The College Tribune recently spoke to a Ukrainian Tatar living and working in Dublin. With the Russian annexation of her native Crimea, order her future, sickness and the future of her family is up in the air. In this interview with Seán O’Reilly, she details the human element at play on the ground in the conflicted peninsula.
“I’m from Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. In Crimea, there are two main cities, Simferopol and Sevastopol. Sevastopol is a city of special status, because of the black sea navy and for historical reasons. So basically, it isn’t part of Crimea. Crimea itself was independent for some time as the Crimean Khanate before it became a part of the Ottoman Empire, and later a part of Russia. In 1954, Khrushchev gave it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
There are three ethnic groups. The Russian majority of around 60% and Russified Ukrainians who make up around 20% I lived there for 23 years, I’ve never heard anyone speak Ukrainian. I can speak Ukrainian, but it wouldn’t be spoken and it would be a bit of a problem for me because I’m not fluent, so I’d have to think of the words. I speak better English than Ukrainian. There are also Crimean Tatars who make up about 13% of the population. It’s a Muslim-Turkic ethnic group and they’re considered to be indigenous to Crimea. I’m actually Crimean Tatar. It’s interesting, because Crimean Tatars were always pro Ukrainian and now Pro European because of the Russian deportations of people like my grandparents to Uzbekistan in 1944.”
“There’s a very difficult history in the area.”
“Crimean Tatars have always been Ukrainian allies. And even now it’s interesting because some people in mainland Ukraine feel that Crimean people are guilty of what happened, even that they might deserve it. But people always feel for the Crimean Tatars. Friends of mine from mainland Ukraine who have said the same.”
“A lot of maps are being redrawn at the moment and in a lot of cases, despite traditional leanings, Crimea is being shown as a contested region rather than an independent state or a part of Russia or a part of the Ukraine. Sorry, I keep saying the Ukraine. Sorry, I’m used to talking about the Ukrainian SR, but it follows over and I keep saying it. It’s just a bad habit really.”
“It’s actually the same in Russia. Technically you should say in the country, in the Ukraine, in Russia. But in Russia they say on, like on the island. For Ukrainian people, and even Russian speaking Ukrainians that’s offensive because on means that they really they don’t recognise that Ukraine is independent. But a lot of people say the Ukraine, it’s not so bad. I did notice it when I left to study in America for my masters.”
“You mentioned you’ve been living in Ireland for a few years. Have you been back to Crimea recently, or did you have any intention of heading back over soon?”
“Since I left, I’ve visited every year. The last time I was there was in September, when everything was peaceful. I would never have thought when I was planning to return in August, that I would go back to a different country. My father doesn’t want me to come back because he feels it might be too dangerous. And at the moment the airspace over Crimea is closed.”
“So you have to travel overland?”
“Overland is difficult, at the moment, I think trains are only going once a week. But I don’t know, it seems to change every day, there’s just no official information now. Really the only way to go is through Moscow and to fly into Simferopol, which is difficult because anyone with a Ukrainian passports travelling through is likely to be interrogated. On our passports you can see where the passport is issued, and on mine for example, it says it was issued in Crimea or someone from western Ukraine it would say that the passport was issued in Kiev, They might also have problems because Russians seem to believe that Ukrainians from the west are fascists which is just ridiculous.”
“There are reports of a major split between eastern and western Ukraine. Is that actually the case or is it exaggerated by the media to some extent?”
“Actually, if you look at the election maps, you can tell the east typically votes for the Party of Regions whereas the west always votes for the likes of Yulia Tymoshenko. The reason it’s 50/50 is that the west of Ukraine is actually less populated than the east, with the central regions were playing a major role because results were dependent on the way they would vote. If the central regions are more inclined to support pro-European parties then they will win. The people of the west are typically more active as well. For example, during the demonstrations in Kiev, people who were against the government were out on the streets, but supporters of Yanukovich, who did democratically elect him, were more likely to stay at home.”
“Do you see a split between east and west as a real possibility?”
“The whole split only comes into play during elections; it’s really just political, not cultural. One of the problems we have in Ukraine is that we don’t have any parties based on ideologies; they’re just based on people. People just support people. You’re pro Ukrainian or pro-Russian and that’s it. There are no issues like here in Ireland with the abortion debate, or the gay marriage debate, it’s just Russian language or Ukrainian language. The Crimean invasion has just made this worse. I have a friend whose bother is pro-Russian and now with what happened, they’re not speaking to each other. Before, that wasn’t a problem. For example in Crimea, some of the ethnic Russians have problems with Tatars because they’re quite drastically different. When I was in school and growing up, I wasn’t really aware of it, because it didn’t manifest itself. But now, that the Russians have won and that finally they’re a part of Russia, they’re openly abusive towards us. My nephew has told me that people who were his friends two days ago are avoiding him. He’s being called abused and they just hate him. Right now in Crimea, you can be attacked if you’re seen wearing Ukrainian colours. But on the mainland, it’s not as big of an issue.”
