Ukraine crisis: Muslim Tatars are under threat from ethnic violence under new separatist administration in Crimea
For one who is likely to be among the first to be taken away at gunpoint if the new men in power here have their way, Fazil Amazayev, was being remarkably calm. Such actions, he insisted “will unite all the Muslims here; they will make enemies of us all”.
Mr Amazayev is a senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic political organisation which is legal in Ukraine. However, among the first pronouncements made by the new separatist Prime Minister of Crimea and the security chief he has appointed is that it is a “ dangerous terrorist organisation” which will have to be dealt with.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has been blamed in many countries for promoting radicalism; but violent militancy caused by it is hard to find in Ukraine. And the fear of becoming sectarian targets is not just confined to activists among the Tatars: many in the community are staying away from city centres where Russian-speaking vigilantes hold sway, and some are leaving for other parts of the country.
Mr Amazayev says he is confident that the Tatars of Crimea will not let him and others from his group be picked off by the new head of security, Petr Zima, who was promoted from his previous post in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. “Zima built up a reputation in Sevastopol for carrying out raids, accusing people of being involved in extremism. But, if he starts doing that now, he will make a big mistake. The people in the [Tatar] establishment, the Mufti and the Mejlis [representative council] criticised us in the past, but now we are all facing the common enemy. And, if they do start persecuting us, we know how to survive, we have done it in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia.”
Nevertheless, Mr Amazayev has started to be very cautious, not straying outside his home town, Bakhchisarai, a historic place of mosques where Muslims form a sizeable portion of the population. “I don’t think it will be safe for me to travel, not at this time,” he said.
The larger Tatar community is in friction with the Russian nationalist population over the issue of secession from Ukraine. The new Crimean administration of Sergei Aksenov is organising a referendum on the issue, clearing the way to rule by Moscow – anathema to the Tatars who were deported from here, en masse, to Siberia and the central Asian steppes by Stalin at the end of the Second World War.
Today the head of the Russian republic of Tatarstan arrived in Crimea. Many, however, view Rustam Minnikhanov as an emissary of the Kremlin sent to persuade the Mejlis to change its policy of refusing to recognise the new separatist Crimean administration. “ He is not someone we see as our protector,” said one of its officials.
The sense of being under threat has led to the formation of self-defence groups in Tatar neighbourhoods: the growing prevalence of fear in a people who have lived, on the whole, amicably with those of Russian and Ukrainian extraction since they returned from exile in the 1990s.
The current tensions emerged quickly. A demonstration against secession drew 10,000 from Ukraine’s largest Muslim community to the streets of the Crimean capital, Simferopol, last week. There were chants of “Allah hu Akhbar” from a small band of Tatars which some among an opposing protest by Russian speakers complained they found intimidating.
There were no serious acts of violence by either side or the police; but two people were reported to have died in the crush as the crowd converged outside the state parliament.
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That night the parliament buildings were taken over by Russian-speaking gunmen in balaclavas. The following morning Vladimir Putin’s forces had begun taking over strategic locations. Soon the actual numbers of those killed in the rally rose to four or six. All the victims were, it was claimed, Russians who had been murdered by Tatars using iron bars, knives and noxious sprays.
Street collections were soon under way for the bereaved families, and passing Tatars often found themselves subjected to abuse. Adem Suleymanov was hurrying home in the evening through Simferopol’s Lenin Square when he was accosted by three young men wearing orange and black ribbons of the Russian military order of St George.
“They were quite drunk. They demanded that I should give money for the families of those who died. I did,” he recalled. “Then one of them swung me around and started shouting ‘Why do you want to destroy that?’ And then he started kicking at me.” Mr Suleymanov was being pointed by his attackers at the statue of Lenin which the Mejlis had demanded should be pulled down and replaced by a park reflecting peace and unity among the different nationalities of Crimea.
A “march for peace” was held at Bakhchisarai by the League of Crimean Tatar Women. It walked past Russian nationalist vigilantes who had formed a cordon in front of a Ukrainian base surrounded by Moscow’s forces. “I do not like foreign soldiers occupying our country,” said 25-year-old Aliya. “I also do not agree with the policies of Hizb ut-Tahrir. If the Russians start pressuring the Tatars then it is natural that people will close in and, who knows, people like Hizb ut-Tahrir may start picking up support.”
Sitting on his balcony, watching the march and the Russian soldiers, 75-year-old Rifat Ibrahimov’s one wish was that the past not return: “I was so very young when we were moved from here that time. I have learnt to forget most of the terrible things that happened, especially after we came back home. No, I do not want to see days like those again.”
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