Lord Risby is Chairman of the British Ukrainian Society.
If recent events have dramatically focused on the words and actions of the re-elected Vladimir Putin, it is surely worth highlighting Crimea again.
One of the most extraordinary sights of the Presidential election campaign was the thousands of Crimean residents enthusiastically endorsing his candidature. But certainly not all – and most certainly not the Crimean Tartars, the Turkic speaking minority who have been central to the life of the peninsula since the 14th Century.
When Stalin ruthlessly introduced agricultural collectivisation he deliberately caused the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians, including Tartars. In 1944 the entire Crimean Tartar population was deported to central Asia. Today they number some 250,000 in Crimea but understandably many live in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and in Ukraine itself.
After their return, in due course a parliament, the Mejlis, was created to act as a representative body for their community. Subsequent to the invasion of Crimea by Russia four years ago, the Mejlis was disbanded as an extremist organisation and Mejlis members were arrested and imprisoned.
Last week a group of us met senior Tartars. They told us that Tartars in Crimea feel extremely unsafe in the streets, patrolled by Russian GRU intelligence special forces and so called ‘self-defence of Crimea’ gangs. Any perceived opposition is ruthlessly suppressed.
Frequently Tartars suffer abductions, torture and criminal accusations as well as imprisonment. Searches of homes, mosques and schools are regular features of Tartar daily life in an overall atmosphere of intimidation. Ahead of the presidential election, they received visits to their homes to ‘encourage’ them in no uncertain terms to vote.
By contrast Russians are being encouraged to settle in Crimea with promises of housing, jobs and educational facilities, and indeed up to one million have arrived. Crimea has never been self-supporting and basic services are very stretched – for example, official figures suggest an alarmingly high infant mortality rate.
There are substantial economic links between Turkey and Russia. However, Turkey has been robust calling for the restoration of the territorial integrity of Crimea. President Erdogan negotiated the release from prison of two Mejlis prisoners, Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, and continues to highlight the plight of this ethnically and culturally similar minority.
In our Parliament we try to maintain comprehensive links with our Ukrainian counterparts and with key Ukrainian individuals. The Tartars remain a somewhat forgotten entity in the whole Ukraine-Russia saga, but hearing their representatives illuminated graphically the Russian government’s actions towards a people who collectively oppose the occupation of Crimea.