Accessibility links

Businesses Torched Amid Deepening Crackdown On Crimean Tatars

  • Claire Bigg

This Crimean Tatar hotel was burned down in March 2014 in the village of Rybache (Tuak) in Crimea

This Crimean Tatar hotel was burned down in March 2014 in the village of Rybache (Tuak) in Crimea

For almost 20 years, Enver Osmanov ran a grocery shop in Rybache, a small seaside resort in Crimea.

The shop burned to the ground in late April, one of several Crimean Tatar businesses in Rybache that residents say have been torched since Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014. Activists say the attacks are part of a campaign to punish the indigenous Muslim minority for its opposition to the Russian takeover.

"It burned down entirely, along with all the equipment," Osmanov says. "The grill machines, the fridges -- everything was destroyed."

Even before the fire, the shop -- once a thriving family enterprise -- had fallen on hard times after the annexation, as the crowds of vacationers that flocked to the picturesque resort abruptly vanished.

Last year, as Osmanov was nursing the blow to his business from the disappearing tourist trade, Crimean Tatars across the peninsula faced what rights groups say has been a persistent crackdown at the hands of the Russian authorities now in control.

Having endured persecution and exile under Soviet rule, many Crimean Tatars cried foul when Russia moved to annex the region, boycotting the referendum the Kremlin and its local allies used to justify the takeover.

As the Moscow-backed government consolidates its power, Crimean Tatars say they are being punished for their defiance.

"We expected the crackdown on Crimean Tatars to deepen after the so-called elections on September 14 that formally legitimized this government, which is not recognized internationally," said Eskender Bariev, a member of the Mejlis, the Tatars' governing body. "Raids began after the elections, arrests and disappearances multiplied."

A number of Crimean Tatars have been arrested for protesting the annexation or for publicly supporting their figurehead, Soviet-era dissident and former Mejlis chief Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Russia has banned Dzhemilev and the current Mejlis chairman, Refat Chubarov, from entering Crimea. Other Mejlis members, including Bariev, have also been barred from the peninsula.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev was stopped at a checkpoint in Kherson when he attempted to enter Crimea in May 2014.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev was stopped at a checkpoint in Kherson when he attempted to enter Crimea in May 2014.

Bariev, too, has been prevented from reentering Crimea after attending a conference in Istanbul in January. He now lives in mainland Ukraine and says authorities in Crimea want him tried for alleged crimes against Russia.

In September the Russian authorities raided the Mejlis, forcing it from its premises in the regional capital Simferopol.

Crimean Tatar media outlets have been shut down, and young Tatar men known for their anti-Russian views have been kidnapped off the streets. Two have been found dead, their bodies bearing what Tatars and Western rights groups say are horrific signs of torture. A dozen others are still missing.

With their most vocal representatives banished or in jail, Crimean Tatars say it is their businesses that are now being targeted.

This week, authorities closed a popular Crimean Tatar cafe in the city of Bakhchysaray on an administrative technicality. The venue belongs to relatives of Dzhemilev.

Bariev sounded the alarm in an April 28 post on Facebook. "Businesses of Crimean Tatar entrepreneurs are being torched in Crimea," he wrote, citing what he said were seven incidents in Rybache including an arson attack that wrecked a hotel.

"This is due to the stance of the Crimean Tatar people, who don't recognize and will not accept the processes that started a year ago," said Bariev. "These acts are aimed at intimidating people."

Osmanov said that in addition to his shop, three cafes have been torched this year in Rybache, which Tatars call Tuak, including one in April and one in January. He said the hotel, shops, and at least two cars belonging to Crimean Tatars were torched last year.

Turning Back The Clock

Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatars ruled the peninsula for 300 years before the region was swallowed up by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great.

In 1944, they were deported en masse to Central Asia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Many died on the way or in exile, and they were only allowed to return in the late 1980s. They did so in large numbers, but now make up about 12 percent of the population in a region where the majority is ethnic Russian.

After spending two decades rebuilding their lives in Crimea and reasserting their culture, Bariev says, they have been watching helplessly as Moscow turns back the clock on their hard-earned freedoms. "Tragedy has struck again," he says.

Crimean Tatars protest against the occupation of Crimea in front of the Russian Embassy in Istanbul in February.

Crimean Tatars protest against the occupation of Crimea in front of the Russian Embassy in Istanbul in February.

This year, the Russian authorities have barred Crimean Tatars from holding a memorial to mark the anniversary of their World War II deportation on May 18.

Some Crimean Tatars say that the deadly conflict between Russian-backed rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine has eclipsed their plight in the eyes of the world.

"Today, Crimean Tatars are a repressed people, everything is done to force them out of Crimea and prevent them from developing their culture and traditions," Bariev says. "If the international community fails to react to this trend, then we can say that international law is simply not working."

For entrepreneurs like Osmanov, the crackdown is doubly crippling. His only source of income has gone up in smoke, and he fears any new business venture will meet the same fate.

The grocery shop had employed and fed his entire extended family of 11 -- himself, his wife and three children, his parents, and his two brothers and their families.

Although Osmanov reported the case to law enforcement authorities, he says he has no hope of seeing justice served. "We're all furious but there's nothing we can do," he says, adding that the authorities "are not looking for those who did this."

Osmanov believes that locals burned his shop and the other businesses in Rybache, suggesting that the annexation has awakened ethnic tensions and emboldened those who want Tatars out to act with "impunity."

"I've lived here since 1989 and there've never been any conflicts," he says. "I don't know what to do now."

One thing he will not do is leave Crimea. "This is my homeland," he says. "I'm not going anywhere."

  • 16x9 Image

    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​