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Russia Courts Crimea’s Muslims

  • James Brooke

Three months after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, the Russian ruble is now the currency of the peninsula, and half of Crimea’s 2.3 million residents have applied for Russian passports. But there is one cloud on this Black Sea landscape - Crimea’s Muslim minority, the Tatars.

A Moscow show of paintings by Crimean Tatars brings out Russia’s elite.

Ravil Gainutdin, Russia’s Grand Mufti, or supreme Muslim leader, visited Crimea right after Russia’s annexation. He welcomes Crimea’s 250,000 Tatars into the family of Russia’s 20 million Muslims.

"I hope that Crimean Tatars will gain decent living conditions and political representation as Russian citizens," said Gainutdin.

Mikhail Margelov, a member of the Russian parliament's upper chamber (the Federation Council) and Muslim expert, reminds reporters that in April, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that rehabilitates Tatars after their mass deportation from Crimea by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944.

"The new law will wipe out the legacies of the crime of the 1944 deportation," said Margelov.

But one room away from the official press conference, Mamut Churlu, a Crimean Tatar artist, says many Crimean Tatars worry about the return of rule by Moscow. He recalls the night in March when Crimeans voted to join Russia, a referendum boycotted by Tatars.

“People spent the night fully dressed with their luggage ready.They thought they were going to be deported," said Churlu.

May 18 marked the 70th anniversary of the deportations. Last month, there were memorials and a rally - in Kyiv.

Rally participants chanted: “Ukraine is the most important.” They carried a banner reading: “Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians are Brothers.”

Up to 15,000 Tatars left Crimea after Moscow took over. Anifer Kursitova, fled with her family to Kyiv.

"It is difficult to be a refugee, and I hope to return to Crimea to live if the political environment opens up," said Kursitova.

At the May 18 rally, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the Tatars’ leader from Soviet days, called for an end to Russian control of Crimea.

“I hope that in the nearest future Crimean Tatars will have a new date to celebrate, that of the end of occupation," said Dzhemilev.

But that date may be far away.

Sergei Aksyonov, the de facto prime minister of Russia-controlled Crimea, has banned Dzhemilev from returning to Crimea. Last month, Aksyonov banned Tatar gatherings on the anniversary of the deportation. Several took place, but with Russian military helicopters hovering overhead.

Moderates worry that if Crimea’s Tatar minority feels oppressed, some young men will join other Russian-speaking Muslims fighting in Syria. Last month, a Syria-based Crimean Tatar jihadist called on Crimean Tatars to come to Syria for military training - or to carry out holy war at home.

Abdul Karim Krymsky is the deputy commander of the Muhajireen Army:

"Muslims and Tatars in Crimea have been humiliated and that now is the time for holy war," said Krymsky.

Back in Moscow, time will tell if the Kremlin can avoid radicalization by giving Crimean Tatars economic aid and political breathing room.
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