Tears well in Ayla Bakkalli’s eyes as she speaks about her family. “My mother used to exchange letters with her relatives during the Soviet years. She went to Uzbekistan with my sister in the 1990s. My uncle would never speak inside, only in the park. What was he going to say? He was a humble man, not a wealthy man. He was two years in the gulag. He suffered. What could he say? That it’s awful the way he’s living? And yet he and my mother would meet in the park just to share stories. My mother wanted to speak with him. It’s very hard. Very hard.”
Bakkalli is the U.S. representative for the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the 33-member governing body for the Muslim-majority population of indigenous people living in the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula. Last week, the peninsula was made slightly less autonomous by its annexation via a sham “referendum” under the gun of occupying forces from the Russian Federation. So when Bakkalli and I meet in a restaurant in central Manhattan, it is mostly to discuss what will likely prove the biggest challenge to Vladimir Putin’s designs on the Black Sea region: Crimean Tatars who have been through hell once before under Russian domination have no intention of a repeat performance.
To illustrate her point, Bakkalli tells me a story of a 91-year-old man that is frequently cited in the Crimean Tatar press. “He lived through World War II, Stalinism, the fall of Communism, the resurrection of democracy. Having noted this annexation, he now says, ‘I am digging in the basement of my home a grave. If something happens to me, I will be buried in Crimea.’” This sentiment, she warns, is widespread among her people and is not easily dislodged, no matter how many Russian servicemen Putin imports or how many proxy militias of ethnic Russians he underwrites.
In fact, Bakkalli says, the Tatars saw this Anschluss coming years before anyone else did. “If you look at some of the statements we’ve been making since 2005 at the United Nations Indigenous People’s Forum, we knew what Putin was up to. The Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, the extension of its lease to 2044 was very telling. That itself was tantamount to an invasion,” she said. “Putin only waited for the opportunity to fully implement it, and that opportunity was a pro-democratic revolution in Ukraine.”
Bakkalli belongs to a deeply traumatized but resilient diaspora, one that now intuits another ethnic atrocity at the hands of a Russian dictator. Her relatives were all deported by Josef Stalin in 1944 as part of a wholesale population transfer of Crimean Tatars that culminated in genocide: an estimated 46 percent of the transferees died en route to Central Asian republics or to the Volga or Siberian regions. This is why Bakkalli’s mother and uncle wound up talking in a park in Uzbekistan. Her paternal uncle died in a labor camp driving a tractor on a frozen river.
Ten years later, in 1954, Khrushchev “awarded” Crimea back to Ukraine. It was only in the late 1980s, during glasnost, that the Tatars were allowed back in, although the damage done by exile and dispossession has never been fully addressed by successive governments in Kiev. It also bodes ill that the pretext for their expulsion by Stalin – alleged collaboration with Nazism – now finds an eerie echo in Putin's self-justification for gobbling up Crimea, that ethnic Russians today are under threat from neo-Nazis (even though they are not). If the Tatars oppose Crimea’s Russians, what must that make them in the eyes of the Kremlin?
The community numbers only 300,000, or about 12 percent of the peninsula’s total population, which makes the Tatars a small but significant minority. It is also one not easily cowed or intimidated. It was Tatar television that stayed on the air the longest to report on the Russian seizure of sovereign Ukrainian territory earlier this month. The vast majority of Tatars not only reject annexation and boycotted last week’s “referendum,” but also consider themselves aligned with fundamental tenets of Ukrainian nationalism. As Bakkalli puts it, “the steppe regions of Ukraine are Crimea; Crimea is Ukraine.” Accordingly, the Tatars backed the Orange Revolution in 2004 and they supported the Euromaidan protests which ousted corrupt Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February.
So where Stalin destroyed a nation, Putin is trying to bribe or co-opt one. He has tried in vain to curry favor among Crimea’s Tatars by promising them language rights, 20 percent representation in the regional legislature and executive, and recognition of their Mejlis and Kurultay, or National Congress. He’s also experimented with a Kadyrov-like satrap in the form of Rustam Temirgaliyev, the current vice premier of the Crimean Rada, or parliament. However, Temirgaliyev is a Kazan Tatar, not an indigenous Crimean.
