As those in power fuel ethnic and religious conflicts in Crimea, they are helping radical Islam spread over the peninsula and trigger destabilization
When General Anatoliy Mohyliov was still Chief of the Crimean Police several years ago, he was known for his radical statements about Crimean Tatars. Apart from verbal confrontations, Mohyliov shut down shops owned by Crimean Tatars at Ai-Petri, a panoramic tourist attraction. This made General Mohyliov one of the most notorious political figures in Ukraine in the eyes of Crimean Tatars.
Later, few were surprised when the PR promoted Mohyliov to Crimean Premier despite his confrontations with the locals.
LEGAL OBSTRUCTION OF MEJLIS
Recently, the Crimean Premier again declared publicly that he does not recognize the Mejlis—the most respected Crimean Tatar representative body—claiming that it is beyond Ukraine’s jurisdiction. He instead offered to communicate with Mejlis leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov as individual Crimean Tatars rather than Mejlis representatives.
Indeed, in twenty years of Ukraine’s independence the Mejlis has never been recognized as a legitimate de jure representative of Crimean Tatars, yet it has always been treated as one de facto. Being the permanent body of the Kurultai, the national council or assembly of Crimean Tatar representatives, the Mejlis is a unique exemplar of a people’s democratic self-representation. Every village, town and city in Crimea has regular democratic elections of people entitled to protect the interests of Crimean Tatars. Meanwhile, the entity known as the Council of the Crimean Tatar People under the President of Ukraine is comprised of officials preferred and appointed by the current central government. Absurdly, Mejlis members are a minority in this council despite being supported by most Crimean Tatars.
Kyiv prefers to communicate with convenient officials often representing only themselves or micro-organizations. By ignoring the Mejlis, which represents pro-European and pro-Ukrainian factions of Crimean Tatars, the government is left with few people to work with, such as Vasvi Abduraimov, the leader of Milli Firqa, a marginal Crimean Tatar party. Notably, Abduraimov sent an open letter to Russian leaders during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War asking them to bring Russian troops into Crimea to “protect national minorities from Ukrainian nationalists”.
RADICAL POLICY WILL LEAD TO CHAOS
As Mohyliov defiantly obstructs and ignores the Mejlis, the confrontation between Crimean Tatars and the government will aggravate both in Crimea and outside of the peninsula. This may weaken the Mejlis with its democratic and European traditions of non-violent struggle for the rights of Crimean Tatars while reinforcing radical Islamic groups, especially as more and more Crimean Tatars believe that the current government is hostile to their people.
It is no surprise that the Crimean pro-Russian activists that continually raise the question of the Mejlis’ formal illegitimacy are tied to the very same organizations that are working tirelessly to disrupt Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Their hope is that no one legitimately entitled to represent the Crimean Tatar people will be left when the time comes. Meanwhile, most Crimean Tatars rely on the Mejlis to help solve their problems in a civilized way. Once this hope is lost, the preferences of many Crimean Tatars—youth first and foremost—are likely to tilt towards radical Islamists. Such a shift could open the door for foreign interests to intensify internal destabilization in Ukraine. A boycott of the Mejlis by the central government might push Crimean Tatars toward radicalization and the traditionally secular national movement could turn into political Islamism. The protests of thousands of locals yelling Allahu Akbar in protest against the notorious film Innocence of Muslims in fall 2012 in Simferopol – the first such rally in twenty years of Ukraine’s independence –confirms this suggestion.
Moderate Islam has dominated in Crimea since the time of the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire, when it became firmly entrenched in the national culture and traditions. Every ethnic group had its own status respected by the government in the Crimean Khanate. Mosques stood next to Orthodox and Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues and Karaite kenesas. Until now, no religious wars have been recorded in the history of Crimea. Prior to any important political or military campaign, Crimean khans often burned candles in Christian churches. Medieval court records from Crimea show that a Christian woman would sue her Muslim brother, or a Muslim nephew would take his Christian uncle to court for heritage. This means that there were mixed families. This religious tolerance is a unique and valuable heritage of Crimean society. Testing it with clumsy unprofessional policy is a bad idea.
Meanwhile, the official government is being surprisingly tolerant of the efforts of obscure foreign religious and political organizations. Some foreign citizens of Islamic countries have launched religious campaigns in Crimea, interfering with the religious life of Crimean Tatars and preaching aggressive fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Mustafa Dzhemilev, Refat Chubarov and other Mejlis leaders have tried many times to draw the attention of respective authorities and the government to these dangerous processes, but with little success.
For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political organization banned in some Muslim countries as extremist, is operating freely in Crimea. The Hizbs, as they are called by locals, support an Islamist revolution, the abolition of state borders and the establishment of a unified caliphate ruled by Islamic law.
If anyone were seriously concerned about this problem, they would have many opportunities to pose some tough questions to those struggling to dominate the minds and souls of Crimean Tatars. For instance, how can peoples that are completely different in terms of language, culture and origin be unified into one Islamic nation? How can major branches of Islam, such as Sunni (including Crimean Tatars) and Shia, be united after many centuries of bloody confrontation?
Apparently, there is no one among those in power in Ukraine to ask these questions. Meanwhile, young Crimean Tatars are being indoctrinated with passionate speeches about the wondrous Caliphate where all problems will be solved and general welfare guaranteed. While the government remains inert, a hidden religious struggle is unfolding in Crimea. Fundamentalist activists are trying to oust imams out of mosques as bearers of tolerant Islam. Even some reports of physical coercion have surfaced. The conflict between generations is intensifying as young people insist that the traditional tolerant Crimean version of Islam is “wrong” and propose more political versions instead. The Crimean Muftiat, spiritual leadership of Crimean Muslims, has recently requested that the Education and Science Ministry of Ukraine does not close down religious Muslim schools on the peninsula, which is in the interests of both Crimean Tatars and Ukraine overall.
A much better scenario for Ukraine is for Crimean Islamic clergy to be educated in Ukraine, within the religious and cultural traditions of Crimean Tatars, rather than in Pakistan or Egypt, which is likely to have other consequences. However, some may prefer the political version of Islam to spread over the peninsula, as it could later be used to disrupt Ukrainian statehood.
Crimea has potentially explosive political and socio-cultural “ammunition”. Thus, ignoring the democratic and pro-Ukrainian Mejlis means planting a time bomb under Crimea and Ukraine.