Friday, March 14, 2014

Islam and the Second Crimean War: Russian Invasion a Calamity for Tatars but a Recruitment Windfall for Jihadists

Tatars rallying in Crimea in a plea for Turkish intervention
The Second Crimea War is about to burst forth, it seems.  The self-styled, Kremlin-installed government in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea declared on March 11th that it was now independent as simply the Republic of Crimea, and it will be holding a referendum on annexation to the Russian Federation in two days’ time (on March 16th).  But it can hardly be called a fair referendum: it will be held under occupation by the Russian military—something President Vladimir Putin, insanely, still denies is the case.  (The Kremlin says that the highly trained, Kalashnikov-toting soldiers in brand-new unmarked uniforms being transported around Crimea in Russian military vehicles are spontaneously organized “self-defense forces” of the local ethnic-Russian population.)  Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is massing its military forces on NATO states that border Ukraine—Poland, Romania—while Russia mobilizes troops along Ukraine’s rim in the Kremlin vassal state of Belarus and in the Russian plains along the Black Sea.  Whether this is just to intimidate Crimean voters, or whether it heralds in invasion and occupation of the Ukrainian mainland’s Russian-speaking regions as well is difficult to say.

Crimean Tatars feel more European than Russian.
The Western and Russian media are both portraying this conflict as a showdown between East and West, a settling of scores left over from the Cold War.  It is definitely that.  But the presence of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people in the Crimean peninsula complicates matters.  They are Muslim, and their history of ill treatment at Russian hands is extensive and bitter.  They will suffer the most if Russia’s plans succeed.  And it is the Tatar factor that could give the Second Crimean War a religious dimension as well and entwine it in a larger geopolitical battle with and among Muslim regional powers.

Tatars were the majority in Crimea and in what is now the south-central mainland of Ukraine until Czarist forces began pushing south in the modern period.  Tatars were decimated by deportation to Siberia and Central Asia by Josef Stalin as punishment for supposed colllaboration with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.  When Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, allowed many deported peoples to return home in the 1950s, Crimean Tatars were not on the list.  But they have trickled backk nonetheless, especially in the post-Soviet period and now make up between 12% and 13% of the Crimean population.  Russians are about 58% and Ukrainians about 24%.  In the Soviet era, Crimea was part of the Russian republic until Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.

It’s not a good time to be a Tatar.
The Tatar people have, by all accounts, been overwhelmingly against the annexation by Russia, and their leaders are calling for a boycott of the referendum, which the head of the Mejlis (Council) of the Crimean Tatar People, Refat Chubarov, insists will be fixed.  Within Ukraine over the past twenty years, they have enjoyed a privileged status even within Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea—a kind of special dispensation toward indigenous peoples that is antithetical to Putin’s authoritarian and ethnic-chauvinist style.  Tatars have been forming their own “self-defense units,” according to many sources, including both Russian sources, which note it with alarm, and radical Islamist sources, which note it approvingly.  Mustafa Dzhemilev (also spelled Cemil), a revered former chairman of the Mejlis, has even made an explicit call to arms.

Refat Chubarov rails against the Kremlin.
Things could get ugly for the Tatars.  Last week, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported first-hand accounts that ethnic-Russian gangs were drawing up lists of Tatar residents and marking their homes with “X”es.  The right-wing Ukrainian nationalist firebrand Dmitry Yarosh, from the neo-fascist Rightist Sector party, claims that Russians are preparing for a massacre of Crimean Tatars.

Moreover, Tatars are looking to Turkey as a possible savior.  It was from the penumbra of the increasingly rickety Ottoman Empire that the Czars seized control of Crimea in the mid 19th century.  Turkey and Russia have been on and off regional rivals—mostly on—since then.  While the United States and western European governments wisely remain wary of getting involved in a ground war with Russia, Tatars are banking that Turkey just might.  Never mind that the slightest retaliatory move by Russia against an interventionist Turkey would trigger Turkey’s mutual-defense agreement as a member of NATO and put Russia on a war footing with three nuclear powers.  That might be a reason for Turkey to shy away from intervening to aid the Tatars; on the other hand, it might embolden them to intervene with impunity: it would be suicidally for Russia to retaliate against Turkey itself.  Still, Crimean Tatars were heartened by the visit to Simferopol, the Crimean capital, on February 28th (reported on at the time in this blog) by Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu.  After the meeting, Dzhemilev described the meeting to reporters, saying, “If a problem arises, Turkey will immediately get involved.”  The speaker of Turkey’s parliament, Cemil Çiçek, spoke in solidarity with Crimean Tatars on March 5th, saying, “Crimea is in our hearts and is a part of our spirit. Our brothers there have suffered more than anyone else in the past century. Our hearts are with our Crimean brothers.”  And Davutoğlu himself has said, “Don’t let it cross your mind that our prime minister and president will be indifferent to any issue affecting our kin in Crimea or anywhere in the world.  Wherever we have brothers in pain we are the first ones to go to help and do whatever we can do.”  Turkey’s 300,000-strong diaspora population of Crimean Tatars have also come out strongly in favor of intervention by Ankara.

