Russia risks a repeat of its bloody entanglements in Chechnya if it annexes Crimea, a senior Crimean Tatar leader has warned, with extremist elements in the community threatening jihadi-style violence against Russian troops occupying the peninsula.
Mustafa Jemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said a number of militant Tatars had approached him to say they would fight the Russians.
“We have Islamists, Wahhabis, Salafis . . . groups who have fought [with the opposition] in Syria,” he said in an interview in Simferopol, the Crimean capital. “They say: ‘an enemy has entered our land and we are ready’.
“We can’t stop people who want to die with honour,” he said, making he clear he did not endorse a jihadist campaign.
The warning underscores the potential dangers facing Moscow as it tightens its grip on Crimea. A referendum on whether Crimea should become part of Russia has been scheduled for next Sunday.
Annexation of Crimea would not only exacerbate the east-west crisis triggered by Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, but could also deepen ethnic and religious divisions in Crimea itself, increasing the risk of communal strife and even armed conflict, local leaders say. Opposition to Russia is most intense among the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority who number about 280,000 and make up roughly 12 per cent of the region’s population.
There is also a danger for Russia that the Crimean crisis could become internationalised, with foreign jihadis taking up arms against Russia much as they did during the Chechen war in the early 2000s.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert on jihadist movements in Syria, said Russia’s invasion was already being actively discussed on social media and internet forums frequented by Islamic militants. “People are asking whether events [there] would legitimise the opening of a new jihadi front,” he said.
He added that the chatter was limited at this stage and there was no indication yet that foreign fighters were heading for Crimea.
Links already exist between some Crimean Tatars and the global Islamist militant network, with a number of Tatars having fought with the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. One of them, under the nom de guerre “Abu Khaled”, carried out a suicide bombing in Aleppo last year.
Analysts have noted that the hashtag #NafirforUkraine has appeared hundreds of times on Twitter in recent days. A term meaning a call to action, the word nafir circulated on social media in the early stages of the conflict in Syria, and is believed to have played a role in encouraging foreign fighters to join the opposition cause.
Anxiety among Crimean Tatars has its roots in their tragic history under Russian rule, which began when Catherine the Great annexed the region in 1783. Josef Stalin deported the entire Tatar population in 1944, on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis.
Liniyar Belyalova was nine years old in May 1944 when Soviet soldiers arrived at her house and rounded up her family. They were taken in the clothes they stood in, put on crowded railway freight wagons and sent to Uzbekistan, thousands of miles away. “So many old people died on the train,” she recalls. “They wouldn’t let us bury them, we had to throw their bodies out of the window.”
Ms Belyalova, 79, was one of tens of thousands of exiled Crimean Tatars who made their way home from central Asia during the perestroika era of the late 1980s, seizing empty land and building homes.
She now lives in Bakhchisaray, a largely Tatar town dominated by a 16th-century palace that was home to the Crimean Tatar khans, or local leaders. But with the region now full of Russian troops, she fears a second deportation.
“[Russian president Vladimir] Putin just needs the land, he doesn’t want the people in it,” she says. “He’ll just kick us out if he needs to.”
Mr Jemilev, a former head of the Mejlis, the main Tatar communal organisation, said Crimea’s new pro-Russian leaders have tried to reassure Tatars that they have nothing to fear from Russian rule.
He said they had offered a comprehensive deal, promising Tatars the post of deputy prime minister of a Russian-governed Crimea, three ministries and official recognition of their communal organisations. They have also pledged financial help for returning Tatars and even committed to reinstating the original Tatar names of some towns and villages.
But Mr Jemilev said he and other leaders are reluctant to sign a deal with politicians they consider to be stooges of Moscow. “This agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on,” he said. “Everything can change tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, other figures in the community are calling for calm. “We’re telling our fathers and sons to keep cool, to be patient – the last thing we need is bloodshed,” says Safure Kadjametova, a Tatar member of the Crimean parliament. “But their patience is running out.”
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