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As Russia menaces Ukraine, Crimea's Tatars turn to Turkey

Complex ties stretch across centuries and continents, but Turkey's affinity for its ethnic kin is taking a backseat to global relations with Russia.
Participants gather with Ukrainian flags and flags of Crimean Tatars before riding in their cars through Kiev to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the deportation of the indigenous population of the Crimea by the Soviet Union, on May 18, 2020.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ilmi Umerov, a Crimean Tatar political leader, was lying on a hospital bed in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea in his pajamas when Russian secret service agents carted him off to the airport and put him on a plane to Ankara with fellow Crimean Tatar political detainee Ahtem Chigoz. 

The dissidents were freed on Oct. 25, 2017, in exchange for a pair of Russian operatives held in a Turkish jail for their alleged role in the murders of seven Chechen dissidents between 2000 and 2015. The swap was engineered by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “He is such a sultan,” Umerov said of Turkey’s authoritarian leader, whom he met the day after his release. “I mean in a good way.”

Erdogan came together with Ukraine’s president Volodymr Zelensky for three and half hours in Kyiv today offering to mediate once again between its Black Sea neighbor and the Kremlin. Speaking at a joint news conference, Erdogan stressed the importance of diplomacy in defusing the crisis between the two countries. “Rather than pouring oil on the flames, we are acting with the logic of how can we cool tensions,” he said.

The two leaders signed a long-delayed free trade agreement and another to expand production of Turkish-made drones that Ukraine used against Russian-backed forces in the Donbas for the first time last year. The plight of Crimean Tatars, who form “a historical bridge of friendship between our two countries,” had also been raised. “We continue to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. Common projects involving our ethnic [Crimean Tatar] kin were evaluated in detail,” Erdogan said.

Turkey's presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin posing with Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jamilov, Kyiv, Feb. 3, 2022.

Turkey has firmly backed Ukraine over Crimea since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, despite fierce resistance from its indigenous Tatars. The Sunni Muslim group who speak a dialect of Turkish have been reduced to minority status following centuries of repression and mass expulsions. Turkey does not recognize the annexation and has repeatedly called for Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. It treats leaders of the Majlis, which was banned by Russia, as formal interlocutors.

“For Turkey, Crimea is Ukraine, and Crimean Tatars are citizens of our state. Thanks to Turkey, several political prisoners have been released from Russia’s illegal detention. Turkey has co-authored an array of UN General Assembly resolutions that urge Russia to get away from Ukraine’s Crimea, condemn Russia’s human rights violations in the occupied territories and call it to immediately halt and remedy them,” said the Ukrainian foreign ministry in a written response to Al-Monitor’s request for comment. The ministry added that in 2021, Turkey became one of the founding members of the Crimea Platform, devised to drum up diplomatic support for the Crimean question and that held its first summit in August last year.

The potential showdown over Ukraine is a further test of Erdogan’s trademark brinksmanship, which triggered US sanctions through his acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles and Moscow’s simmering wrath with the sales of combat drones to the Ukrainian military.

But amid the shows of solidarity, Ankara’s Crimean stance illustrates like few other the limits of Turkey’s willingness, let alone ability, to cross Russia in its own back yard.

Turkish officials argue that neutrality is what enables Ankara to pull off deals like the 2017 prisoner trade and may allow for Turkish mediation to avert conflict. The Kremlin announced that Russian president Vladimir Putin was expected to travel to Ankara on an official visit some time after the Beijing Olympics.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, stressed Ankara’s commitment to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits the passage of US and other non-Black Sea nations’ warships through the Turkish straits in and out of the Black Sea. His comments were seen as a bid to reassure Moscow that Turkey had no plans to change the rules to suit any Western military plans to counter Russia, ahead of Erdogan’s visit.

Ilmi Umerov at the Majlis headquarters in Kyiv, Jan. 19, 2022 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Ilmi Umerov at the Majlis headquarters in Kyiv, Jan. 19, 2022 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Tensions over the Black Sea hark back to when the Crimean Khanate was the vassal of the Ottoman Empire, along with much of southern Ukraine. Its holdings included Odessa, the port city known as Hacibey until Russian imperial forces seized it in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1791, a defeat that heralded the decline and gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire, said Dymtro Bily, an Ottoman historian. Crimea had already fallen to the Russians in 1783.

“From the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774 through the end of the Cold War, the Black Sea was an important theater for Russian-Turkish rivalry. Crimea repeatedly served as a flashpoint, most famously in the Crimean War, but also with the 1914 naval raid that precipitated the Ottoman entry into World War I,” noted Nicholas Danforth, a Yale-trained historian and author of “The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire.”

Turkey’s multi-layered ties with Russia, spanning billions of dollars in trade and a mix of adversity and collaboration in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, take precedence over Crimea’s beleaguered Tatars. That reality was driven home when Erdogan refused to join US and EU sanctions on Russia over Crimea.

“I asked Turkish leaders for three things,” recalled Jamilov, the veteran leader who was received by Erdogan today. “I asked Turkey to participate in the sanctions, to seal the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships and to blockade them in the Black Sea. I was told ‘No,’ that this would damage Turkey very badly.”

Legendary Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jamilov at the Majlis headquarters in Kyiv, Jan. 19 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Legendary Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jamilov at the Majlis headquarters in Kyiv, Jan. 19, 2022 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Refet Chubarov, the Majlis president and former lawmaker in the Ukrainian parliament who was present in those meetings, said that a high-ranking official "had a notebook and threw it on the table. He said, ‘Listen for almost 60 years we have been trying to join the EU club. We were doing everything they wanted. If we were an [EU] member you would not be here asking us to join in the sanctions.’”

