ZOiS Spotlight 6/2024

The Lives and Hopes of Crimean Tatars after the 2014 Annexation

by Elmira Muratova 18/03/2024

The annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 significantly altered the lives of Crimean Tatars, the indigenous Muslim community of Crimea. Now at a distance of ten years, we can trace the waxing and waning of their hopes and coping strategies on the occupied peninsula.

A woman holds a Crimean Tatar flag at a solidarity rally in Kyiv in February 2017. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Crimean Tatars’ perception of Russia’s annexation of Crimea has changed in the ten years since March 2014. Initially, it seemed like a waking nightmare, something that could not possibly be true and was expected to end soon. In the first months after the annexation, many Crimean Tatars hoped that Ukraine would recover after the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime and restore order to its sovereign territory. They hoped that the world would not allow such a flagrant redefinition of established borders and would exert political and diplomatic pressure on Russia. These hopes and expectations for a return to the status quo led many Crimean Tatars to put their lives on hold in the first years after the annexation.

In interviews my colleagues and I conducted for a study in 2017–2019, Crimean Tatars recounted how they had stopped renovating their homes and spending money on furniture, clothing, and other items, because the uncertainty of the situation forced them to save and postpone for the future. They keenly followed the news from Kyiv, trying to discern explicit and implicit signals about the intentions of the Ukrainian state regarding Crimea and the Crimean Tatars. Many of them kept in contact with the estimated 20,000 Crimean Tatars who had left for mainland Ukraine as internally displaced persons in 2014–2015. Their main reasons for leaving Crimea were related to safety fears, restrictions on religious rights – many of the IDPs were observant Muslims – and an unwillingness to live under Russian rule. Despite the risks associated with expressions of Crimean Tatar identity after 2014, they continued to participate in cultural and political events in mainland Ukraine, such as press conferences and meetings dedicated to their persecution after 2014 and their history of deportation.

The flag over Crimea is unlikely to change soon

Gradually, the hope for Crimea’s return to Ukraine, which sustained the Crimean Tatars during the early years of the occupation, began to fade. There was a realisation that this situation would probably persist for a long time, and the well-known Crimean historian Oleksa Hayvoronsky made the pessimistic observation that the flag over Crimea was unlikely to change within his generation’s lifetime. This realisation occurred against the backdrop of the need to address pressing practical matters in each family’s life, related to their living conditions, education, health, and employment. In these circumstances, many Crimean Tatars began to favour a strategy of adaptation in an unfavourable and aggressive environment. Here they reverted to adaptation mechanisms developed in the 1990s in the context of their repatriation to Crimea from exile in Central Asia, to where they had been deported from Crimea by the Soviet authorities in 1944 on the indiscriminate charge of collaborating with the Nazis. As some interviewees in the aforementioned study noted, ‘we have learned to adapt’ to the new conditions, taking advantage of the social, educational and business opportunities that came to Crimea with Russian rule, whenever possible. At the same time, with the tightening of Russian rule over Crimea and the persecution of Crimean Tatars on political and religious grounds, Crimean Tatars have increasingly retreated to within their ethnic boundaries and narrowed their circle of trust to close family members and friends. Especially among individuals employed in the public sector, it has become common to demonstrate external loyalty to the regime, while maintaining an internal opposition to it. Ostensibly harmless activities like attending cultural and educational events aimed at preserving the cultural identity of Crimean Tatars are a form of resistance, given Russia’s attempts to negate the Tatar influence in Crimea. And even the decision to stay in Crimea can be an expression of opposition to the new regime.

Raised hopes again?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 once again changed the lives of Crimean Tatars. The initial repulsion of the Russian advance and the recapture of occupied territories by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as the support of Western states, fuelled the hopes of many Crimean Tatars in Crimea that the peninsula would be liberated. With their spirits raised, they began to reconsider their plans for the future and closely followed updates from the frontlines. However, the new phase of the war also brought new challenges. The announcement of a partial mobilisation into the Russian army in September 2022 was accompanied by rumours that there would be a disproportionately large recruitment of Crimean Tatars. To avoid being conscripted, about 10,000 Crimean Tatars (especially young men) left the peninsula for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, or EU countries. Some later returned to Crimea, but the majority stayed abroad, in most cases with their families.

After the initial wave of forced migration to mainland Ukraine in 2014–2015, this second wave further fragmented the Crimean Tatar community. Given their collective memory of past forced displacements (after the first annexation of Crimea in the late 18th century and in 1944), emigration and detachment from Crimea are keenly felt by Crimean Tatars and seen as obstacles to the restoration of their collective rights. Dispersal around the globe also raises the question of how those who have left can preserve their cultural identity, especially when their return to Crimea appears increasingly unlikely as the war in Ukraine drags on.

Dr. Elmira Muratova is a post-doctoral researcher at the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI).