Giving a Voice to the Victims of Russia’s Crimean Landgrab

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A 10-minute walk from the last stop on Kiev’s green metro line, secreted in a quiet residential area, is the new home-in-exile of Crimean Tatar television station ATR. Founded in 2006 in Simferopol, Crimea, as the first channel devoted entirely to the culture, language and interests of the Crimean Tatar nation, ATR and its sister television and radio stations were refused renewal of their broadcast license by the Russian government in April. To continue operating, the station and its employees had to relocate to Kiev.

Now broadcasting from three small rooms, the ATR team of about 25 has an urgent message for the rest of the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s summary takeover of their homeland, they say, should serve as an ominous warning of the fate that awaits other peoples who find themselves in the way of Moscow’s interests.

The history of the Crimean Tatars is fraught with tension with Russia. Ethnically, culturally, and historically distinct from the Volga Tatars who live in southern Russia, the Crimean Tatars’ ancestors settled on and around the peninsula beginning in the thirteenth century. Their kingdom, called the Crimean Khanate, was a long-time protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, and first came under Russian imperial control in 1774, sparking an exodus of many Tatars to Turkey; Turks and Crimean Tatars are closely related and speak similar languages.

Much later, after the Red Army recaptured the Crimean Peninsula from the occupying Nazi troops in the summer of 1944, Stalin deported the entire nation, about 200,000 persons, which accounted for about 20 percent of Crimea’s population, to Central Asia. Nearly half of the entire Crimean Tatar population died over the next three years. When they received permission to return in the 1980s, their welcome was not a warm one. As they trickled back, they found that their lands were now owned by transplanted Soviet citizens, their homes occupied. After this experience with Russian governance, many Tatars became patriots of the new Ukrainian state and the increased freedom it afforded them. They have been some of the main voices of opposition against the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Now under Russian rule once again, the Tatars dread repeating the sad fate of their grandparents. ATR’s employees were open about the pervasive sense of fear in which many in Crimea live.

Ayder Muzhdabayev, a Crimean Tatar and the long-time deputy editor of one of Moscow’s largest circulation dailies, Moskovsky Komsomolets, recently joined the channel as deputy general director after leaving the increasingly repressive Moscow media scene. “We talk about Russian hybrid warfare, but what Russia is doing to the Crimean Tatars is hybrid genocide,” he says. “It is a mixed way of silencing our culture.”

The terms and imagery may be harsh, but they do accurately describe Tatar anxieties.

In Crimea, simple gestures like flying the Tatar or Ukrainian flags have become dangerous. Several Tatar publications have been closed or sent into exile. Two Crimean Tatar leaders who have voiced concerns over the suppression of their people’s freedoms under Russian rule, Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Cemilev, have been banned from entering the peninsula. The Mejlis, the representative organ of Crimea’s Tatars, is under constant threat of being disbanded, and its headquarters has been impounded. One ATR employee told me his relative’s well-known restaurant in Bakhchisaray, Crimea, had been recently closed for “political reasons.” Although no explicitly anti-Tatar laws have been passed, the authorities, including Putin himself, have warned Tatars not to seek any “special rights.”

More disturbingly, Tatar individuals or organizations that do not bow to government wishes have been threatened with trumped up charges of “separatism” or “terrorism.” In a recent visit to Crimea, Mr. Putin called out the Tatars as fifth columnists: “You and I know full well who we are talking about. There are a number of people who consider themselves professional fighters for rights… They want to receive foreign grants and acknowledgement and realize their ambitions, including political ambitions.”

For ATR employees, many of whom are unable to return to Crimea because of their association with the channel or involvement with other Crimean Tatar activist organizations, such statements only give further urgency to their work. One of their goals is to raise awareness of their people’s plight among mainland Ukrainians; there is a great fear that amidst the flurry of war and reforms, the Tatars will be forgotten.

To fight back, ATR has increased the amount of material broadcast in Ukrainian from 10 to 30 percent. Russian-language programming makes up 20 percent, while the rest is still in the Crimean Tatar language. News broadcasts that focus on Crimea and Tatar issues are given in all three languages.

Formerly the main consumers of ATR’s programming, Crimea’s Tatars are now much harder to reach than before. The loss of their broadcast license means that ATR is no longer carried on basic access Russian television, so only Crimeans with the proper equipment — a satellite dish or high-speed internet — still have access to ATR. Mr. Muzhdabayev and his colleagues estimate that they are able to reach about half of the Crimean Tatar population, largely those who live in big cities like Simferopol.

And while all this may work to keep the Crimean Tatar people in the forefront of Ukrainian thinking, their plight has largely disappeared from international headlines. Few international human rights organizations have journeyed to Crimea, as their doing so would be seen as a tacit acceptance of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

As Russian-backed fighters move to consolidate their presence in Ukraine’s occupied east, and reports come of Russian weapons massing on the Ukrainian border, the West must acknowledge that Ukrainians of all nationalities are not only fighting for their homes and land, but for the right to live in a free society. That fight, through the airwaves and on the ground, warrants support.

As the United States, Canada and European countries try to counter Russian propaganda in the region, local broadcasters like ATR should be prime candidates for financial support. Currently, ATR receives none and is financed out of the pockets of its owner, Crimean Tatar businessman Lenur Islyamov.

The United States Embassy in Lithuania recently announced that it would spend $500,000 to train journalists in the three Baltic countries on how to counter Russian misinformation efforts. A similar amount of money given to ATR, whose monthly costs amount to about $100,000, or independent online channel Hromadske, would stretch much further in Ukraine, which already has considerable experience in identifying and fighting Russian propaganda. What they lack is the slick, high production and entertainment value of Russian television. Stations like ATR already have a vision, a goal, and devoted, eager staff. They deserve the resources to excel.

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