He added, “If Crimea remains occupied for another five to ten years, we will be completely destroyed.” 

It was Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s pro-Kremlin leader, who halted sea and air traffic between Turkey and the peninsula when Turkish forces shut down a Russian Sukhoi SU-24M fighter jet over Syria in November 2015. Moscow meanwhile cancelled tourist flights, banned Turkish fruit and vegetable imports and threatened to expose Turkey’s alleged ties to the Islamic State.

In October 2017, the Turkish Chamber of Shipping issued a vaguely worded circular advising local ports to refuse vessels arriving from or departing for Crimea. Yet as Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst Yoruk Isik observed, Syrian ships connected to President Bashar al Assad continue to carry construction materials from Turkish ports to Crimea and Abkhazia, and to bring back scrap metal to Turkey and wheat to Syria. Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to the illicit trade, Isik told Al-Monitor.

Erdogan was meant to be among the star guests at the Crimean Platform’s inaugural summit last August. He dispatched his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, instead.

Jamilov said he had sent emissaries to Ankara to persuade Erdogan to change his mind. “He didn’t,” Jamilov said during an interview at the Majlis’ headquarters at a luxury Kyiv apartment complex, all paid for by Ankara. 

An undated image of an Alabai (Twitter)

An undated image of an Alabai (Twitter)

Jamilov is no stranger to adversity.  He was six months old when Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars en masse from the peninsula in 1944. Like many Crimean Tartar activists, he spent long years in Soviet labor camps. He was among the estimated 250,000 Crimean Tatars who began returning to their native land following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

That was Turkey’s cue to rekindle kinship ties. Turkey’s then-president, the late Suleyman Demirel, pledged to build 1,000 houses for the returnees and to restore Crimea’s ruined mosques. He sent planes packed with Qurans and imams to Crimea, Azerbaijan and the former Soviet states in Central Asia in the hopes of creating a "Turkic belt" stretching all the way from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China. An estimated three million ethnic Tatars who live in Turkey cheered him on.

Historian Mehmet Kirimli, an ethnic Crimean Tatar whose ancestors fled to Turkey, said that prior to 1783, Crimea was 98 percent Tatar, and there were 1,500 mosques. By 1914, there only 750 mosques left. The Soviets, using dynamite and bulldozers, demolished much of what remained, Kirimli told Al-Monitor.

Demirel’s ambitions proved elusive, however, and successive Ukrainian governments viewed Turkey’s efforts with suspicion. Kyiv’s attitude changed after losing Crimea, but it’s too late for Turkey to do anything inside Crimea.

Russia expelled staff of Turkey’s state-run Religious Affairs Directorate, the Diyanet, and retained a loyalist as the peninsula’s mufti. The Majlis appointed its own man, Ayder Rustamov, in a countermove.

In the Donbas, home to the majority of Ukraine’s estimated 400,000 Muslims, pro-Russian separatists have followed the Kremlin’s lead. “In 2018, they closed down our mosque and put our imam under house arrest,” said Said Ismagilov, former imam of the Donetsk mosque in the Donbas, who now leads the Muslim Brotherhood leaning Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, also known as the “Ummah.”

Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine Said Ismagilov, Kyiv, Jan. 18, 2022 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine Said Ismagilov, Kyiv, Jan. 18, 2022 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

In the rest of Ukraine, Turkey is quietly expanding its religious footprint, and Ukrainian authorities don’t seem to mind. Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, recently donated land for the Turkish government to build a mosque behind the glitzy Ocean City shopping mall in Kyiv with the full blessing of the city’s mayor, former boxing champion, Vitaly Klitschko.

Turkey is also financing the construction of 500 houses for some 20,000 Crimean Tatars who fled the peninsula in 2014, scoring political points with its own Tatars and creating further business opportunities for Turkish contractors. The bulk will be built in the Gherson region adjacent to Crimea “because Zelensky wants the Crimean Tatars to see them,” Jamilov explained. He would prefer they be built in Kyiv, where his compatriots can make a better living, but Zelenksy, citing the lack of cheap land in Kyiv, has granted permission for only 100 to be built in the capital.

“Erdogan is popular among the Muslims here. The Diyanet sends imams and translations of the Quran but most of the help goes through the [Crimean Tatar] Majlis,” Ismagilov said.

Rustamov confirmed this. “Allah be praised the biggest help came to us from the Turkish state,” he told Al-Monitor.

Ozturk Aydin, a Turkish entrepreneur who moved to Kyiv in 2013, sells halal meat to restaurants serving the city’s 50,000 Muslims, including some 10,000 fellow Turks and Muslim students from across the Arab world. Aydin is better known for his yogurt and watery yogurt drink, ayran, which now lines shelves in the country’s top supermarkets.

Aydin insisted that Turkey’s image “is better here than America’s” in an interview in Kyiv’s historic Podil district, where he runs a small shop stocked with Turkish goods.

Kyiv Jan 20 Amberin Zaman

Aydin's shop in Kyiv, Jan. 20, 2022. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

But Crimean Tatar leaders are aware that the support of the United States remains critical in any confrontation with Russia. “If it were not for the United States we would still be under Soviet occupation,” Jamilov said. “America is our biggest guarantor.”

Turkey’s battered ties with Washington, primarily because of Erdogan’s refusal to give up the S-400s, is therefore an abiding source of concern. “From our point of view, Turkey is a NATO member and the United States is at the core of it. So it’s not smart to have bad relations,” Chubarov said.

“The tensions between Turkey and America are having a negative impact on us,” Jamilev concurred. “We, the Crimean Tatars, feel squeezed in the middle.”