We do not have another motherland
Interview with Alim Aliev, a program director at the Crimean House. Interviewers: Iwona Reichardt and Margarita Novikova.
IWONA REICHARDT AND MARGARITA NOVIKOVA: We have been hearing a lot about disappearances and other forms of physical persecution of the Tatar population in Crimea. Are these acts still taking place today?
ALIM ALIEV: For the Crimean Tatars, the last 70 months (the duration of the occupation of Crimea) which have been a battle for the preservation of their identity and the possibility to live in their motherland, have been filled with constant repressions: home searches by the special forces, disappearances and killings, the throwing of people into jail on the basis of politically motivated cases. Human rights organisations recorded more than 1500 instances of violations, most of them involving the indigenous people — the Crimean Tatars. As of today, about 100 people are in captivity, seven people have been murdered, and another 15 are reported missing. According to these statistics, there are thousands of despondent fates and hundreds of children who are left without their parents. Most Crimean political prisoners are prosecuted for terrorism and extremism, in this way Russian authorities are trying to shape the image of the Tatars as radicals. Even though the Crimean Tatar national movement both in Soviet times and today have been advocating the principle of peaceful non-violent resistance.
Analysing the discourse in the West with regards to the possible reset with Russia it is clear that there are voices demanding that Ukraine accepts the fact that Crimea is a part of the Russian Federation. What is the reaction of the Crimean Tatar community to such statements? Has there been an official position already issued?
Accepting the occupation of Crimea for us is like cutting off our right hand and saying that it is not needed. The Majlis of the Crimean Tatar people as a representative body, Crimean civic and expert organisations and the Ukrainian authorities unanimously emphasise that Crimea is a Ukrainian territory temporarily illegally occupied by the Russian Federation. We want to convey one important message to the whole civilised world: the occupation of Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine are not exclusively a problem of the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian state, it is a common challenge and an effort to destroy the stable system of international relations. We are also seeing the direct or indirect intervention of the Kremlin in the internal affairs of European countries and of the United States (through elections, or the support of far-right or left-wing political forces that destabilise the situation). That is why the battle for European values and the freedom of the whole region is taking place in Ukraine. There is no need to feel sorry for us, victimise us, what we ask is to stand with us side by side and help us protect the future of our children.
You were on the team of organisers of Amazing Stories of Crimea [exhibition about Crimean Tatar culture and history in Kyiv]. How would you describe the importance of such exhibition for Crimean Tatars and also ethnic Ukrainians?
The Amazing Stories of Crimea is a large-scale museum exhibition project about Crimea from ancient times. One of the aims of the project was to show that Crimea was a part of the Ukrainian narrative, and the Crimean Tatars, who in the course of their ethnogenesis incorporated the blood of ancient peoples and tribes that formed and lived on the peninsula (such as the Goths, Alans, Kipchaks, Tauri, etc.), are the indigenous people of the peninsula. And we were doing it in the language of facts and artefacts, not fakes and propaganda that the Russian authorities are using to justify the occupation of Crimea. Obviously, exhibitions like these and other educational and cultural projects about the Crimea should have been present decades ago. Now we are catching up with this, it can be said that only since 2014 did the Ukrainians and the Crimean Tatars begin to get to know each other truly deeply through language, traditions and a very different but common history.
You mentioned in the interview elsewhere that the majority of Crimean Tatars try to stay in Crimea after annexation. Can you explain why it is important for Crimean Tatars to stay on their land?
We do not have another motherland. After Stalinist deportations in 1944 (in the result of which almost half of the Crimean Tatars were killed) we sought for 45 years to return to our homeland. We paid a high price for this. After the return we had to start everything over again: building our houses, looking for jobs and starting our own businesses (Crimean Tatars were often denied of workplace), creating our own political, cultural, educational and civic institutions. Today the occupying power is trying to destroy all that we have rebuilt in Crimea, because a strong Crimean Tatar identity (equally as Ukrainian) is a threat to national security of Putin’s Russia. Therefore, the tactic of Crimean Tatars is to preserve themselves as a people and to live on the peninsula, providing there is no direct physical threat from the Russian authorities.
There is also a number that have left. How are they perceived by fellow Ukrainian citizens of other ethnicities? Would you describe it as a largely positive attitude?
Since 2014, about 25,000 Crimean Tatars have left the peninsula. And this is not a quantitative but a qualitative indicator because there is a brain drain: political, civic and cultural figures, businessmen, students and young professionals left. Our organisation was the first to accept internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Crimea, we were helping to find housing and jobs, to integrate into new environments. For the most part, the Crimean Tatars have been perceived as civic Ukrainians (the same way the Crimean Tatars are perceiving themselves), brothers who found themselves in a difficult situation due to Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s inability to stop this aggression. Therefore, there is respect and even a sense of debt to the Crimean Tatars, but most importantly, there is a joint fight for the occupied territories and the hostages.
Being forced out of your home is always traumatic. What mechanisms of support are available for internally displaced Crimean Tatars in mainland Ukraine?
For Ukrainian IDPs issues of housing, work and the exercise of certain political rights (such as the right to vote in local elections) are still relevant. For the Crimean Tatars, the hardest challenge is the preservation of the Crimean Tatar language (which is included in the UNESCO list of disappearing languages), culture and religion. These questions are actively addressed by the Crimean Tatars, who are members of civic organisations, as well as the state, who has also created a number of Crimean institutions that require additional political and financial support. I am often asked how to support people who remain on the peninsula. The first and the easiest thing that you can do is to talk with them. If you have friends, relatives and acquaintances on the peninsula, communicate with them, invite them to visit, because when they leave from there they get “a breath of fresh air”. It is also necessary to write letters to Crimean political prisoners in jails and to support their wives and children. And also never let yourself or anyone else to doubt that Crimea will be de-occupied. Often at celebrations and birthdays we proclaim and wish “Наступного року у вільному Бахчисараї!” (“Next year in free Bakhchysarai!”). There is no other way.
Alim Aliev is a program director at the Crimean House. Mediakonsultant, social activist, co-founder of the initiative «Crimea SOS» іnitiative, which assists migrants from Crimea and Donbas. Co-author of a book about Mustafa Dzhemilev.
Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.
Margarita Novikova is a MA student in European studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.