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Crimean Tatars and the Kremlin’s Oppression of Muslims

Crimean Tatars pray as they block the road at the checkpoint between continental Ukraine and occupied Crimea, in Chongar, September 20, 2015. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Crimean Tatars pray as they block the road at the checkpoint between continental Ukraine and occupied Crimea, in Chongar, September 20, 2015. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Sergey Lavrov

Sergey Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister

"Russia and the states of Islamic civilization are long-standing reliable partners, cooperating in ensuring security and stability, and in solving economic problems."


On October 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Hissein Brahim Taha, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Lavrov hailed Russia’s solidarity with Muslim nations:

"Russia and the states of Islamic civilization are long-standing reliable partners, cooperating in ensuring security and stability, and in solving economic problems."

Russia may well have some “reliable partners” in Islamic nations – like-minded autocracies in Syria and Iran come to mind – but the impression that the Kremlin gets along well with all Muslims is misleading at best.

Just ask Crimea’s Tatars, the Muslims who suffered persecution and exile under imperial Russia and the USSR, and who are now the target of atrocities under Vladimir Putin’s illegal occupation.

Russia illegally annexed Ukraine in 2014, sending in troops with unmarked uniforms, staging a fake referendum and targeting Crimean Tatars as extremists. The main reason for the persecution? Disagreement with Russia's annexation.

Russian authorities outlawed the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, called the Mejlis, and the Crimean Tatar TV channel was closed. Within a year, the U.K.’s Amnesty International had documented human right abuses against Tatars and opposition figures.

In a March 2015 report, Amnesty cited seven reports of abduction, and another abductee found dead, apparently after being tortured. Amnesty documented the abduction of three Tatars and the head of the rights group Ukrainian House, Andriy Schekun, also tortured while being held.

That was just the start. The Russian occupiers went after leaders of the Mejlis, forcing some to leave and arresting others, Amnesty reported in December 2016. John Dalhuisen, then the group’s Europe and Central Asia director, said:

“As the most visible and cohesive group in Crimea opposed to the Russian occupation, the Crimean Tatar people have been deliberately targeted by the de facto local and Russian authorities in a wave of repression aimed at silencing their dissent and ensuring the submission of every person in Crimea to the annexation.”

“Through the adoption wholesale of the repressive Russian legal framework in Crimea, which was in itself a violation of international law, the Russian authorities have prosecuted and forced into exile virtually all dissenting voices, including key leaders and activists within the Crimean Tatar community.”

Dozens of Crimean Tatars have been imprisoned after being convicted of belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group, banned in Russia and some other countries but not in Ukraine. Hizb ut-Tahir says it supports nonviolent efforts to bring Muslims together under a sole caliphate, but some members have been linked to attacks and plots in Russia, Europe and the Mideast.

In its 2016 report, Amnesty called the accusations of membership in Hizb ut-Tahir “highly questionable.” Meanwhile, “No progress has been made in the investigations into the spate of enforced disappearances that followed shortly after the peninsula’s annexation,” Amnesty said.

In a November 2017 report, Human Rights Watch echoed many of Amnesty’s findings and said persecution of Crimean Tatars by Russians had “intensified:”

“Since Russia’s occupation began, Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea…”

Between 2014 and 2022, an estimated 10% of the Tatars left in Crimea fled to mainland Ukraine, while Russians poured into the peninsula, overhauling its ethnic makeup. By spring of 2018, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (a sister U.S. news agency to VOA and reported:

“According to official Russian statistics, some 247,000 Russians have moved to Crimea since annexation. At the same time, about 140,000 people have left, mostly Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who moved to the Ukrainian mainland. Ukrainian officials, however, say the real numbers are much greater – by hundreds of thousands.”

Fast forward to today, after the Kremlin’s all-out war on Ukraine, and Putin’s “partial mobilization” to round up troops to replace the thousands of Russian soldiers who’ve been killed trying to take over first the entire country and now, at least some eastern and southern provinces.

Occupying authorities in Crimea began to distribute draft papers, and Crimean Tatars became their main target. At least in the first days, they were mobilized to war disproportionately.

One 27-year-old man from Simferopol fled on September 23 to avoid mobilization: “I didn’t serve in the army, but it was clear that Crimean Tatars were taken first of all, that raids had begun, to our places of compact residence," he told the Russian-language Belarusian opposition news site Zerkalo.

Refat Chubarov is leader of the Mejlis, now exiled in Kyiv. "About three thousand Crimean Tatars, avoiding mobilization, were forced to leave Crimea after September 23. But there are those who foresaw this and left earlier," he said.

According to an October 4 report by Politico, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the round-up “a deliberate attempt by Russia to destroy the Crimean Tatar people,” while Chubarov said the mobilization amounted to an international war crime. Politico’s report said:

“His legal reasoning is solid. The fourth Geneva convention prohibits an occupying power from compelling occupied populations to serve in its armed forces. Since annexation, Russia has already conducted 15 illegal conscription campaigns and enlisted over 30,000 people in Crimea. According to the Ukrainian general staff, at least 139 Crimeans have been killed fighting for Russia in Ukraine since February, and 22 are currently prisoners of war.”

On November 1, the European Union (EU) confirmed the lopsided mobilization of Muslims on the peninsula. “Crimean Tatars are being deliberately and disproportionately targeted in the implementation of Russia’s order and reportedly forcibly involved in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, their traditional homeland,” said an EU statement.

The Ukrainian nongovernmental group CrimeaSOS said that Article 51 of the Geneva Conventions says an occupier has no right to conscript people from occupied territories.

“According to preliminary estimates, about 90% of the [mobilization] subpoenas in Crimea were received by Crimean Tatars. At the same time, Crimean Tatars make up 13%–15% of the population of the peninsula. Such a scale of mobilization can lead to a covert genocide of the Crimean Tatar people,” said Yevhen Yaroshenko, an analyst at CrimeaSOS.