Rights activists in Crimea say Russia’s mobilisation drive in the occupied peninsula is disproportionately targeting Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that has largely opposed Russian rule since the area was annexed in 2014.
“Everywhere, in every town, I am hearing that the majority of those mobilised are Crimean Tatars, and we know they are particularly targeting settlements with predominantly Crimean Tatar populations,” an activist from the group still living on the peninsula said in a telephone interview.
“This will be a catastrophe for us that will take years to heal.”
Vladimir Putin announced “partial mobilisation” on Wednesday in an attempt to bolster Russia’s flagging invasion of Ukraine with new troops. Across the country, families have said goodbye to men who have been called up to fight. There have been reports of disproportionately high numbers mobilised in poor regions populated by ethnic minority groups, such as Buryatia and the republics of the North Caucasus.
The largely Muslim Crimean Tatars make up about 13% of Crimea’s population. There is no official breakdown of who has been mobilised but extensive anecdotal evidence suggests Crimean Tatars have been targeted disproportionately. Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian rights organisation, estimates that 90% of mobilisation notices have been given to Crimean Tatars.
“This is a conscious effort to destroy the Crimean Tatar nation,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said during his nightly video address on Saturday.
Tamila Tasheva, Zelenskiy’s top representative for Crimea, also said she believed Russia was targeting the group deliberately. “Crimean Tatars are the least loyal segment of the population to Russia, and it was clear they were very buoyed by recent Ukrainian military successes. Now they are being punished,” she said.
Tasheva, who is Crimean Tatar, said she had received dozens of reports from members of her ethnic group of police arriving in their towns or villages and handing out summons.
“People are panicking, they don’t know what to do,” she said. She is advising those mobilised to try to surrender to Ukrainian forces at the first possible opportunity. “But of course, we’re worried they’ll just be shot in the back by the Russians.”
Asked if arming thousands of opponents was a strategy that could backfire for Moscow, she said: “Unfortunately, the Russians are not stupid enough to put all the Crimean Tatars together in the same regiment.”
Others also reported a sense of helplessness and panic in the community, with people attempting to flee Crimea.
With the nearest operating international airport hundreds of miles from Crimea, persistent rumours that Russia could close the bridge over the Kerch strait that links the peninsula to Russia and huge queues at Russia’s remaining open land borders with other countries, fleeing is not easy.
“Right now, it’s the only topic of discussion. How to flee, how to hide, how to get out of Russia. Yesterday I was at a birthday party and nobody was talking about anything else. There are no smiles, no happiness. Everyone is depressed, the women are in tears,” said the activist.
Tatars have called Crimea home for centuries, but became a minority after Russia took over the region in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. Joseph Stalin had the entire population deported to Central Asia during the second world war, wrongly smearing the group as Nazi collaborators. Most were only allowed to return to the peninsula in the 1980s.
This long experience of persecution led many Crimean Tatars to be extremely hostile to the Russian annexation in 2014. Russian authorities subsequently tried to co-opt Crimean Tatar leaders, but most refused to collaborate. A campaign of harassment and persecution against active community leaders began, and Russia outlawed the mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body. Many of its members were banned from entering the peninsula and are now based in Kyiv or elsewhere.
Dozens of Crimean Tatars are recognised as political prisoners, and there has been an increase in arrests and pressure since the war began in February, with Russian authorities on the lookout for sabotage and plots among a population it considers disloyal.
Crimean police detained six wedding guests and the venue owner earlier this month after the DJ played a pro-Ukraine song at a wedding, and Russian authorities have said anyone displaying pro-Ukraine sentiment is liable to arrest.
Tasheva said: “First they tried to buy us, then they tried to repress us and now they see mobilisation as a way to try to simply get rid of us.”