A friend in need?  The Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev meeting in Crimea
with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
The current conflict is also playing into the cold war between two other former republics of the Soviet Union: the predominantly-Christian Republic of Armenia and the predominantly-Muslim Republic of Azerbaijan.  Armenia invaded Azerbaijan after Communism fell and set up the southwestern one-fifth of its territory as an Armenian-populated puppet state called the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (N.K.R.), as part of a rivalry with its Turkic-speaking neighbors (including Azeris) dating back to the Anatolian Turks’ anti-Armenian genocide a hundred years ago.  Some Armenian nationalists are hoping that Russia’s new boldness on the Crimean question means Russia might step forward and formally recognize the N.K.R. as an independent state, the way it has done with its own puppet states within the Republic of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Russian irregulars (and possibly regulars as well) fought on the Armenian side in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and Armenia is strongly considering joining Putin’s Eurasian Union—his Eastern version of the European Union (E.U.)—the one which Putin tried and failed to bully Ukraine into joining, which is how the whole Crimea conflict began last month.  Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a strong ally of the U.S., which sees it as a crucial staging area for its own cold war against Iran, a Russian ally.  As with Crimea and Russia, the ultimate goal for Armenian nationalists is not so much recognition of N.K.R. sovereignty but annexation to Armenia.

The Azerbaijani government, for its part, is keeping a very low profile during the Crimea crisis, to an extent that has worried and terrified Crimean Tatars.  Dzhemilev appealed to the Azeri leadership last week, saying, “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time.”  But two senior members of Azerbaijan’s opposition party Müsavat (“Equality”) were intercepted by Russian authorities in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia’s adjacent Republic of Dagestan, on March 9th and turned back.  They had been en route to Kiev (Kyiv), the Ukrainian capital, to offer solidarity.

Dzhemilev has also tried in vain to reach out to Kazakhstan as well.  Kazakhs, who are Muslim Turkic-speakers as well, are in a slightly different situation: they are already slated to join Putin’s Eurasian Union.

Where Turkic languages are spoken.  Crimea is in blue.
It’s a big family, but will they be there when needed?
Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, many in the Republic of Moldova (formerly the Moldavian S.S.R.), which is dominated by ethnic Romanians, are worried that what is happening in Ukraine may happen next in their country.  They, too, have an ethnic-Russian enclave, Transnistria, a sliver of land along the Ukrainian border, which declared itself independent of Moldova in 1991 and has functioned since then as a de facto independent Russian puppet state outside Moldovan control.  This unresolved territorial dispute has blocked Moldova’s aspirations to reunify with Romania and to join the E.U. and NATO.  If success in Crimea emboldens Putin to occupy, annex, or otherwise stir up trouble in ethnic-Russian parts of the Ukrainian mainland (as speculated upon in detail recently in this blog), then that would include Odessa oblast, to Crimea’s west, which borders Transnistria.  Ideally, Putin would like to link Transnistria by land with Russian territory.  And Moldova is currently gearing up to sign a cooperation agreement with the E.U. similar to the one that was at the root of the current Ukrainian crisis.

A further complication is Moldova’s own Turkic-speaking minority, the Gagauz, who have an autonomous region within Moldova.  Gagauzia’s parliament said last year (as reported at the time in this blog) that they would secede and form an independent state if Moldova made moves toward Romanian reunification.  And in that same February 2014 referendum, 98.4% of Gagauz said they would rather join Putin’s Eurasian Union than the E.U. Maybe they will feel differently if Russia actually invaded Moldova.  Romanians and Moldovans are hoping not to find out.

Does “Welcome to Gagauzia” go for Cossacks too?
Probably no Muslim people in the Russian sphere of influence has suffered as much persecution in modern times as the Chechens.  They were on the front lines of Czarist southern expansion in the mid 19th century, their homeland in the Caucasus mountains was a battleground in the Second World War, and after the war Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of them as punishment for supposed collaboration with Nazi Germany.  Perhaps as much as a third of the Chechen nation perished in that wave of executions and deportations.  Caucasus peoples were second-class citizens in the Soviet Union, and after Communism collapsed in 1991 they declared independence.  As many as 50,000 Chechen civilians were killed and their capital leveled in the horrific asymmetrical wars that followed.  Boris Yeltsin and later Putin’s pitiless Chechen bombing campaigns constituted the most brutal in Europe since 1945.

