Former political prisoner and dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev speaks to Modern Times about the occupation of Crimea, his relationship with Russia and why he received the Nansen Medal. Today, he is the political leader for the ethnic group of 280,000 Crimean Tatars.
Crimean Tatar Mustafa Dzhemilev (72) tells Modern Times that he never intended to become a political leader. Not for a single day, that was his plan. But having been a political activist for a number of years, he was asked, and today he has represented a quarter of a million Crimean Tatars for a quarter of a century.
Immediately after he was born, the Dzhemilevs and other Crimean Tatar families were deported to Central Asia by Soviet authorities, in 1944. Dzhemilev grew up in exile in Uzbekistan, and has been politically very active since the age of 18. Over the next 25 years he was arrested six times for anti-Soviet activities, and spent a total of 15 years in prison, including in labour camps. His life was constantly under surveillance. Dzhemilev is also known to have carried out the longest hunger strike in the history of the human rights movement – for 303 days. He survived only because he was force-fed.
Crimean Tatars. When Modern Times finally manages to get a meeting in Kyiv with the Nelson Mandela of the region, we meet a man who bears the signs of having been fighting for a lifetime.
Is there any difference between today’s Russia and the old Soviet treatment of the Tatars? «Our basic struggle is the same, against the same forces. Today’s occupiers of Crimea have the same mentality as those of the former Soviet Union. After 24 years of Ukrainian independence with democratic human rights, we are again under Soviet administration. As in the former Soviet Union, we do not have the right to freedom or freedom of speech, to express our thoughts.”
I ask him to be more specific, and he explains that the authorities are withholding information. You have to go abroad to get informed. But after the revolution that is now taking place in Ukraine, they now have a certain freedom with internet, radio and mass media, although these are controlled and under surveillance by Ukrainian authorities. «If you accuse the authorities today, you only get accusations directed at yourself, or fined later on», says Dzhemilev.
Then what about Crimea, what is really going on, in the eyes of an insider like the leader of the Crimean Tatars? «No one asked us for permission to send in foreign forces. The way I see it, they have never been welcomed by the population. The Crimean Tatars have fought this battle for independence for a long time, ever since the occupation in 1783! Throughout, we have been pressured to leave the country, ever since we made up 97% of the population. Before the deportation in 1944, we made up 25%, but this was improved after the return in 1989. But today, more than half are living in exile.»
Dzhemilev thinks that institutions and authorities in Crimea should represent the most important ethnic groups and be given autonomy. This is why the Crimean Tatars’ own language, which Dzhemilev insists on speaking here in Kyiv through an interpreter, would only be one of several official languages. The ethnic groups should have proportional representation.
The Tatars make up 280,000 out of a total 2,2 million inhabitants, with 1,5 million Russians and 350,000 Ukrainians. According to Dzhemilev, about 35,000 Crimeans have fled since the occupation, and half of these are Crimean Tatars. «After the occupants came to our country, we have seen numerous murders and kidnappings. We demand that an international committee investigates what has happened in at least 22 documented cases. We know who did this, and that it was done to scare people.»
Dzhemilev thinks human rights organizations must be given access to the territory to monitor what is happening.
Nuclear depot. Historically, the Tatars are known to fight with weapons, as opposed to today’s non-violent line under Dzhemilev. The Crimean Tatar national movement is now non-violent. But during the same week as we met, a number of Tatars in the area east of Odessa blocked food deliveries headed for Crimea, and tore down and destroyed electric posts that carried electricity to the Crimean Peninsula. According to Dzhemilev, half the food supplies and 85% of electricity comes from «mainland» Ukraine. This is why Crimea was placed under emergency law by the Russians: «One of our demands is that the Russians immediately release political prisoners. The occupants are oppressing a people who is still loyal to Ukraine and hostile towards the occupiers.» The Tatar strategy has lasted for some time, however: «We started transport blockades on the roads to Crimea in September last year. This is not sabotage, we have merely blocked the roads for big trucks headed for the occupied territories.» Then what about electricity – doesn’t this influence the entire population? «Electricity is the most effective way to block the Russians. It has been agreed that Russia supplies Ukraine in the north, while they export to the south. During an occupation, these democratic rules no longer apply.»