“You mentioned your family refused to vote in the recent referendum because they felt it was undemocratic. Do you feel that they’re safe where they are now, or is there an element of danger to them staying?”
“Before the referendum, to be openly in opposition was dangerous. Now, it doesn’t matter. Its objective has been achieved. There were reports of people masquerading as civic services coming to houses checking passports and identity documents and tearing them or damaging them, even stealing them.”
“Do you think it was to stop them voting in the referendum?”
“They were doing it to Tatars because they knew they would never vote in favour. Tatars have an unofficial governing and cultural body, the Mejlis, which consults with the government of Ukraine. Putin met with them to discuss things like Tatar being the official language of Crimea and the appropriation of land to Tatars, but now that the referendum has passed, they are saying that unregistered Tatars will be forced to vacate their homes.”
“As far as I know, it is possible to get in and out of Crimea, but it’s difficult with hours of waiting at the border. I don’t think it’s possible to move out entirely. The Ukrainian government are offering housing to Crimean’s who want to leave, but I don’t think it will be possible for a lot of people. I spoke with my cousin, who tells me that she isn’t financially able to leave. She works for the revenue service in Crimea, now that the Russians are moving in they’ve told her that she needs to get Russian citizenship or she won’t be permitted to continue working. If she can find a job in Ukraine, her salary would be so low that she couldn’t afford to live there. And of course, she doesn’t want to leave her home.”
“Will you have difficulty travelling?”
My passport is still effective, because the Ukrainian state is still in place and claims sovereignty over Crimea. For those who are on the peninsula it’s more difficult. My parents don’t want a Russian passport, what they want to do is maintain their Ukrainian citizenship but have some kind of registry in Russia. The biggest problem is with pensions and social welfare which people aren’t receiving because the payments have been stopped by the new Russian administration. The question of whether these payments will continue is a real fear for people.”
“Have you had any contact with the Ukrainian consulate here in Dublin?”
“We had some small protests here, and we met with the ambassador. At the time, because the ambassador was appointed by Yanukovich, he was fully in support of him regardless of what the actions of the government. Of course, now that the new government is in place, he supports them. I haven’t had any official contact from the embassy though. For example, I don’t think if something happened that the safest place to go would be the embassy. The government is completely unorganised. In Simferopol, there are people who are dressed in uniforms somewhere between police dress and military fatigues who are stopping people and asking them to open bags and such. I’ve heard of one girl who refused and walked away, when they followed her, she went to the Ukrainian police, as you would. She was told by the Ukrainians to open her bag, because they’re the police as well. So the Ukrainian and Russian forces are running side by side and the Ukrainian forces aren’t supporting their people.
“Aside from contact with your family, how are you following the events in Crimea, are you following it through the traditional press outlets or through digital media?”
“Most American and European news channels are pretty good. Some of the German channels and papers seem to be more biased towards the Russian position?”
“That’d be the gas.”
Yeah, in Crimea, all Ukrainian media is blocked. The only television station available is the Tatar outlet, and they’ve scaled back their reporting. They’re not as bold as in the beginning when they would do live streaming and stuff. Al Jazeera and Euronews are good. Russia Today is really just propaganda, but what can you expect from a state funded broadcaster? Vice is also very good; their reporter Simon Ostrovsky’s ‘Russian Roulette’ video series is particularly good. Because he speaks neutral Russian without an accent he’s able to get locals to open up more than some American.
“Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything in particular you feel people should hear?”
“In Crimea, some people feel that the Ukrainian government have abandoned them. A lot of people feel that Putin’s goal is to make Ukraine economically dependent on Russia again, for him having a truly successful, truly democratic neighbour would be a death sentence. The capital from oil and gas reserves won’t last forever and he has to act now to tighten economic ties between our two states.”
“The Ukrainian military are still under siege by Russians and I’m quite worried about them because the Russian military are now moving to occupy ships and bases. Their families are being evicted from their apartments in Sevastopol and left on the streets. I know of one person there, a military person who has been killed. People in Crimea are wondering why the reaction from the west has been to leave them to suffer. Do they feel that Russia will stop at Crimea and that Russia not now is on the same path as Germany was with the Sudetenland and the Czechs? Russia has imperial ambitions. The Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is just an attempt to restore Soviet era control over the new democratic states. These countries don’t have unique identities, they just have Russian identities, and the Belarussian language for example has been dead for a long time. Ukraine is different. We have a thriving culture. Ukrainian is a language of science, of cities. There is research and business done in the Ukrainian language. Putin himself said that the biggest shame in recent history was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian invasion of my home will have the opposite effect of what was intended, it will strengthen the Ukrainian peoples resolve to work towards membership of the European Union as a fully independent, democratic state.”
Editor note: This interview was conducted on March 22nd 2014 and doesn’t take into account any more recent developments.