorting to sinister methods so unbecoming to a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But, whether at the Security Council or in the halls of the UN, it can be said that for the most part even those nations that abstain on procedural votes on Ukraine, all recognise that Russia is without a doubt the guilty party and architect of the whole conflict.   

I believe Russia is not succeeding in isolating Crimea as I once before thought. The Ukrainian leadership, the Ukrainian people and the indigenous Crimean Tatars have been front and center in supporting each others efforts in exposing Russia’s expansionist intentions.   

The recent resolution will further bring home to UN members that all hands need to be on board in supporting this resolution that will ultimately demand the withdrawal of all Russian military forces out of occupied Crimea. In other words, simply stated by President Poroshenko, “Mr. Putin get out of Ukraine”. 

What kind of change if any, do you expect in Ukraine with the implement of the 30 day martial law and that Russian male nationals between 16 and 60 years of age will be denied entry to Ukraine during this period of martial law? Do the Crimean Tatars support President Poroshenko’s decision?

It is without doubt that President Poroshenko is the best Ukrainian president for the indigenous Crimean Tatars. His government endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), designating the Crimean Tatars as the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula. This was a long standing request by our indigenous leader Mustafa Jemilev and Chairman Refat Chubarov of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.

The seizure and blockage of Ukrainian territorial waters was indeed a red line. Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars have had enough. Held as captives, 24 very young Ukrainian navy officers touched a chord in all of us. We did not want to hear any advice for Ukraine to “stand down” or  “restrain” or “refrain” as was the case in the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. We were waiting to hear something different: imposing martial law was the right decision at the right time.  

Since the Euromaidan Revolution the Ukrainian people have taken responsibility of public life with an eye to defend their nation against an enemy of their freedom. President Poroshenko’s martial law, with the prohibition of entry of Russian males into Ukraine, places the people of Ukraine and its government on the same page. 

Why do you think Russia is so intent in continually oppressing Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians? Why is it so difficult for Russia to exist without colonising Ukraine? And finally, do you think that Crimea will be returned to Ukraine or is it doomed to become a Russian military outpost on the Black Sea similar to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

The indigenous Crimean Tatars can never accept Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. That is why Russia can only rule Crimea by oppression, repression and imprisonment of those who oppose its presence on its indigenous homeland. If it does not oppress, Russia is unable to remain in Crimea.  

The continual persecution today and the  mass deportation in 1944 mentioned by our Chairman Refat Chubarov of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, who recently stated that the Crimean Tatars know the true value of their indigenous homeland and the price that is being paid in rejecting the occupation of Crimea. Ukrainians have dug their heels deep in Ukrainian soil along with the indigenous Crimean Tatars and both will not let its land be controlled by Russia no matter how long the resistance must take.   

It is said that in times of crisis, what is real in “us” comes out. That is a people or a nation displays its real values in times of emergency or confrontation. In essence, Euromaidan tested the character of the Ukrainian people. It displayed to the world that Ukraine was much more than the perception and propaganda Russia tried to fool the world with. Euromaidan exposed the degree to which Russia undermined the tenacity and commitment of the Ukrainian people to be a democratic nation.

This new aggression by Russia has not weakened Ukrainian people instead it has aroused the 2014 emotions against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Once again, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars have taken action to utilize all platforms to inform and place pressure on the international community to bring Russian aggression out of the darkness and back into the light.

The indigenous Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea immediately began mobilising an effort to collect donations and prepared care packages to be delivered to the Ukrainian captured naval officers. There were also 12 indigenous Crimean Tatar lawyers led by Emil Kurbadinov, an indigenous Crimean Tatar human rights defender known for his role in defending political prisoners in Crimea who wanted to take up the case of the Ukrainian sailors in court. Unfortunately, Emil Kurbadinov has been detained since then on a trumped up charge of extremist comments made in 2013 on Facebook.  

Furthermore, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) and its Washington, DC bureau UNIS, worked feverishly in mobilising Ukrainian Americans and American Crimean Tatars, in sending out letters to respective congressional members in condemning Russia’s aggressive acts against Ukraine. As a matter of fact, the US Senate sponsored Senate Resolution 709 calling for the immediate release of all the captured Ukrainian. This resolution was approved by unanimous consent in the US Senate.

For the world community, the recent resolution highlighted not only the 500,000 plus troops now in occupied Crimea, but also addressed the continuing de-stabilisation of the whole region owing to the transfer of nuclear-capable and conventional weapon systems. This not only undermines the national sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine but also the security and stability within Europe itself. This was reflected in the high number of European nations that were co-sponsors on the recent resolution.

There is currently a worldwide movement #LiberateCrimea in collaboration with Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians led by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center in Kyiv calling to support the liberation of Crimea and keeping solidarity with the Crimean Tatar people in strengthening voices within civil society. It is a call to end the occupation of Crimea and return basic human rights to the indigenous Crimean Tatars.

Ayla Bakkalli is a Representative of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an Executive Member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars and Adviser to the Permanent Mission of Ukraine on Indigenous Matters.

Jim Blackburn is a writer and editor living in Krakow.

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