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Occupation, autonomy and a phonecall with Putin: Crimean Tatar Leader Mustafa Dzhemilev speaks out

Published on Mar 7, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 21st edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on March 7th, 2024. The article was written by Olha Dukhnich for New Voice and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

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In an interview on the tenth anniversary of the Occupation of Crimea, Ukrainian political legend and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev reflects on the military occupation, his talks with Vladimir Putin, and his vision of the peninsula’s liberation.

Dzhemilev lives and works in one of the fanciest housing complexes in Pechersk, the heart of Kyiv. From the lift it is easy to find where he’s staying, as I only have to follow the trail of tobacco smoke. This aroma intensifies inside his apartment, as we move into Dzhemilev’s office, which is crammed full of books, souvenirs, awards, and everyday items decorated with Crimean Tatar ornamentations. Meanwhile, YouTube is always playing expert interviews through speakers in the room. Mustafa-Ağa, as the Crimean Tatars respectfully call their leader, strives to stay abreast of the latest news.

He welcomes the NV journalists while holding an ever-present cigarette.

“He smokes three packs a day,” complains an assistant to the 80-year-old Dzhemilev, lamenting his habit.

“I wouldn’t call that an addiction,” adds Dzhemilev dismissively. “I spent a year on a hunger strike in prison. Don’t you think I could quit if I wanted?”

The Crimean Tatar leader is one of the few Ukrainian politicians with a crystal-clear reputation, having served as an MP for seven terms. A dissident during the Soviet era, Dzhemilev went through seven convictions and 15 years in prisons and penal colonies for his defence of his people’s right to know the truth about their past and to return to their homeland of Crimea. In May 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of 190,000 Crimean Tatars away from the peninsula to the central Asian regions of the Soviet Union, and between 1989 and 1994 a quarter of million returned.

During Russia’s military occupation of Crimea in 2014, Dzhemilev received his eighth round of criminal charges, this time from the occupying authorities. This led to him being banned from entering the peninsula.

Neither the Soviet prison camps nor the 303-day hunger strike (followed closely by the entire world), not even constant intimidation from the USSR broke Dzhemilev, who kept building the Crimean Tatar political movement, even behind bars. Back in the late 1980s, after being released from yet another exile by the efforts of, in particular, the Soviet Nobel Prize winner Andrey Sakharov, Dzhemilev led the National Movement of Crimean Tatars. Finally given the chance to return to Crimea, he became the Head of the Mejlis, a revived representative body of the Crimean Tatars — a post that he would keep for many years.

While we’re speaking, we are served coffee — a traditional conversation starter in a Crimean Tatar home.

“We are wary of those who don’t drink coffee,” says Dzhemilev with feigned sternness, as he watches our photographer and cameraman hesitate as to whether they should take a sip, or do their job.

A cast-iron integrity and a sense of humour are the traits that mark Dzhemilev, as we steer back to discussing ten years of the occupation of Crimea and the chances of liberating the peninsula.

“Russia’s military occupation of Crimea in 2014 shocked everyone in mainland Ukraine,” I ask. “Did you think it was unexpected?”

For a moment, Dzhemilev is deep in thought.

“Of course we were monitoring the situation,” he answers, “having managed to intercept some of the FSB documents on Crimea. For instance, back in 2011, we intercepted a policy brief that said that Crimean Tatars and ‘their Mejlis’ were the main obstacle to the realisation of Russia’s strategic interests in Crimea, so the document promoted creating alternative Crimean Tatar organisations, as many as possible, to undermine trust in the Mejlis.”

Having taken a sip of coffee, he recalls how the Mejlis warned Kyiv about the possibility of the military occupation of Crimea back in 2008, right after Russia invaded Georgia.

“We warned that the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea should be put to an immediate end as a direct threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine.”

A moment later, he continues:

“Later, I came across an analytical brief from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Crimea to their superiors in Kyiv saying that our provocative statement was aimed at undermining the ‘fraternal relations’ with the Russian Federation. The Russians were considered brethren, while we were the enemies. Unfortunately, we were right.”

Dzhemilev received even more alarming information on 15 February 2014, when the Revolution of Dignity was still raging in Kyiv, and the fall of the Yanukovych regime was yet to occur. That day, Dzhemilev had a meeting with a representative of the Russian oil company Tatneft in Crimea, Rostislav Vakhitov, who later introduced himself as a Russian intelligence officer.

“We were discussing cooperation between Crimean Tatar business owners and those from Tatarstan [a Russian Republic], and the possibility of sending a delegation of our businesspeople to Tatarstan, when all of a sudden, as our conversation was approaching its end, he said: ‘You being part of that delegation is mandatory, as I’m authorised to convey to you that our President, Vladimir Putin, would like to meet you.’ I asked: ‘What are we going to discuss?’, and the answer was: ‘The future of Crimea.’”

