Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Crime of Crimea

(Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu (Mustafa Jemilev), former Presidential Representative of Crimea)

A few years ago I was invited to a party, given by an Egyptian socialite, at her apartment in New York City.  It was winter and fairly cold outside.  As I entered the apartment building and walked through the enormous lobby, I saw a tiny sober-looking man seated on a bench, flanked by two other unusual-looking men.  He wore a buttoned-up overcoat and faintly Russian-looking tall lambs wool hat.  He appeared to be watching all the people enter the lobby with an intensely sad expression on his thin, drawn greyish face. 

I had a hunch that he was going to the same party as us. And indeed he was.  He showed up a few minutes after us in the crowded apartment filled with loud, laughing, champagne-drinking actors, opera singers, business people, and lawyers.  It was a very multicultural gathering.  He seemed oddly out of place.

Mustafa Jemilev, also known as Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu, was the guest of honor at my friend's party.  He was the equivalent of the President of Crimea, although Crimea, due to its long and confusing history, doesn't technically have its own president, but because of its strange status as an independent state of the Ukraine, Crimea sends its "presidential representative" to the Ukrainian Parliament.  Mr. Jemilev, a well recognized leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, has fought all of his life to bring his people, a Turkic mostly Muslim ethnic group who are fierce descendants of Genghis Khan who speak Crimean Tatar, Russian or Turkish, back to their homeland in Crimea. 

Our Egyptian hostess finally clapped her hands to get our rowdy attention, and she introduced her guest, Mr. Jemilev.  He sat quietly on the sofa still flanked by the other two men. (Later I spoke with the other two men and learned they were two of the most powerful businessmen in the Ukraine). Mr. Jemilev began to speak.  His English was awful - almost incomprehensible.  But slowly I began to understand the history of a tiny strategic country sandwiched on a peninsula in the Black Sea, like a dangling uvula at the back of a gaping mouth, between Russia and Ukraine.  It also became clear why he was so physically frail and sad.

I knew nothing about the history of Crimea or its people.  Only that its naval bases were strategic to Russia.

In 1783, Russia violated its treaty and invaded Crimea.  After this annexation, the Russian czars engaged in a policy of massacring and exiling hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars.  Two-thirds of the Crimean Tatar population either perished or was forced out of the country.  During Stalin's reign, many of the remaining Crimean Tatars who were attempting to establish the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, were brutally suppressed, imprisoned or executed.  Soviet policies resulting in widespread starvation in 1921 and more than 100,000 Tatars starved to death and others fled to Turkey or Romania.  Ten years later, there was another Soviet-led mass starvation of Crimea.  The amazing reality was that between 1917 and 1933, half of the Crimean population had been either killed or deported.

Mr. Jemilev's people were again subjected to Soviet attack when, in 1944, accused of aiding Hitler's campaign,  all Crimean Tatars were deported en masse as a form of collective punishment and were permanently exiled to Uzbekistan.  Half the entire population died of disease or malnutrition.  Mr. Jemilev was only six months old when his family was deported that year along with the rest of the entire Crimean Tatar population.  He grew up in exile in Uzbekistan.  At a young age, he became active in a political group of young Crimean Tatars who sought the right to return to their homeland.  For his efforts, he was rewarded by the Soviet government, between 1966 and 1986, by being arrested six times, served time in Soviet prisons and labor camps, and lived under constant surveillance.  He went on the longest hunger strike in the history of all human rights movements.  His hunger strike lasted for 303 days - almost an entire year - but he survived due to force feeding. 

In 1989, he was elected to head the newly created Crimean Tatar National Movement and his people were finally allowed to return to Crimea.  Roughly 250,000 Tatars returned to Crimea while another roughly 100,000 still remain relocated in other countries.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, Crimea was granted independence and briefly elected its own president, until it was again suppressed, this time by its new "owners" - the Ukraine.  Mr. Jemilev has been reelected to the Ukrainian parliament almost continuously since 2002.

As of this writing, Russia has decided to covertly invade Crimea - again - as a reaction to the unrest and anti-Russian political upheaval in Ukraine. 

This morning I watched the television pundits speculate on what Russia will do: Reabsorb Crimea into Russia to protect its naval interests?  Use Crimea as a bargaining chip to obtain political leverage in Ukraine?  Use Crimea as the launching pad for an all-out military invasion of Ukraine?  No one seems to have a strong grip on the unfolding events. The West seems strangely conflicted - like a mother who has caught her child with his hand in the cookie jar for the third time, threatens to send him to his room, but ultimately does nothing.

I believe Russia had no other option than to invade Crimea.  It cannot afford to lose that strategic advantage and the Black Sea Fleet.  I don't believe Russian President Putin ultimately intends to invade Ukraine the way it did to the newly-reforming Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  I still remember seeing the TV images of the tanks rolling into Prague and being shocked by the sheer audacity of the Russian military.  However, I don't believe the so-called "Brezhnev Doctrine," upon which the Russians have historically relied to invade any country whose political developments threaten communism, can or will be used to justify a similar invasion in the Ukraine.  After all, why bother?  The Russians have had covert governmental control over that country for decades anyway and have the support of nearly half the population. 

But Crimea is a different story.  Crimea will be Russian.  No doubt.

POST SCRIPT:  The above article was written Sunday morning.  By 5PM EST today television newscasters announced that the entire Crimean Peninsula was under the "operational control" of Russia with armed Russian troops surrounding all Ukrainian military bases in Crimea.  In other words, Crimea has fallen to Russian occupation.