Dzhemilev spoke with Frank Forrestal, a former coal miner and meat packer from Minneapolis; Catharina Tirsén, a food worker from Manchester, England; Oksana Demyanovych, our Ukrainian collaborator and translator; and myself here May 31.
We met in his office just off Independence Square, the center of the popular Maidan mobilizations 15 months ago that overthrew the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych, reasserting Ukrainian sovereignty. It is a beehive of activity, with Tatar activists poking their heads in every few minutes during our hour-and-a-half conversation.
Dzhemilev has been banned from Crimea by Moscow, which seized the peninsula shortly after Yanukovych fled. He is an elected member of the Ukrainian parliament and Ukraine’s Commissioner for the Affairs of the Crimean Tatars.
“Crimean Tatars are stopped on the street and harassed. Some have ‘disappeared,’ many turning up dead a few days later, showing signs of torture,” Dzhemilev said.
“Ukrainians in Crimea also face brutal treatment. Everyone is fearful that if they speak out they will be attacked,” he said. “Those who continue to support the Russian occupation are encouraged to spy on people and to report things they say to the authorities. Tatar activists know their phones are tapped.”
“Even many of those who had relocated to Crimea from Russia over the last few decades and welcomed the arrival of their troops are now having second thoughts,” Dzhemilev told us.
“We will never give up our struggle,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars back our fight. Ordinary people stop me here in Kiev and wish us success. I have gotten a hearing at conferences of the United Nations and around the world.”
The Crimean Tatars are native inhabitants of the peninsula and have suffered national oppression since they were conquered by the czarist Russian empire in 1783. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Tatars established an autonomous socialist republic in the newly formed Soviet Union, as did the Ukrainians. Use of native languages and culture flourished and national pride grew.
But in the late 1920s, a growing Soviet bureaucratic caste, led and epitomized by Joseph Stalin, carried through a bloody counterrevolution against the policies of the Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin. National rights were trampled, both in Crimea and Ukraine.
In 1944, Stalin slandered the Tatars en masse as Nazi collaborators, forcibly deporting every one of them to Uzbekistan, Siberia and the Urals. More than 40 percent perished on the journey or during the first months in exile. Moscow organized a special Russification program in Crimea, relocating thousands of Russians on land and homes left empty by the forced exodus of the Tatars.
Dzhemilev, less than a year old, was deported with his family to Uzbekistan. He became a leader of the fight to return to their homeland and against the dictatorial Stalinist rule. He was repeatedly imprisoned, serving a total of 15 years. The Militant was part of the international campaign fighting for his release.
When the Soviet Union imploded at the opening of the 1990s, the Tatars stepped up their struggle to return to Crimea. Dzhemilev came back in 1991 and was elected chair of the Mejlis, the national organization of the Tatar people. He served for 22 years, stepping down in 2013.
Tatars fight for land“When we returned, we did not demand the new occupants of what had been our lands be forced off,” Dzhemilev said. “People have a right to their lives. We demanded the government provide us with land where we could settle and rebuild, and compensation.
“The new Ukrainian government said they could not make full restitution,” he said. “They promised they would allocate social programs and payments that would allow us to build new housing.”
“Crimean Tatars had lost 80,000 properties in 1944,” he said. “The government only built 7,000. It was the same with giving us land.”
“The government privatized the land, but only made land grants to those who could prove they worked on a collective farm. We had just returned, so we had no rights,” he said. “This is why thousands of Crimean Tatars organized to occupy free land and build their homes.”
“So opponents of the Tatar people and Ukrainian politicians who supported Moscow accused us of being criminals,” he said. “The Yanukovych regime told the Ukrainian troops in Crimea they had to watch out for the Tatars, not moves from Moscow.”
In February 2014, “after Yanukovych fled, Russian ‘green men’ and a handful of their supporters in Crimea began to occupy government buildings in Sebastopol and Simferopol,” Dzhemilev said. “It was only 110 men.”
“We mobilized thousands of people, Tatars, Ukrainians and Russians who wished to remain with Ukraine,” he said. “We pushed them back.”
“But the Ukrainian troops did nothing,” he said. “The government and the Western embassies said we should not fight back, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will use it as propaganda that they are the victims.”
“This was a mistake,” he said. “If somebody enters your land, you don’t count how many troops they have, you defend your land.” Moscow mobilized thousands of troops from their Crimean naval base and took over.
Systematic repression“Since then the new rulers have systematically attacked our rights and victimized us,” Dzhemilev said. “Leaders of the Mejlis have been arrested, jailed, tortured and killed. Refat Chubarov, the current leader of the Mejlis, and I are banned. Tatar language media outlets have been closed.”
“But support for Putin’s occupation is weakening,” he said. “He promised economic conditions would improve, but they have gotten worse. So more people agree with the Tatars we should be with Ukraine.”
“I was quite concerned when I saw the Minsk agreement that is supposed to stop the fighting in the east of Ukraine,” Dzhemilev said. “There is no mention of Crimea at all. I saw U.S. Secretary of State [John] Kerry go to meet with Putin last month. It looks like some leaders are willing to accept a frozen conflict here.
“We need the support of peoples all over the world,” he said. “For the occupation of Crimea to stand would be a blow to the rights of everyone.”
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