«Remember that our resistance is non-violent. Even though Tatars historically are known as warriors, we are no longer in Medieval times. You gain nothing through violence. If we had started a fight for independence through armed force, a lot of blood would have been spilled in Crimea, it would turn into a place where nobody would want to live aymore.»
I ask how heavy the military occupation from Russia is. The answer is surprising: «We know that the Russians are actually bringing nuclear weapons to Crimea. If anything happens to those weapons, all of Crimea will become uninhabitable!» I ask him where this information comes from. «During the Soviet period, there was a village near Yalta which was used as a nuclear depot. After the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, the depot was closed. But with today’s occupation it has been re-opened, and we have seen missile systems being transported there. The Russians have declared that they will use the area for whatever purpose they wish.»
I ask for more documentation of this alarming information «We have also been given access to a number of documents. They say that if a conflict begins, Crimean Tatars are top of the list. We have this from a self-defence group which worked closely with the Russian occupiers. Because many of the Russian soldiers were heavy drinkers, documents such as these fell into our hands. We have a good network.»
Putin. In 1989, 250,000 Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea, and Dzhemilev has led the Crimean Tatar National Movement (OKND and others) ever since. Ten years later, he was also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. He was re-elected in 2014, when he was high on Poroshenko’s list. For this reason, President Putin actually contacted Dzhemilev ahead of the occupation. This is Dzhemilev’s comment to this event: «Before the invasion of Crimea, he wanted to meet and talk, but I rejected it, because it would seem like a justification of the occupation. There was nothing to discuss. Later, I had a long telephone conversation with Putin after he called me, and I told him that it would be a mistake by Russia to occupy Crimea. He said that he supported the way in which Ukraine had handled Crimea, but that this was something we’d have to negotiate about. He also said that helping people was a virtue, but that Crimea became part of Russia in 1944. At that time, Putin said he would hold a referendum, and that the best thing would be to withdraw the forces. He also said that his telephone lines would be open around the clock, if I had any questions. But after two weeks, I was banned from moving in the Russian areas.»
Dzhemilev has also been denied entry to Crimea, where his wife and family still reside.
Resistance. Then what about the Ukrainian government – do they support the Crimean Tatars? «Both President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk are on our side and they support our demands. But not necessarily the blockade of electricity. This means that Russians can cut deliveries of for example coal and gas to Ukraine. Sanctions between the countries also affects the economy.»
What then about people themselves, beyond what the authorities in Ukraine or Russia might do – how do people’s protests influence politics? Dzhemliev is clear on the differences: «While people in Ukraine take to the streets to change their government, this does not happen in Russia, where no one is allowed to protest. They would be arrested as soon as they took to the streets. Not even a Ukrainian symbol would be permitted.»
I end the conversation by asking the 72 year-old about his personal reasons for the engagement – including his decision to go on hunger strike, risking his life. «The main goal was to return home, and to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was not alone in these protests. Today, with the occupation, the goal is once again to return home. I have spent 15 years in prison, so you may ask if it was worth it. But being able to freely express yourself has great value. There is a price to pay for the fight, but it’s worth it.»
Dzhemilev has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. Kofi Annan selected him to receive the Nansen medal from the UN in 1998, for his unstoppable work for refugees. «The medal was established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As you know, Fridtjof Nansen helped refugees to live their lives. I was nominated because I helped refugees to return to Crimea. In a way, Crimean Tatars could be an example to follow, in terms of returning home.»
On my way out to the Maidan Square in Kyiv, outside Dzhemilev’s office, I think about my visits to Palestine and Israel. Especially in terms of the last thing Dzhemilev told me: «Remember, in any peace negotiation, there is a difference in understanding on both sides. You need an important balance in order for both sides to understand. There should never be one winner, but rather honesty and justice.»
See our webpage for an edited video recording of the conversation.