Dzhemilev told Vakhitov that since Crimea was a part of Ukraine, it wasn’t his place to hold such conversations, and instead these should happen between National authorities — like then President Yanukovych. He also asked what does Putin have to do with Ukrainian Crimea.

“That’s what you can ask him,” responded the interlocutor dryly. Two weeks after this solicitation, the impending military occupation became obvious. On 26 February 2014, reacting to a pro-Russian meeting near the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea, Crimean Tatars rallied outside the local Government HQ.

“There were about 12,000 of us, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, closing our ranks under both Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian flags.”

That pro-Russian meeting was supervised by Sergei Asksyonov, the leader of a marginal Crimean political party called ‘Russian Unity’, which was supported by about four percent of the population. It was he whom Moscow later entrusted to govern the peninsula. Aksyonov and Refat Chubarov, by then the new leader of Mejlis, managed to reason with the protesters and prevent the meeting from turning violent. Dzhemilev, who as an MP was in Kyiv, couldn’t personally partake in the negotiations.

After the pro-Ukrainian activists retired to their homes for the night, the building of the Crimean Parliament was seized by Russian special operation forces. Back then, according to Dzhemilev’s data, only a small group of 110 Russian special forces was deployed on the peninsula: 50 of them seized the Government, and the other 60 took over the Parliament.

Putin: ‘Ukraine violated international law by seceding from the USSR!’

Taking a sip of coffee, I remind Dzhemilev that trying to make arrangements with the indigenous peoples whose territories they are planning to seize is something Russia always does, and ask him why the Kremlin went straight for persecution when it came to the Crimean Tatars.

In response, the Crimean Tatar leader recalls a phone conversation he had with Putin on 11 March, after the annexation:

“That was an attempt to shake hands on their part, but that didn’t work out,” explains Dzhemilev. “I specifically laid it down as a condition that the Russian troops should be withdrawn from the peninsula, right from the get-go. That didn’t sit well with them, so they went forward with the repression.

Reaching for another cigarette, he recalls the dictator’s demeanour during that conversation:

“I can say that his voice was even, promising us everything under the sun. He even admitted that Russia had wronged the Crimean Tatars. But after I told him that their annexation of Crimea was a gross violation of international law and that no nation in the world would recognise that act, he suddenly blurted out, ‘It was Ukraine that violated international law by illegally seceding from the Soviet Union!’ These were the words of somebody who personally signed an important agreement with Ukraine acknowledging the inviolability of its borders!”

Lighting a cigarette, Dzhemilev shares how Crimea is now drowned in Russian propaganda, starting with kindergartens and ending with every institution and private business. People in Crimea mostly live like in Soviet times, with an understanding that what they see on TV isn’t real life, but it does take its toll on them, especially the young.

“It’s fortunate for the Crimean Tatars that our kids’ worldview is traditionally shaped in the family, not at school,” explains Dzhemilev. “However, the young people who grew up in Crimea during the occupation are at great risk of being susceptible to propaganda.”

Then, suddenly, the man recalls something and smiles:

“You know, when I was in exile, I copied a quote that I came across in Russian literature that went like this: ‘The supreme power in the Rus is a peak that only alpine eagles and creeping reptiles can reach. But where can one find alpine eagles on the vast plains of Russia? Thus, only the reptiles get to the top.’ I had it [the sheet of paper with that quote] confiscated during a search, but it sums up the nature of the Russian government and the prospects of democracy in that country perfectly.”

Casting aside the empty coffee cups, we proceed with our conversation, talking about the present. I ask Mustafa-Ağa whether the Crimean Tatars living in the peninsula are taking note of the new legislation regarding their rights, passed by the Zelensky-led Government in Kyiv.

Adopting the Law on acknowledging our status as an indigenous people in Ukraine got the most publicity,” the leader turns serious. “Our people have been waiting for this legislation for the past 30 years, and we are very thankful to President Zelensky that it was finally adopted. That Law is the basis for future amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine when we’ll be discussing reframing the current autonomy of Crimea into the Crimean Tatar ethnic and territorial autonomy.”

“If Crimean Tatars had autonomy in 2014, occupying the peninsula would have been an ordeal for Russia”

“Many Ukrainians are wary of any new autonomies for Crimea and are opposed to them, as they are afraid of more separatism,” I argue. “What are your thoughts about that?”

“Many people fail to understand that states don’t disintegrate when the rights of their indigenous peoples are fulfilled, they disintegrate when it’s the other way around,” the look he gives me through a cloud of cigarette smoke is stern. “Donbas never had any autonomy — did that stop anyone? On the contrary, if the Crimean Tatars would have had autonomy in Crimea back then [in 2014], occupying the peninsula would have been much more of an ordeal for Russia. There would have been fewer Russian collaborators in the government offices of Crimea than there were.”

