“We are not from Tatarstan, not from Kazakhstan,” Bakkalli says. “We go way back, to the Scythians, to the Goths, to the Greeks. There are Crimean Tatars who speak Greek.” The genuine leader of this community is a Soviet-era dissident and much-revered former chairman of the Mejlis, Mustapha Cemilev. And Cemilev has flatly rejected Putin’s overtures to switch loyalties and repudiated the “official” turnout percentage given for last week’s vote on annexation. Cemilev, now an elected MP in the Ukrainian Rada from the ruling Fatherland Party, says that, contra the “official” estimate of 60 percent, a mere 34.2 percent of Crimeans even turned up for the plebiscite. (Other analysts have suggested that a similar percentage actually voted for annexation, against Moscow’s insistence that 97 percent did so.) Cemilev has survived 20 years in prisons and labor camps and a 10-month hunger strike; he no doubt intends to outlast this hostile takeover of his homeland by another Russian strongman.
“Who is at risk here?” Bakkalli asks. “Pro-democratic Ukrainians, pro-democratic Russians, and the indigenous peoples of Crimea and Ukraine. To say that [Crimea] has been only 300 years a part of Russia is an acknowledgement and approval of colonization. Because the annexation of Crimea caused the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Crimea Tatars into Turkey – what was then the Ottoman Empire.”
Already, the pro-Russian camp has made ominous moves, prompting sympathetic European countries such as Lithuania to prepare for another Tatar refugee crisis. About 20 people have been kidnapped in Crimea since Russia invaded. Three are still missing, including Ivan Selentsov, a Tatar. Another Tatar activist, Reshat Ametov, was discovered murdered in a forest after last being seen in the hands of a pro-Russian militia. Dzhalil Ibrahimov told the Guardian that these militias “have started to burn fires near the village at night, so we know they are there and they are close.” Then, on March 20, a tocsin for Tatar ethnic cleansing was rung by none other than Rustam Termigaliyev: “We have asked the Crimean Tatars to vacate part of their land, which is required for social needs,” the Crimean vice premier said. “But we are ready to allocate and legalize many other plots of land to ensure a normal life for the Crimean Tatars.”
A normal life, or “normalization” in the Soviet sense? Either way, Bakkalli is terrified. “Another genocide has started already,” she said. “The groundwork has been laid. They’re grabbing land, they’re expelling people, and they painting Xs on the homes of the Tatars to mark them out as fifth columnists. Do you understand how chilling that is for us?”
There are reports that Tatar men are relocating their families abroad and returning to the peninsula solo. I ask Bakkalli whether this suggests that they intend to take up arms and fight back, perhaps forming their own self-defense militias. “That is correct,” she replies. “They’re worried about their parents, their grandparents, their wives, and their children. They feel much more mobility and freedom when they’re by themselves. And they will not let Crimea go.” The Kurultay is going to “recalibrate” in the coming weeks, Bakkalli says, and determine its response to Russia’s seizure.
This prompts the awkward question of whether or not she can envisage a Chechnya scenario playing out on the peninsula, stoked by similar scorched-earth Russian military practices – one that culminates in radicalization, then jihadism. Bakkalli thinks such an option isn’t in the cultural or political DNA of her people, who harbor a “great distrust of religious leaders” dating back to the era of Catherine the Great. The Tatars do not “gravitate toward jihad, and the [Mejlis] is very sensitive about that. They want to be part of Ukraine. They want a unified Ukraine.” Nevertheless, she believes Russia will “admit extremists” to furnish an excuse for a crackdown and to legitimate its own propaganda about security threats. It’s only a matter of time.
I tell her I’ve seen this scenario play out quite recently – in Syria. Bakkalli nods. “And what’s the old saying? If you’re drowning in the middle of the ocean, you hug a snake to get to shore.” I’ve heard that one, too.