Crimea has a prominent place in every Turkish heart, regardless of political background. It was the ancestors of Turkic people who conquered and Turkified the Crimean Peninsula in the late 13th century. Two-hundred years after the Golden Horde, the Ottomans began ruling the peninsula for the next 300 years from 1475 onward. This is how Crimea became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, giving the Ottomans authority to appoint the Crimean khan. However, Ottoman supremacy came to an end with the defeat of the Ottoman navy during the Turco-Russian war (1768-1774), which lead the way for Russia to enter the Crimean Peninsula.
This also marks the never-ending misfortunes of one of the leading people in history. This ushered in the beginning of ill-treatment, deportations and regular Russification of Crimea, whose majority population were Muslim and Turkic.In the 19th century, after the suffering of Crimean Tatars, hundreds of thousands of Tatars were forced to flee their homeland and came to the Ottoman Empire. They abandoned the peninsula, leaving behind their souls and a piece of their identity. This, unfortunately, culminated in significant losses for Crimea in terms of its Muslim Tatar majority, which was then systematically replaced by Russian-speaking Slavic people. Additionally, Crimean Tatar's distress did not end with the crumbling of the Russian Empire. Although the ideological transformation from imperialism to communism handed power over to the Bolsheviks, this did not alter the anti-Tatar policies of Russian policymakers. Particularly, it was Josef Stalin, who in the 1930s began the systematic deportation of thousands of Tatars.
Reaching this point in time, for about two centuries, the population of Crimean Tatars had been declining, but the coup de grace hit in 1944, when they were deported en mass to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Ural Mountains. In other words, it was a Crimea emptied of Tatars, and their cultural buildings, historical huts, libraries, ancient scriptures and cemeteries were mostly decimated.
Nonetheless, the post-Stalin era transformed the nature of harsh Soviet politics and Tatars became hopeful that they could now return to the peninsula where they cultivated all their ethno-cultural and traditional features. In fact, they were allowed to return to Crimea after the Soviet government admitted in the 1960s to the earlier wrongdoing. Intrinsically, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of Ukraine, and Tatars were given full rights to resettle. As a result, the Crimean Tatar population reached 300,000 on the peninsula. Nevertheless, Russia's annexation of Crimea has blown away the hopes and these positive developments could not amend the Russian perceptional crisis in relation to Tatars, who are to this day perceived as the Turkish fifth column by Russia.
With the tide of nationalism washing over Russia, the second annexation of Crimea has become the catalyst of a new Russian nationalism in which Crimean Tatars are once more pulled into sorrowful agony. Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a nationalist leader, considers history an integral part of Russian identity. Therefore, for Putin, Crimea became an indispensable territory that symbolizes the new Russian nationalism that would also allow him to establish his own imagined society in Russia. For instance, defending Moscow's annexation on Dec. 4, 2014, Putin responded to the nationalist demands at home, saying that Crimea is as sacred to Russians as Jerusalem is to Muslims. Having made this argument, Putin based his new nationalism on rallying around the flag under one charismatic neo-tsar, whose desire has long been to re-establish Russian imperialism. This, indisputably, signaled the rise of the third Russification process of the peninsula.
The annexation of Crimea also paved the way for nationalism to become the only ideology in town, triggering the famous Russian spring, which the Kremlin employs to increase support for the government. This trend was also observed in the visible rise in organizations and groups that subscribe to the role of uniting the areas of the former Russian Empire. Moreover, this ethnocentric form of nationalism augmented the pan-Slavic ideas that exalt the superiority of Russian culture and Slavic blood, whose intolerance of non-Russian ethnic groups became more evident. Therefore, these groups have teamed up around Putin and his ideology, and their rhetoric put extra pressure on the Russian government for them to take harsher measures against Crimean Tatars. In this regard, according to a survey conducted by the famous Levada Center, 65 percent of Russians dislike non-Russian ethnic groups in Russia. Furthermore, Russians particularly despise religiously Muslim and ethnically Turkic people, and Crimean Tatars are no exception. All these non-Slavic ethnic groups are, therefore, compelled to obey the unseasoned rules of Russia's new nationalism.
