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Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that the new government in Ukraine is run by fascists and anti-Semites who dominated the Euromaidan protests against former President Viktor Yanukovich and in favor of closer Ukraine-EU ties. But Putin’s claims have little basis in reality.
Jewish leaders in Ukraine have dismissed Russia’s claims about rising anti-Semitism and say the few anti-Semitic incidents reported in Ukraine over the past few months were provocations designed to discredit Ukraine’s pro-democracy protest movement. Moreover, extreme nationalists are electorally unpopular in Ukraine.
In an open letter addressed to Putin last month, a group of Jewish Ukrainian businesspeople, academics, religious leaders, journalists and cultural figures rejected his justification for invading and annexing Crimea. “Your certainty [about] the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine does not correspond to the actual facts,” the letter reads. “It seems you have confused Ukraine with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year.”
However, this is not to say that ethnic minorities have nothing to fear in Ukraine. The torture and murder of Tatar activist Reshat Ametov on March 16 has raised fears of impending ethnic cleansing in the Russian controlled Crimean Peninsula. Ametov was found with his head bound with tape and his legs shackled, leading to concerns about discrimination, Islamophobia and another round of deportation of Tatars.
The Tatars’ anxiety about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which they consider their homeland, is warranted. The human rights organization the Council of Europe in a 2012 report outlined high levels of xenophobia and racism in Crimea. Racist intolerance toward Tatars, who account for 15 percent of Crimea’s population, is widespread. Their support for the Euromaidan and their boycott of the Crimean referendum has further alienated them from the Russian community. Their desire for autonomy, if not respected by the dominant Russian and larger Crimean communities, may lead to further chaos and bloodshed.
Deportation of Tatars
Tartar fears of Russian oppression aren’t new. Tatars have faced a long history of such persecution, especially since the fall of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, an Ottoman-backed kingdom that succeeded Genghis Khan’s Mongolian empire, in late 18th century. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the expulsion of Crimean Tatars, along with other Muslims such as Chechens, on spurious allegations of collaboration with the Nazis. The forced removal gave the Tatars little time to pack, and half of them died en route to Central Asia, where the survivors resettled.
More Tatars served in the Soviet army than the few who collaborated. But even Tatar soldiers in the army were deported on their return from the war. Over four decades, Tatars lobbied the Soviet regime for permission to go back to Crimea. In late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization paved a way for the bulk of Tatars to return home. Upon arrival, they found their homes occupied, mosques destroyed and ancient monuments left in ruins or vandalized.
Tatar leaders, including Refat Chubarov, head of the Medzhilis (the Tatars’ unofficial parliament), are warning about a new round of ethnic cleansing. White crosses, similar to what the Soviet secret police hoisted in 1944 ahead of the Tatar displacement to Central Asia, have begun reappearing in Crimea. Last weekend, the Medzhilis voted for cultural autonomy in Crimea and appealed to the international community for support, citing heightened fear under Russian rule.
Tatar relations with Russian nationalists in Crimea has always been tense and at times even violent. The far-right Russian Unity party, along with the Communist Party and ousted President Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, praises Stalin’s ethnic cleansing and mock the 1944 expulsion, saying Stalin’s actions were justified because Tatars collaborated with the Nazis.
The peninsula is now flooded with Russian Cossacks, a pro-Putin paramilitary group, and Nazi extremists. Since the invasion of Crimea, these groups have murdered at least one Tatar, abducted, robbed and beaten foreign and Ukrainian journalists, priests and civic activists. They have also targeted the small number of Jews living in Crimea. Many of the paramilitaries in Crimea and Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine are members of neo-Nazi parties and skinhead youth groups with ties to far-right extremists who are known for their racism and xenophobic hatred of migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Earlier this month, concerned about the rise of racism and Islamophobia in Crimea, Tatar leaders revived the Tatar National Liberation Movement, which was last active during the Tatar exile in Central Asia in the 1980s. In a Crimea controlled by Russian nationalist groups, anti-Tatar racism will likely increase after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula is consolidated. A return to Soviet-style political repression would encourage young Tatars to press their case through violent means. The younger generation sees passive resistance by older Tatar dissidents as out of touch with reality. Growing discontent with Russian occupation will undoubtedly boost support for radical groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami and al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah. Initially formed by Tatar refugees from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, the two Islamic groups are considered terrorists in Central Asia and are banned in several countries, including Ukraine.
Meanwhile, contrary to Putin and Russian media’s propaganda, Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jews and ethnic Russians are playing a central role in the new Ukrainian government. Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, are likely to endure increased racial and political persecution under Putin’s Russia. Therefore the international attention, hitherto focused on overstated allegations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, should shift toward the plight of Crimean Tatars, who face racist discrimination in Russia’s kleptocracy, where the rule of law is weak.
Taras Kuzio is a Toronto-based research associate at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, at the University of Alberta.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.