Therefore, the Crimean Tatar people can rely on Chechen support in resisting the Russian invasion, right?  Wrong!  It is one of the oddities of recent Caucasus history that, after Chechnya’s “pacification” and reintegration in the 2000s, Putin appointed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of the Chechen Republic.  Though the son of the Chechen rebel leader and separatist president, Akhmed Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004, the younger Kadyrov had switched sides in the Second Chechen War and become a puppet of Putin.  While the larger Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus has shifted to other republics (see below), Chechnya has become Putin’s loyal fief, where he allows to Kadyrov to run an Islamic-style state without much interference, in exchange for utter loyalty.  In the 2012 presidential elections, Putin won 99.89% of the vote in Chechnya—the highest numbers he got anywhere other than the equally corrupt Caucasus republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (nominally independent but populated mostly by Russian citizens).  If the numbers are true, it is the ugliest manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome ever recorded.  If they are not, it shows how corrupt and loyal Kadyrov is.  The truth is probably a mixture.

Ramzan Kadyrov (center), current president of the Chechen Republic,
 is not on the side of his fellow Muslims in Crimea.
On February 26th, when Russians in Crimea were just beginning their agitation, Kadyrov announced that his people would be ready to come to the aid of the peninsula’s ethnic Russians.  “Ukraine and Russia are fraternal peoples,” Kadyrov said.  “I have many Ukrainian friends and like them all and regret what has recently been happening there.  The majority of people living today in Crimea are Russians, Cossacks.  We are always with them and if necessary are ready to come to the rescue.  We will stand up for Russians, Cossacks, and Chechens no matter where they live.”  Chechens, he said, were “part of multiethnic and multi-religious Russia” and “are called upon to protect our peoples.  If necessary, we are ready to go, to be observers.  If necessary, we are ready to be peacekeepers and soldiers and protect the people.”

The Chechen capital, Grozny, after Yeltsin and Putin got through with it.
And yet they seem to love Putin there.
Not satisfied with merely cozying to the Tatars’ enemies, Kadyrov threw Tatars under the bus even more explicitly, entreating Tatar deportees and their descendants in Crimea not to “heat up tensions” or “profit from the moment, gather in groups and shout various slogans.”

Ramzan Kadyrov
After the invasion, Kadyrov went further, offering to go there himself.  “If need be,” he said, “I can travel to Ukraine with volunteers who are ready to protect its population.  He added, “I spoke to Tatars, Russians, Cossacks, and Ukrainians, and all of them are saying that there are quite a few people walking in the streets of the Crimean cities, carrying black flags and acting aggressively.  A similar situation sparked the recent events in Kyiv when nationalists started gradually dictating their conditions.   This is why I think all of us need to unite and support Russian President Vladimir Putin in this uneasy situation.”  One wonders if Kadyrov really believes the Russian-media fairy tales of Ukrainian “neo-Nazi” oppression of Crimea’s Russians and Tatars, or whether he is just reading from a script prepared in the Kremlin.

An Orthodox priest demonstrating in Crimea
Caucasus Emirate
But although Chechnya is more or less pacified and under tight Kremlin control, the rest of the Russian-ruled North Caucasus is not.  The republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria especially have been roiled for years by a separatist insurgency called the Caucasus Emirate, which is fueled by a jihadist brand of Sunni Islam that took root in the region—historically home to a more gentle, tolerant Sufist form of Islam—as one of the radicalizing effects of the Chechen Wars.  The “Vilayat Dagestan” cell of the Emirate was behind last year’s deadly bus bombings in Volgograd, which were touted at the time as a preview of the violence to come in the upcoming Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi.  Places like Dagestan are subjected to near-daily violence in the form of assassinations, suicide bombings, and ambushes.  Russian forces just barely govern the area, and the Emirate’s tendrils are intertwined with those of village warlords, organized-crime cartels, and smuggling networks.  The Rightist Sector’s Dmitry Yarosh (see above) recently called on the Caucasus Emirate to join Ukrainian nationalists in the battle against Russia (as reported at the time in this blog).  Whether he really said that and, if he did, whether it was a rhetorical flourish deployed for shock value, one thing is clear: Rightist Sector and the Emirate have almost nothing in common except for hatred of Putin.  But any kind of attack on Tatar rights will be a boon to the recruitment and propaganda efforts of the Emirate and may just drive them to expand their reach into Crimea.  (Crimean Tatars, for the most part, are very moderate in their Islam, with home-grown radicalism almost nonexistent there.)

