BELOGORSK, Crimea — Crimea’s Tatars have bitter memories of the 1944 deportation that tore them from their native peninsula. With Russia again in control, some here say pressure is building once more.
Russian security forces have searched the homes of leaders of the Muslim minority group for banned books. Young Tatar men have been kidnapped off Crimean streets. Tatar activists are sitting in jail. A few have been killed. Some Tatars say they now fear to venture out of their houses.
Eight months after Russia annexed the Black Sea resort region of Crimea , the descendants of the group that ruled the peninsula for centuries say they fear a new effort to divide them. Their top leaders are in exile in Kiev. Those who remain say the new Russian authorities in Crimea have spent more time investigating them than the kidnappings.
Analysts say Russian security services appear to be employing tactics they have used against Islamist insurgencies within their borders. The difference in Crimea, Tatar leaders say, is that there is no insurgency. But they fear that the tough approach may radicalize the most disaffected members of their community.
Memories of Soviet-era repression run deep, since Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea only in the final years of the Soviet Union. As part of an independent Ukraine, they developed new structures to govern themselves, which have now been shut down.
At least five Tatars have been kidnapped since March, and two more are missing, according to human rights observers. Two Tatars have died under mysterious circumstances.
In Belogorsk, a largely Tatar town on the scrubby Crimean steppe, scratchy calls to prayer ring from a whitewashed minaret over car-parts stores and parking lots filled with Soviet-era Ladas flying tiny blue Tatar flags. Behind a building-supply store here, a group of men wearing all black packed Abdureshit Dzheparov’s 17-year-old son and 24-year-old nephew into a Volkswagen van in late September. They haven’t been heard from since.
“They want to scare us. They want us to live in fear. Probably they are waiting for some radical actions from us. And if they manage to break someone, it will be a catastrophe,” said Dzheparov, 55, a longtime Tatar activist.
“In Ukraine, we forgot what sirens sounded like. Now we have them all the time, now we hear them all the time on the road,” he said, as security services pay visits to Tatar leaders, mosques and schools.
Dzheparov said he believes that his son and nephew were kidnapped by people connected to Russian security forces, because the police did nothing about the abduction even though he called them five minutes after it happened.
Other harassment has been more open. Russian security forces shuttered the headquarters of the Tatars’ representative body, the Mejlis, in September, because its leaders had not registered it in Russia. The council members fear that doing so would delegitimize them.
During World War II, Stalin accused the Tatars, a Sunni Muslim ethnic group whose language is related to Turkish, of collaborating with Nazi Germany. He packed the entire population into train cars in 1944 and sent the Tatars to faraway parts of the Soviet Union, a brutal journey after which almost half of them are believed to have died. During perestroika in the late 1980s, they were allowed to return. Now, about 240,000 live in Crimea, roughly 10 percent of the population.
International observers have condemned the way Russian authorities are handling their dealings with the Tatars.
“This is a population with a really tragic history that went through hell to get back to their historical homeland, were not successful in having their rights fully recognized by the Ukrainians, and are now coming under huge pressure from the Russians,” said Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, who wrote a report about the Crimea situation that was released in October.
He said Russia’s main security agency “has one playbook and it’s based on the North Caucasus, and they’re treating many Tatars as being potential jihadis.”
One worry, he said, is that Russia’s fears of the Tatars will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It’s a highly risky proposition to decapitate this population of its leadership,” he said.
The top Tatar leader is now in exile in Kiev, forced for the second time in his life from his home in Crimea.
“The Russian Federation is a totally alien country. We have always declared that we see the future of our country as part of Ukrainian territory,” Mustafa Dzhemilev, 71, the longtime leader of the Crimean Tatars, said in an interview in his cramped apartment in Kiev, where he has been living since he was turned back at Ukraine’s new border with Crimea in May. Other Tatar leaders who tried to meet him at the security checkpoint have been fined up to $220, a sum that is close to the average monthly income in Crimea.
After the annexation, “they invited me to Moscow,” Dzhemilev said. “I talked to Putin for half an hour. He promised me they would help the Crimean Tatars.”
“I told him, ‘You can assist us by taking away the military,’ ” Dzhemilev said.
Russia’s representatives in Crimea say they have been treating the Tatars with respect.
“The statements on persecution are mere words,” said Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, in written replies to questions. “These statements are made just to put Russia in an embarrassing position, to say that everything is bad in Crimea.”
He said he had not received any complaints about mistreatment of Tatars.
But many Tatars say the authorities are well aware of the problems.
The security agents came to Mustafa Asaba’s house near Belogorsk as he drank his coffee and watched the news early one morning in September. There were dozens of officers, many of them heavily armed, he said. He opened his door because he heard the commotion in his front yard.
They went through his entire library, searching for material that is banned as “extremist” in Russia but was allowed in Ukraine.
“I told them, ‘I have no idea what banned literature is for you,’ ” said Asaba, who is the head of a local council of Tatar leaders. “I have a lot of books. I read a lot. Some of them are religious.”
The armed agents ransacked his house and examined every volume, he said. It took 3
“In Ukraine there was no such notion of banned literature,” Asaba said.