Hence, from the Tatar perspective, the annexation was inadmissible, given the bitter memories of what they had experienced at the hands of Russia. For this reason, an ancient hatred still dominates the perceptions of both sides and allows us to understand the hostility in Russian- Crimean Tatar relations. Crimean Tatars are highly skeptical of Russia and Putin, and therefore they unilaterally advocate the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Indisputably, this unified a once very polarized and divided Tatar community against a common antagonist in Russia. This unity has been solidified by Russia's iron-fisted policies, particularly the persecution of Crimean Tatars, the prohibition of TV channels, the Crimean Tatar language and the closing down of mosques. In addition to this, politically active figures in the Crimean Tatar community have been portrayed by Russian authorities as extremists and terrorists, and have been forced into exile or imprisoned. Among them, Ilmi Umerov, the Crimean Tatar leader, was charged with separatism and sentenced to two years in prison; Mustafa Cemilev, the former president of the Crimean Tatar parliament known as the Mejlis, has been banned from entering Crimea; and Akhtem Chingoz, a prominent Crimean Tatar leader, was sentenced to eight years in prison for organizing mass demonstrations. However, thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's personal efforts, they were allowed to leave Crimea for Turkey. Ordinary Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, face daily intimidation, threats, unlawful detentions, investigations, psychical attacks and disappearances and their mosques being raided. This tragically reminds us of Russia's practices following the war in Chechnya. Taking these negative developments into consideration, it can be said the political situation and social rights of Crimean Tatars have significantly deteriorated under Russia's occupation. It can also be argued that Russia does not want to coexist or acknowledge the Crimean Tatar presence on the peninsula. This concerns Crimean Tatars about the possible repetition of the same nightmares that had happened from 1783 onward.
Although the situation of Crimean Tatars has alarmed many in Turkey, Turkish policymakers conduct low-profile diplomacy concerning the ethnically proximate people due to the fact that Turkey is not ready to sacrifice its growing bilateral relations with Russia in the name of protecting Crimean Tatars. Nonetheless, there is a considerable amount of Crimean Tatars in Turkey, and Ankara's inactivity vis-a-vis the Crimean Tatar case has already led to unease among them. This automatically obligated the Crimean Tatar community to collaborate with the central government in Ukraine, where they are given rights to broadcast in the Crimean Tatar language. This collaboration mainly derived from the fact that they found each other on the same side in opposition to Russia. However, this conditional cooperation between Crimean Tatars and Ukraine does not guarantee their safety in the future. In contrast, Crimean Tatars need a stauncher shield in the face of an aggressive Russia. In case of failing to find that shield, Crimean Tatars may encounter another systematic deportation from the peninsula.
Today, the infamous motto, do not speak, do not fight, do not contemplate, is being utilized more widespread among Crimean Tatar families in an attempt to inculcate their children not to take part in demonstrations. This is mainly because Crimea has already become a milestone in fulfilling the pan-Slavic dreams of Russian nationalists, including Putin. However, what Russia's new nationalism underestimates is that Crimea is as sacred to the Turkic world as it is for Russians. Hence, this leads to a clash of dreams between two dominant cultures in the region.
Consequently, the witch hunt against Crimean Tatars continues. That is to say, Russian authorities make further use of accusations such as extremism in order to legitimize the dehumanization of Crimean Tatars. Every Crimean Tatar dissident is portrayed as an enemy of the state, which obstructs the peaceful coexistence of the two ethnicities. Therefore, it is our contention that Russia's annexation of Crimea is limited to territorial gains, as Russia could not and will not be able to conquer the souls and thoughts of Crimean Tatars, who continue their encircled struggle not to surrender. In this struggle, Turkey is seen as a savior, and Crimean Tatars are in dire need of Turkey's attention and assistance.
* Çelik and Dirik work for the TRT World Research Centre