Moscow Is Trying to Weaken Crimean Tatar Resistance With the Help of Tatarstan

In March, the Mardzhani Institute of History, at the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan, launched work on a five-volume edition covering the history of Crimean Tatars. According to the project, its realization “should contribute to objective coverage of the Crimean Tatars’ history within the context of Russian state history” (Tatar-inform, March 13). This study is not the only project dedicated to Crimea currently being undertaken by Tatarstani scholars. The Institute has also been working on a multi-volume Collection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks of Crimean Tatars. Regarding the latter project, the first three volumes, on the cities of Bakhchysarai and Simferopol, have already been published. Additionally, Tatarstan annually organizes scientific conferences devoted to the history and culture of Crimea. And such events generally feature specific political undertones, glorifying the “reunification of Crimea with Russia.” It is significant that the implementation of such projects takes place amid constant arrests not only of Crimean Tatars, but also Tatar activists in Tatarstan (Azatliq Radiosy, March 6).

The Kremlin began trying to use Tatarstan to influence the Crimean Tatar community from the outset of the annexation of the peninsula, in early 2014 (see EDM, March 13, 2014). Although Crimean and Volga Tatars are two different peoples, they nonetheless share a lot in common—both are Turkic groups residing in Europe, are Muslims, adhere to the Hanafi madhhab (Sunni Islam school of law), and, at different times, both of their historical states (khanates) were conquered by Russia. These peoples eventually received similar names—Tatars and Crimean Tatars—which was a result of both their history as successors of the Golden Horde as well as the ethnic policies of tsarist Russia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ideas about the ​​unification of the “Tatar peoples” of Russia within a pan-Turkist project were popular among their elites. Whereas, in the Soviet period, the Communist regime tried to dissolve deported Crimean Tatars into the broader Tatar community, presenting them as “Tatars from the Crimea.” And Pan-Tatar ideas have remained popular among many (Middle Volga) Tatars to this day, which raises concern among a number of Turkic peoples, especially the Crimean Tatars. Thus, Moscow sees Tatarstani elites as a certain key to Crimean Tatars, who have vehemently opposed the annexation of their homeland (see EDM March 1, 2014March 21, 2014May 9, 2014). Russia offers them an image of modern and prosperous Tatarstan as a possible future as long as the indigenous population of Crimea is loyal to Moscow.

The Kremlin uses Tatarstan as a tool of soft power to achieve its aims in those areas where it is better to act through the mediation of Kazan rather than via direct instructions from Moscow. In February–March 2014, such a mediator role was given to Tatarstani President Rustam Minnikhanov, who arrived in Crimea to persuade the leaders of Crimean Tatars to accept the annexation of the peninsula, or at least not to oppose the self-proclaimed pro-Russia government that seized power there through Moscow’s backing (Radio Svoboda, March 5, 2014). Minnikhanov even spoke at an extraordinary session of the Qurultay (congress) of the Crimean Tatars, in Bakhchisarai, on March 29, 2014. Before the delegates of the Qurultay, Minnikhanov claimed that Refat Chubarov (the leader of the executive-representative body, the Mejlis, of the Crimean Tatar people) was requesting a meeting with Vladimir Putin. At the Russian president’s request, the Tatarstani leader listened to the demands of the Crimean Tatars and was ready to serve as a linchpin between them (Radio Svoboda, March 29, 2014). The Kremlin’s efforts proved partially successful—the Mejlis started negotiations with the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities, which resulted in a draft parliamentary resolution “On Guarantees of Restoring the Rights of the Crimean Tatars and Their Integration Into the Crimean Community.” Minnikhanov passed the document to the Crimean separatist parliament and it was approved and promulgated on March 11, 2014 (Korrespondent, March 11, 2014). The resolution provided that, after the adoption of the new Crimean constitution, the Qurultay and the Mejlis would be officially recognized as representative bodies of the Crimean Tatars, and they would receive a 20 percent quota on their representation in Crimea’s governmental bodies as well as be guaranteed support of the Crimean Tatar language, education, etc. Through Tatarstan, Moscow managed to persuade the Mejlis to delegate two representatives, Lenur Isliamov and Zaur Smirnov, to the occupation authorities of Crimea (, April 4, 2014). However, the Mejlis later recalled its representatives from all Crimean state bodies.

The Idel-Ural (Middle Volga) region has become an important donor of human resources for the Russian authorities in Crimea: over the years, Moscow sent a number of officials from there to the annexed peninsula. At the same time, Moscow promoted those Crimean activists who agreed to cooperate with the Russian authorities. Emblematic of this has been Enver Arpatly, who, in February 2014, was one of the organizers of the civil resistance of the Crimean inhabitants against the annexation. But by June 2014, Arpatly became a deputy mayor of the Crimean town of Alushta. Shortly after that, he relocated to Tatarstan, where he studied the particularities of civil service in the Russian Federation. Last year, he was appointed deputy prime minister of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (, February 20, 2018). Arpatly’s career thus reflects how Tatarstan plays an important political role for Moscow in Crimea.

Crimean activists who continue to engage in civilian resistance on the peninsula remain a significant irritant for the administration. Moscow, which failed to broadly paint Crimean Tatars and local Ukrainians as terrorists, has been taking measures to neutralize politically untrustworthy activists. One such tool is weakening the residual ties between Crimea and Ukraine while strengthening links between Crimea and Tatarstan. However, Moscow’s refusal to extend the treaty on the division of powers between Tatarstan and the federal center (see EDM, April 13, 2017), weakening the position of the Tatar language in education (see EDM, November 29, 2016), as well as systematic persecution of Tatar activists undermine the authority not only of Rustam Minnikhanov, but also his republic. Tatarstan can no longer be the model of a “success story within the Russian Federation,” to which Moscow used to appeal in dialogue with Crimean Tatars. And exacerbating these trends further, the Crimean Tatars’ ongoing peaceful resistance to the occupation has been evoking sympathy among Tatars in Tatarstan.

Pavlo Podobied, Jamestown Foundation, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 43