He goes on to explain that such autonomy would not in any way handicap the rights of ethnic Ukrainians, but would open an opportunity for the ethnic Crimean Tatars to their language in Crimea and gain protection for their culture.

I pour myself a glass of water and ask Mustafa-Ağa whether there is political will in Ukraine to back up the Crimean Tatar autonomy in a post-war scenario.

‘The President is for it, however, there is also his retinue,” Dzhemilev is frank. “Take Mykhailo Podoliak [the advisor to the head of the President’s Office]. He voices many right ideas, and then, all of a sudden, changes his tune to ‘there has to be no autonomy, that any autonomy is a threat, but the rights of the Crimean Tatars have to be ensured’.”

Dzhemilev stubs out his cigarette and proceeds:

“But how are you planning to guarantee the rights of Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people while denying them their most important right? Moreover, the European Parliament also clearly states that the Crimean Tatars’ right to autonomy is one of the conditions for Ukraine joining the EU.”

It’s been an hour since we started talking, and I ask how the Crimean Tatars gaining some authority and fame in Ukraine are perceived in today’s Crimea. Dzhemilev immediately knows that I’m referring to last year’s appointment of Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar, as Minister of Defence.

“Everyone was very happy when Rustem Umerov was appointed: in the past 240 years, since Russia seized Crimea, no Crimean Tatar has ever held such a high post. That’s what I reminded him of when he came to me for advice regarding that appointment.”

Umerov spent several years working as one of Dzemilev’s assistants, so he holds the opinion of his people’s leader in very high regard.

With a certain degree of pride my interviewee shares that before accepting the post as Minister, Umerov specifically asked President Zelensky to let him first discuss the matter with Dzhemilev.

“I told him back then, ‘Should you do something unworthy, it will impact our entire people’. I think he understood that.”

Then, all of a sudden, he smiles, adding:

“But I’m already unhappy with his performance, and I’ve told the President just that.”

My silent question as to why provokes another smile of his:

“On 13 November, when I celebrated my 80th birthday, the President awarded me with the Hero of Ukraine medal and asked me what I thought of Umerov’s performance as the Minister of Defence. So I told him: ‘He’s an unfair Minister. On Refat Chubarov’s [current Head of the Mejlis] birthday, the Armed Forces of Ukraine hit the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. I, however, was left without a similar present on my birthday. They didn’t even hit the Kerch bridge!’”

Dzhemilev is obviously pleased with his joke, so I proceed to ask questions about Crimea. For instance, whether he had talks on the vision of Crimea’s liberation during his recent meeting with the ex-Commander-in-Chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

“We did talk about it, and I liked the general’s sober judgement, as well as his belief that 2024 will be crucial in Crimea’s liberation.”

“Seizing Crimea isn’t enough, supply lines are crucial”

On New Year’s Eve 2023, Dzhemilev was approached by the Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, Kyrylo Budanov, with a proposal to prepare a one-minute congratulatory address for the people residing currently in Crimea. They were planning to air it on the peninsula instead of Putin’s address. While they only managed to carry the words on one local channel, Dzhemilev’s address was seen by about half a million residents of Crimea.

“In it, I told the audience that the upcoming year might be the last under occupation, and advised the invaders to get away from Crimea.”

This makes me ask: “Some say that seizing Crimea will be easier than keeping it. Is that so?”

“Yes, that was one of the topics I discussed with Zaluzhnyi. He also believes that simply seizing Crimea isn’t enough and that the supply lines are crucial, be it electricity, arms or groceries. History shows that Crimea is indeed easy to seize, but hard to keep, so the liberation has to be gradual and steady.”

He immediately — and confidently — adds:

“We have people on the other side of the frontline who are waiting for the liberation effort to begin.”

Dzhemilev notes that the invaders view the possibility of liberation as feasible, so they intend to give Ukraine as many unpleasant surprises as possible.

“They are intensifying the repression against the ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars alike, and planting mines in not just the military sites, but in many more places. For instance, we were informed of mines being planted in the wine cellars in Masandra. Do they seriously believe that the wine cellars will be our primary destination in Crimea?”

As our meeting is nearing its end, I conclude our conversation with one last question: what would be the first thing that he would do in a liberated Crimea, controlled by Ukraine?

For a minute, he stays silent.

“I’ve spent most of my life away from my homeland, so I would like to live the rest of it in my native land, close to my people. When we spent years pushing back against the Soviet authorities, I always thought that my efforts would be only the basis for the generations to come, yet I didn’t believe that I would live to see its fruits myself. After the USSR collapsed, I had a hard time believing that I lived to witness that state fall and that we, the Crimean Tatars, were able to return to our native land. So today, when asked about the liberation of Crimea, my attitude is a lot more optimistic, as today I see more reasons, resources, opportunities and will to make that happen.”