Not long ago, Russia was acknowledged in the international community as an occupying force, a step that was long overdue. This is specifically the result of Ukraine’s diplomatic efforts, whose success has become very visible lately. Such accomplishments include the PACE Resolution that declared Russia an occupier, the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and, last but not least, the UN Resolution of November 15 that clearly referred to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Such decisions are also the basis for extending sanctions against the Russian Federation, not to cancel them, as this is the only path to liberating Crimea and ensuring the integrity of the country. Of course, Russia will not fulfill any of these resolutions, but they are nevertheless necessary. We will continue to act as though we are dealing with a civilized country, while the Russian Federation will continue to show its real nature.
Meanwhile, the UN was planning to launch a mission in Crimea, but a number of problems immediately arise. First of all, it will have to enter the peninsula through mainland Ukraine and agree the crossing with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because Crimea is Ukrainian territory as far as the UN Resolution is concerned. But Russia is unlikely to agree to this. It has already refused entry to many international organizations. Russia simply says “Nyet! This is our land! You have to agree your mission with Moscow.”
What’s more, to enter the peninsula and confirm the state of human rights is extremely difficult. If you go out in the streets with a microphone and ask people, “Are things good since the occupation?” they will either tell you how happy they all are or will avoid answering altogether. If someone dares to say they want Crimea to return to Ukraine, this constitutes a crime that is called “threatening the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”
In order to properly assess the human rights situation on the peninsula, there has to be a permanent mission. It’s not a matter of two or three days. So the action plan of such missions is to meet with the occupational government, with some collaborators, including Crimean Tatars, and to write a report. This means that the work of the UN mission will depend entirely on whom it selects. At one point, we met with a representative from the OSCE who, in all seriousness, proposed organizing parliamentary meetings and discussions between the Russian Duma and the Ukrainian Rada, although this same Duma voted to annex Crimea!
Aside from that, we will likely to run into the “soft” conclusions of the mission. In 2015, Turkish human rights activists came to Crimea. Russia counted on the fact that its cozy relationship with Turkey would lead to a suitable report on the work of this mission. But the results did not meet its expectations. The Turkish observers wrote 23 pages about the situation as it really was. Moscow was not amused and, predictably, these human rights activists would not be allowed into Crimea again.
Things turned out somewhat differently with a Council of Europe mission. When they finished their mission, the CoE officials said that they could not fully report on the situation because then they would not be allowed back and it would become even more difficult to defend human rights on the peninsula. The Turkish delegation had faced the same dilemma, but, unlike the CoE representatives, it did not soften its conclusions.
In their report, the Europeans noted that there were violations in Crimea, but that they were neither systematic nor deliberately targeted. However, not long ago, Russia banned the Crimean Tatars’ representative body, the Medjlis because, according to RF law, the Medjlis was an “extremist organization,” even though it is an elected, representative body. And now, belonging to it is a crime. Those who elected it are also criminals. Since nearly the entire adult population of Crimean Tatars participated in the election of the Medjlis, it seems that now the entire Tatar nation is criminal. In what way is this not systematic?
Still, there are also reasons to feel somewhat optimistic about the Crimean situation. When we traveled abroad, especially to the US, we met with both Republicans and Democrats. The last such meeting was in Istanbul with Robert Turner. There, we were discussing our concerns about the future of Crimea, as president-elect Donald Trump said a number of strange things related to recognizing the peninsula as a part of Russia. The general position of all of those with whom we spoke was that this was campaign talk, while Trump’s actions as president would be different. Turner said that he was quite confident that support for Ukraine would be stronger under Trump than it was under the Democrats. What’s more, the US Administration has plenty of food for thought, now that Crimea has become a Russian military base.
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From our own sources, we know that the Russians have revived the nuclear silos and have moved nuclear missiles into them. NATO and Ukrainian intelligence say that this is quite possible, but no precise details are available. In any case, it’s clear that Russia’s nuclear arsenal, not to mention one in Crimea, has raised considerable concern in the international community. Because Russia with a nuclear arsenal is like a monkey with a bomb. It doesn’t quite understand what’s what and is likely to toss the bomb somewhere. And what’s going on in Crimea is not so much an expansion of its military presence an attempt to make a show of force.
Right now, it’s difficult to predict whether it will be possible to liberate Crimea in 2017. Russia is the kind of country where something could happen one evening and the next day it will have to figure out how to move its forces off the peninsula. This could happen a week from now. Or Lord knows when. When I was in a labor camp in Magadan in 1986, I was forced to sign a pledge to not hold anti-soviet opinions. I was told that the soviet government had broken even tougher people than me before, and that I wouldn’t be released without signing that paper. Five years later, there was no Soviet Union.
Today’s Russia is not as powerful as the USSR was. The soviet camp has scattered and some of those countries are long part of the West. Under the circumstances, puffing out its cheeks and making like it’s an empire capable of anything is beside the point.
As to Crimea, there is no way to count on Russia’s internal forces. Alternate opinions and opposition figures are suppressed there. So the main source of pressure remains external. That means sanctions. This is what Crimean Tatars will work towards.
Mustafa Dzhemilev is a leader of the Crimean Tatar movement, human rights advocate and dissident. He was Chair of the Crimean Tatar Medjlis from 1991-2013, and currently serves as Presidential Ombudsman for Crimean Tatar Affairs
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj