Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 26.10.2017
Russia’s slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars continues. On October 25, the Russian regime which is invading Europe in Crimea released two hostages, Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov. The two men are out of the clutches of Muscovy, but for the time being they cannot return to their homeland that has been stolen from them. Grave violations of human rights by the Russians in the parts of Ukraine illegally occupied by them continue unabated.
Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov are leaders of the Crimean Tatars, who are the autochthonous people of Ukraine’s southern peninsula. When Russia commenced its invasion of Ukraine on 20 February 2014, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People organized a peaceful demonstration of Ukrainian citizens to support the Ukrainian state, outside the regional parliament in Simferopol. When the pro-Ukraine demonstration was held on 26 February 2014, Russia had not declared war, nor had it yet announced the so-called ‘annexation’ of Crimea – which came later, on 18 March 2014. The peaceful demonstration by the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian patriots on 26 February 2014 showed that Crimea is Ukraine. It gave the lie to Muscovy propaganda that somehow Crimeans were not Ukrainians but were Russians instead, and were begging to be ‘returned’ to Russia. The ‘little green men’ who were blockading Ukrainian military installations were exposed as the Russian special forces soldiers they actually were, and not the local militants they pretended to be. Putin and the siloviki in Moscow were furious that their lie was exposed. The world saw that Russia was invading Ukraine. The Putin regime is nothing if not vengeful, and when all of Crimea was in its power the Crimean Tatars were singled out for slow-motion ethnic cleansing. ATR TV, a television channel for Crimean Tatars, was shut down by the illegal occupation authorities on 1 April 2015. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People was banned on 26 April 2016. Crimean Tatar leaders Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov were charged in sham courts with terrorism offences for the 26 February 2014 peaceful demonstration. In show trials where the accused men were not confronted with any evidence or any witnesses, Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov were quickly convicted and sentenced.
Putin got his petty revenge, but he did not break the spirit of Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov. The two Crimean Tatar leaders have refused to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship. They know that multicultural and democratic Ukraine is the best guarantor of Crimean Tatar autonomy and self-determination, and they know that foreign occupation by the brutal Muscovy regime means ethnic cleansing for the Crimean Tatar people that has not been seen with this level of brutality since Stalin’s deportation of May 1944. Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov refused to recognize the jurisdiction of Putin’s kangaroo courts on Ukrainian territory. They refused to ask Putin for a pardon when they were ‘convicted.’ The lawyer who represented Ahtem Chiygoz (but who was prevented from representing Ilmi Umerov), Nikolai Polozov, said this about the two men: “Neither Akhtem Chiygoz nor Ilmi Umerov signed or wrote any requests for a pardon, amnesty or anything else. They are heroes of the Crimean Tatar people, Ukrainian political prisoners for whom moral principles and conscience are higher even than their own freedom. They are not people who can be brought to their knees and forced to ask for any favours from the Russian state.” Other Crimean Tatar leaders and activists are still imprisoned, for refusing to turn on each other and refusing to bow to the authority usurped by the invaders from Muscovy.
The Putin regime released Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov by flying them to Turkey. There are two reasons for doing this and not doing a much easier hand-over to Ukrainian authorities at the Crimea-Kherson de facto border. The first reason is that Russia does not want to acknowledge that Crimea is Ukraine and that Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov are Ukrainian citizens. Impossible though it is, Putin wishes the world to forget the colossal blunder he made by invading the largest wholly European country, Ukraine, in Crimea and Donbas. The second reason is that Russia would like to position NATO member Turkey as not firmly in the Western alliance, but as being something between East and West. Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people, and it is in Russia’s interest to see them associated more with Turkey and less with Ukraine. Turkey does not, though, recognize Russia’s so-called ‘annexation’ of Crimea, and Turkey supports the Crimean Tatars as Ukrainian citizens who support their home and native land, which is Ukraine.
Crimea is not a part of Russia, and it never will be. Crimea is the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine. When it’s not temporarily occupied by Russia, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea has some powers which are devolved from the central government of Ukraine in Kyiv, which it exercises through a parliament in Simferopol. Now that Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov are free from Russian prison (although not free to return to their homes), the Ukrainian government should support Ukrainian Crimea and the Crimean Tatar people in every way possible. Many Ukrainian citizens who live in Crimea, especially the Crimean Tatars, have shown abiding loyalty and fidelity to Ukraine. The ‘banning’ of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is an illegal act by an illegal occupation regime – Russia – on Ukrainian territory. The Mejlis and other Ukrainian patriots constitute a de facto government-in-exile of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The Ukrainian government should make this a government-in-exile de jure, and give a legal foundation for representative democracy for Crimea, if not in Crimea. A government-in-exile of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, legally sanctioned by Ukraine (the only legal authority in Crimea) would give impetus to the task of liberation, which must come sooner or later.
Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov are free, and that is a blessing for these men. But their people and their homeland are not free. Crimea is captive to foreign invaders from Muscovy. The Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is already in exile. Two deputy chairmen, Akhtem Chiygoz, and Ilmi Umerov, have now joined him. But aggressor Russia is not rid of its problems so easily. Being in exile, the leadership of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People can now form the vital core of a fully-formed government-in-exile of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The sooner that day comes, the sooner the day of liberation will come, and Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine becomes a living reality once more.