“We are not from Tatarstan, not from Kazakhstan,” Bakkalli says. “We go way back, to the Scythians, to the Goths, to the Greeks. There are Crimean Tatars who speak Greek.” The genuine leader of this community is a Soviet-era dissident and much-revered former chairman of the Mejlis, Mustapha Cemilev. And Cemilev has flatly rejected Putin’s overtures to switch loyalties and repudiated the “official” turnout percentage given for last week’s vote on annexation. Cemilev, now an elected MP in the Ukrainian Rada from the ruling Fatherland Party, says that, contra the “official” estimate of 60 percent, a mere 34.2 percent of Crimeans even turned up for the plebiscite. (Other analysts have suggested that a similar percentage actually voted for annexation, against Moscow’s insistence that 97 percent did so.) Cemilev has survived 20 years in prisons and labor camps and a 10-month hunger strike; he no doubt intends to outlast this hostile takeover of his homeland by another Russian strongman.
“Who is at risk here?” Bakkalli asks. “Pro-democratic Ukrainians, pro-democratic Russians, and the indigenous peoples of Crimea and Ukraine. To say that [Crimea] has been only 300 years a part of Russia is an acknowledgement and approval of colonization. Because the annexation of Crimea caused the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Crimea Tatars into Turkey – what was then the Ottoman Empire.”
Already, the pro-Russian camp has made ominous moves, prompting sympathetic European countries such as Lithuania to prepare for another Tatar refugee crisis. About 20 people have been kidnapped in Crimea since Russia invaded. Three are still missing, including Ivan Selentsov, a Tatar. Another Tatar activist, Reshat Ametov, was discovered murdered in a forest after last being seen in the hands of a pro-Russian militia. Dzhalil Ibrahimov told the Guardian that these militias “have started to burn fires near the village at night, so we know they are there and they are close.” Then, on March 20, a tocsin for Tatar ethnic cleansing was rung by none other than Rustam Termigaliyev: “We have asked the Crimean Tatars to vacate part of their land, which is required for social needs,” the Crimean vice premier said. “But we are ready to allocate and legalize many other plots of land to ensure a normal life for the Crimean Tatars.”
A normal life, or “normalization” in the Soviet sense? Either way, Bakkalli is terrified. “Another genocide has started already,” she said. “The groundwork has been laid. They’re grabbing land, they’re expelling people, and they painting Xs on the homes of the Tatars to mark them out as fifth columnists. Do you understand how chilling that is for us?”
There are reports that Tatar men are relocating their families abroad and returning to the peninsula solo. I ask Bakkalli whether this suggests that they intend to take up arms and fight back, perhaps forming their own self-defense militias. “That is correct,” she replies. “They’re worried about their parents, their grandparents, their wives, and their children. They feel much more mobility and freedom when they’re by themselves. And they will not let Crimea go.” The Kurultay is going to “recalibrate” in the coming weeks, Bakkalli says, and determine its response to Russia’s seizure.
This prompts the awkward question of whether or not she can envisage a Chechnya scenario playing out on the peninsula, stoked by similar scorched-earth Russian military practices – one that culminates in radicalization, then jihadism. Bakkalli thinks such an option isn’t in the cultural or political DNA of her people, who harbor a “great distrust of religious leaders” dating back to the era of Catherine the Great. The Tatars do not “gravitate toward jihad, and the [Mejlis] is very sensitive about that. They want to be part of Ukraine. They want a unified Ukraine.” Nevertheless, she believes Russia will “admit extremists” to furnish an excuse for a crackdown and to legitimate its own propaganda about security threats. It’s only a matter of time.
I tell her I’ve seen this scenario play out quite recently – in Syria. Bakkalli nods. “And what’s the old saying? If you’re drowning in the middle of the ocean, you hug a snake to get to shore.” I’ve heard that one, too.
Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss