On Crimean Tatar remembrance day, Russia is using Covid-19 as a weapon

Banned from wearing the most basic PPE in public, detained on false counter-extremism charges, threatened with evictions, and prevented from accessing healthcare: the latest tactics by Russian occupying forces to repress and threaten Crimean Tatars.

On this day in 1944, the Soviet Union began a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Crimea via the controlled removal of around half a million people. Up to 100,000 Crimean Tatars were killed in the process. The majority of those exiled were women, children, and the elderly. Among those lost were Red Army members, communists, dissidents, farmers, land-owners, pregnant women, entire villages, imams, intellectuals, and teachers. This article won’t engage with any justification or denial discourse and if you’re here to add fuel to that grim debate, go somewhere else.

The 18th of May has been designated a day of remembrance for what Crimean Tatars suffered in 1944. The day is also one of protest and resistance while Crimea remains occupied by Russian forces in the latest example of Moscow’s imperialistic scrambling for control over the peninsula. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a targeted, repressive campaign against Crimean Tatars has resulted in countless people being kidnapped, tortured, falsely imprisoned, and exiled by the occupying authorities in what has widely been designated a human rights crisis.

The concept of annexation has been drawn into the limelight since Covid-19 stopped us all in our tracks and brought the sudden removal of our future plans and regular lifestyles. Annexation is a violent process, it’s invasion by another name, a takeover, a seizure by some external authoritarian rule with no grounds to exert that authority, and it often brings extended periods of military lockdown. The effects of which have lately been metaphors for the Stay Home era and (whilst there are really no comparisons between having to stay home in a nice, safe house with the freedom to use the internet, speak your own language, use your own name, assert your identity, and so on, and so on) it is a good time to convert frustrations into solidarity with the people of Crimea, Kashmir, Western Sahara, Palestine, West Papua, and too many more.

Around the world, the Covid-19 crisis has ushered in quick-fix, dodgy expansions of authoritarianism and, in already disputed regions, the increase in military presence and control has exacerbated the struggles of people already resisting them. The same can be said for Crimea, where the increase in the presence and power of Russian authorities historically correlates with increasing oppression of Crimean Tatars and other groups showing resistance to Russification. Now, the public health crisis is being used to justify new mechanisms which threaten their existence.

The Russian authorities have been prohibiting Crimean Tatars from wearing face masks or any other face coverings. At the same time, it has been declared mandatory to wear a mask in any public place. Crimean Tatars therefore have to choose between prosecution or a serious health risk whenever they leave the house. Monitoring group KHPG reported:

“A young woman who stood in silent protest against Russia’s barbaric ‘reconstruction’ of the 16th century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai has become the latest Crimean Tatar to be ‘warned against extremism’ by Russian-controlled police officers.  In the middle of a pandemic, Russia can find nothing better to do than try to intimidate Crimean Tatar activists by warning against ‘offences’ that not one of them has committed.  The warnings have been issued to human rights activists, members of the Crimean Tatar national movement to civic journalists from the Crimean Solidarity initiative.

The most surreal aspect of such activities is surely the fact that, at a time of very real danger of catching Covid-19, when Crimeans are not allowed in public places without covering their face, the warnings contain a ban on wearing masks.  While it is stated that the masks must not be used “during protests”, the warnings have been issued to people who have either not taken part in any such ‘protests’, or only in single-person pickets which even according to Russian legislation, illegally applied in Crimea, are legal.  Any other peaceful protests have essentially been impossible since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in early 2014.”
(Read more here)

Under the guise of counter-extremism laws, and the continuous, oppressive regulation of Crimean Tatars’ existence in public spaces, occupying authorities are using public health as a weapon against a targeted minority with a history of genocide against them. Moreover, the self-definition of Crimean Tatars has been scandalised and politicised by Russia to the extent that, now, to exist in Crimea is to be seen as an activist.

(By the way, military operations, parades, and training, with neither PPE nor social distancing measures in place, are still going ahead.)

A similar risk the authorities managing Covid-19 pose to Crimean Tatars is in the high rates of indefinite detention under what many human rights organisations agree are fabricated charges. The conditions of their imprisonment are unsanitary, overcrowded, and deadly during a pandemic. Similarly, despite international pressure to lower the number of people in unsafe imprisonment, activists and other persons held on politically tenuous charges are still detained, with appeals still being denied

A monitoring group analysing the Covid-19 risks in Crimea stated:

One of the most vulnerable groups – prisoners and individuals in the custody – do not receive the necessary medical care and do not undergo testing for COVID-19 even in the presence of the corresponding symptoms.
(Read more
here)

One of the more high-profile cases involved several Crimean Tatars being arrested and charged with (fabricated) terrorism offences. Having been detained since October 2017, one man, Server Mustafayev, began to display Covid-19 symptoms and has since been refused access to proper healthcare and testing. Amnesty deem them “prisoners of conscience” and recommend that they be released “immediately and unconditionally”. Under an occupation where Crimean Tatar identities and livelihoods have been criminalised, authorities are putting their lives at greater risk to Covid-19.

In addition, although not only endured by Crimean Tatars, occupying forces have brought a series of evictions to the peninsula during the pandemic. When Crimea was annexed by Russia, authorities stated that all property rights formed under Ukrainian administration would be upheld. However, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, large-scale evictions and relocations have been ordered. Novaya Gazeta reported on a large-scale eviction in May:

“Ukrainian legislation did not allow people to be driven out of their only housing. Under Russia, the FSB, which received a sanatorium from the Crimean authorities in 2016, recorded the Kozlov’s apartment in the cadastral book as a group of non-residential premises. And now there are no obstacles to eviction.”
(Read more
here)

The Russian authorities have exacerbated the risks posed by untimely evictions and homelessness during a time when merely being in public without protection is a potentially fatal risk. Meanwhile, they have been selective in prohibiting movement of people requiring healthcare. Being stopped and prosecuted at a checkpoint is a regular hazard and crossing them for health reasons are no longer permitted. As one example, Crimea HRG reported that a 70-year-old Ukranian national was stopped at a Russian checkpoint and prevented from travelling to the hospital for treatment. More broadly, you will be turned away from healthcare facilities if you’re not wearing a mask which makes access impossible for those who have been prohibited from wearing one. The specific warnings to Crimean Tatars removing their right to wear masks is a convenient combination of the Covid-19 emergency rhetoric and false counter-extremism laws used to persecute a religious and ethnic minority, especially those who resist the occupation. 

The 18th of May is a formal day of remembrance and recognition of the historic, eugenicist, ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars and, this year, the usual pain and sorrow comes amidst a deliberate, targeted disregard for Crimean Tatars’ health during this pandemic. Regulation of self-expression, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, evictions, and forced relocations, each purposefully threaten people’s lives and echo precisely what this day commemorates. 

Darya Rustamova