Tears well in Ayla Bakkalli’s eyes as she speaks about her family. “My mother used to exchange letters with her relatives during the Soviet years. She went to Uzbekistan with my sister in the 1990s. My uncle would never speak inside, only in the park. What was he going to say? He was a humble man, not a wealthy man. He was two years in the gulag. He suffered. What could he say? That it’s awful the way he’s living? And yet he and my mother would meet in the park just to share stories. My mother wanted to speak with him. It’s very hard. Very hard.”
Bakkalli is the U.S. representative for the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the 33-member governing body for the Muslim-majority population of indigenous people living in the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula. Last week, the peninsula was made slightly less autonomous by its annexation via a sham “referendum” under the gun of occupying forces from the Russian Federation. So when Bakkalli and I meet in a restaurant in central Manhattan, it is mostly to discuss what will likely prove the biggest challenge to Vladimir Putin’s designs on the Black Sea region: Crimean Tatars who have been through hell once before under Russian domination have no intention of a repeat performance.
To illustrate her point, Bakkalli tells me a story of a 91-year-old man that is frequently cited in the Crimean Tatar press. “He lived through World War II, Stalinism, the fall of Communism, the resurrection of democracy. Having noted this annexation, he now says, ‘I am digging in the basement of my home a grave. If something happens to me, I will be buried in Crimea.’” This sentiment, she warns, is widespread among her people and is not easily dislodged, no matter how many Russian servicemen Putin imports or how many proxy militias of ethnic Russians he underwrites.
In fact, Bakkalli says, the Tatars saw this Anschluss coming years before anyone else did. “If you look at some of the statements we’ve been making since 2005 at the United Nations Indigenous People’s Forum, we knew what Putin was up to. The Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, the extension of its lease to 2044 was very telling. That itself was tantamount to an invasion,” she said. “Putin only waited for the opportunity to fully implement it, and that opportunity was a pro-democratic revolution in Ukraine.”
Bakkalli belongs to a deeply traumatized but resilient diaspora, one that now intuits another ethnic atrocity at the hands of a Russian dictator. Her relatives were all deported by Josef Stalin in 1944 as part of a wholesale population transfer of Crimean Tatars that culminated in genocide: an estimated 46 percent of the transferees died en route to Central Asian republics or to the Volga or Siberian regions. This is why Bakkalli’s mother and uncle wound up talking in a park in Uzbekistan. Her paternal uncle died in a labor camp driving a tractor on a frozen river.
Ten years later, in 1954, Khrushchev “awarded” Crimea back to Ukraine. It was only in the late 1980s, during glasnost, that the Tatars were allowed back in, although the damage done by exile and dispossession has never been fully addressed by successive governments in Kiev. It also bodes ill that the pretext for their expulsion by Stalin – alleged collaboration with Nazism – now finds an eerie echo in Putin's self-justification for gobbling up Crimea, that ethnic Russians today are under threat from neo-Nazis (even though they are not). If the Tatars oppose Crimea’s Russians, what must that make them in the eyes of the Kremlin?
The community numbers only 300,000, or about 12 percent of the peninsula’s total population, which makes the Tatars a small but significant minority. It is also one not easily cowed or intimidated. It was Tatar television that stayed on the air the longest to report on the Russian seizure of sovereign Ukrainian territory earlier this month. The vast majority of Tatars not only reject annexation and boycotted last week’s “referendum,” but also consider themselves aligned with fundamental tenets of Ukrainian nationalism. As Bakkalli puts it, “the steppe regions of Ukraine are Crimea; Crimea is Ukraine.” Accordingly, the Tatars backed the Orange Revolution in 2004 and they supported the Euromaidan protests which ousted corrupt Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February.
So where Stalin destroyed a nation, Putin is trying to bribe or co-opt one. He has tried in vain to curry favor among Crimea’s Tatars by promising them language rights, 20 percent representation in the regional legislature and executive, and recognition of their Mejlis and Kurultay, or National Congress. He’s also experimented with a Kadyrov-like satrap in the form of Rustam Temirgaliyev, the current vice premier of the Crimean Rada, or parliament. However, Temirgaliyev is a Kazan Tatar, not an indigenous Crimean.