On September 6, the Ukrainian parliament approved Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar and avid critic of Russia’s systematic oppression of his people, as the nation’s new Defense Minister.
Ukraine watchers interpreted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s choice of Umerov as signaling that Kyiv is “steadfast about regaining Crimea from Russian control.”
Umerov previously served as the head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine. He is the first Crimean Tatar to hold a cabinet post in Ukraine.
Russian state media put a negative spin on Umerov’s elevation and denied Russian abuses against the Crimean Tatar population.
“The politician [Umerov] has played an active role in spreading blatant propaganda about the alleged mistreatment of the Crimean Tatar community by Russia in Crimea – claims which Crimean Tatar leaders actually living in the peninsula have repeatedly debunked,” wrote Ilya Tsukanov, a Moscow-based correspondent for Russia’s Sputnik news agency.
That is false.
Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, currently under Russian occupation. The Soviet Union subjected the Crimean Tatars to ethnic cleansing, and Russia continued ethnically profiling them after illegally annexing the peninsula in 2014.
Immediately after the annexation, the Russian occupational administration shut down the Crimean Tatars’ national movements and forced their leaders into exile.
The new organization Moscow created to imitate the Crimean Tatars’ leadership is fully controlled by Russia, with its public statements mirroring Kremlin propaganda narratives.
In his Sputnik piece, Tsukanov wrote that "Umerov’s biography is straightforward for someone from Ukraine’s pro-Western political class,” noting he was born in 1982 “in Soviet Uzbekistan.”
Tsukanov omitted that Umerov was born in Uzbekistan because his family was deported from Crimea in the 1940s, along with the rest of the Crimean Tatar population, as part of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s “de-Tatarization of Crimea.”
That corresponded with Crimea’s “Russification,” which included a ban on the Crimean Tatar language.
In 2021, Umerov recounted what happened to his and other Crimean Tatar families, writing that the deportation was “one of the biggest crimes of the Soviet regime” and “started by the tyrants in power at the time to exterminate an entire nation.”
Umerov wrote that with the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russia is continuing “its repressive policy against the Crimean Tatars,” who are “again forced to fight for their historical Motherland.”
In April, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights said the Crimean Tatars “have been exposed to a never-ending string of human rights violations and unfairly cast out of their ancestral homeland many times in the course of their troubled history.”
The Crimean Tatar Resource Center, a Ukraine-based non-governmental organization, documented 5,613 rights abuses against Crimean Tatar representatives from 2014 to December 2022.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that under Russian occupation, representatives of the Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, and activists, were the targets of harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances.
In 2015, Valeriya Lutkovskaya, who was then the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, described Crimea under Russian occupation as a “peninsula of terror.”
During Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014, some Crimean Tatars protested peacefully. Many were subsequently abducted and tortured.
Reshat Ametov was murdered after being abducted in broad daylight while protesting Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014. His body, which was later discovered in a forest, had clear signs of torture.
To stem opposition to Moscow’s illegal occupation, Russian authorities outlawed the Crimean Tatars’ representative body, called the Mejlis, calling it an extremist organization. The Mejlis, like most Crimean Tatars, oppose Russia’s occupation of Ukraine.
Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also closed the peninsula’s only television channel broadcasting in the Crimean Tatar language, ATR.
Former Mejlis chairman Mustafa Dzhemilev has been barred from entering Crimea for nearly a decade. He was convicted in absentia last year for attempting to reenter Crimea “illegally” in 2014.
In 2021, Mejlis chairman Refat Chubarov was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison for opposing Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea. Russia’s occupation authorities accused him of organizing mass riots in 2014.
In 2017, another Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, was sentenced, following what Amnesty International called a “sham trial,” to eight years in prison for “organizing mass disturbances” in 2014.
Mejlis deputy leader Ilmi Umerov was subjected to the Soviet-era practice of “punitive psychiatry” — being forcibly moved to and kept in a psychiatric hospital.
Occupation authorities similarly charged Umerov with separatism for denouncing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Turkish and Ukrainian authorities managed to secure the release of Chiygoz and Umerov in 2017. Both men returned to Ukraine.
Russian authorities have regularly conflated Crimean Tatars’ exercise of political and religious beliefs with terrorist affiliation.
In January, five Crimean Tatars were sentenced to 13 years in prison on dubious terrorism charges.
One of those men, Dzhemil Gafarov, died in custody in February after years of medical neglect.
According to the Council of Europe, Russia’s occupation forces have shown “more repressive and discriminatory attitudes” toward Crimean Tatars since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
In 2022, Dzhemilev told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that Crimean Tatars have faced 85% of the politically-motivated arrests and illegal searches in Crimea, despite making up 13-15% of the peninsula’s population.
Since Russia invaded in February 2022, Crimean Tatars have also been disproportionately targeted for conscription into the Russian army.
CrimeaSOS, a Ukrainian rights organization formed following Russia’s occupation, said 10,000 people were drafted in Crimea last fall — 2.5 times the conscription rate in the Russian Federation.
CrimeaSOS analyst Yevgeny Yaroshenko estimated that Tatars received 90% of those summonses.
Conscription of residents of occupied territories violates the Geneva Convention.
Umerov’s appointment, according to Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova, signals Ukraine is “steadfast about regaining Crimea from Russian control.”