Does Dmitry Yarosh (left) really want to open Pandora’s Box
by inviting the Caucasus Emirate to Ukraine?
What of other Muslim peoples in the Russian Federation?  A natural place for beleaguered Tatars to look for help is the Republic of Tatarstan itself, in central Russia near the borderlands of Siberia and Asia.  Tatarstan’s Tatars, sometimes called Volga Tatars, are not the same as Crimean Tatars.  In fact, Tatar has often been a catch-all term for any Turkic-speaking Muslims of the Steppes or Central Asia, and Crimean Tatars are not more necessarily more closely related to the distant Volga Tatars than they are to the closer-by Turkic-speakers in the Caucasus like the Meskhetian Turks or the Karachays and Balkars.  But the Volga Tatars share their Crimean cousins’ history of oppression at Russian hands.  In the Russian civil war that followed the Communist revolution of 1917, Tatars founded the Idel–Ural State, a multinational Menshevik quasi-state which defied the Russian Bolsheviks but ultimately lost.  The Idel–Ural State was not merely Muslim.  Turkic-speaking Tatars and Bashkirs were allied with Christians such as the Turkic-speaking Chuvash and the Finno-Ugrian-speaking Udmurt, Komi, and Mari peoples.  Along with Chechnya, Tatarstan was one of the Russian republics which refused initially to sign on with Boris Yeltsin’s Federation Treaty in 1992; they later capitulated and joined, in exchange for a promise of greater autonomy on which Yeltsin’s successor, Putin, later reneged.

So one might expect Volga Tatars to hold a grudge against Putin.  Volga Tatars might, but their Putin-appointed president, Rustam Minnikhanov, sure doesn’t.  An ethnic Tatar in a republic which is only 53% Tatar, Minnikhanov went to Crimea on March 12th, after the crisis began, to sign a “cooperation agreement” with (wait for it) the self-appointed pro-Kremlin “president” of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov (a former professional boxer with organized-crime links who goes by the nickname “Goblin”).  Minnikhanov also met with local Tatar leaders but spoke as if they were the ones who held the upper hand, lecturing them by saying that he was sure that “Crimean Tatars are smart people who will not let it all end in a bloodbath.”

Tatarstan’s president, Rustan Minnikhanov (right),
visits his kindred in Crimea—but not as an ally.
In recent years, the Caucasus Emirate movement has tried to spread its influence to Tatarstan in particular, even though there is far less home-grown Sunni radicalism there.  But a Putin-appointed president who openly sides against fellow Muslims in the Crimea might just tip the balance and make many Volga Tatars view radical Islam and the Emirate much more sympathetically.  That would be bad news for everyone.  I’m not sure Putin realizes what he’s fooling around with by alienating millions of Muslims living within the Russian Federation.

If the Kosovo War has become a subtheme in the diplomatic wrangling over Crimea—with the Kremlin pointing to NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign which paved the way for an independent Kosovo which Russia, a Serbian ally, still opposes—then players in that war have also become a factor.  Among those who have come to Crimea to “defend” the ethnic-Russian population are “Chetnik” mercenaries from Serbia.  These ultranationalist irregulars, named for monarchist radicals from the Second World War era, played a role in the Yugoslav Wars of Succession in the 1990s, battling Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Muslim Albanians in Kosovo.  Now they are in Crimea to do battle opposite the Muslim Tatars who want to stay in Ukraine.  The head of the Chetnik contingent in Crimea, Milutin Mališić, told a press conference in Simferopol, “We represent ‘Chetnik Movement’ organization, you can compare them with the Cossacks in Russia.  Our goal—to provide support on behalf of the Serbian people to the Russian people.  He added, “We came at the invitation of the Cossacks.  During the civil war in Yugoslavia, many Russian volunteers came to support the Serbian people.  We are a small nation and we can not send a large number of people, but we have a great love for the Russian people.”

The Serb militia commander Milutin Mališić holds a press conference in Simferopol.
The Chetnik units in Crimea call themselves “the Wolves.”  They belong to the Chetnik faction headed by Bratislav Živković, which is sometimes called the “Prince Lazar” squadron, named for the Eastern Orthodox saint who battled for Serbia in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo and is a revered symbol of Serbian ultranationalism and Islamophobia.  It is not clear how many Chetniks are in Crimea, but Mališić is a veteran of the Kosovo conflict who was also accused in a plot to assassinate the Yugoslav (i.e., Serbian) president, Slobodan Milošević, in 2000.  They are certainly not sanctioned by the Serbian government, which is trying to ingratiate itself with the E.U. nowadays, but if Serbs are killed in Crimea it could complicate matters for Serbia both electorally and diplomatically.

Chetniks newly arrived in Crimea pose with the Chetnik and Serbian flags
and an icon of Prince Lazar.
And Cossacks, the legendary slayers of Muslim infidels in Russian frontier history, are in force in Crimea too—150 officers alone, and an unknown number of rank-and-file fighters.  As Nikolai Pervakov, first deputy commander of the Kuban host of Cossacks, told Time magazine, “Cossacks have no borders.  We are a united people, people of the same faith, traditions, customs.  Our lives are linked.  So we need to be like a clenched and monolithic fist.  Only then will we have victory.”

Cossacks guarding the parliament building in Crimea
But what about some kind of partition of Crimea itself?  If Crimea can secede from Ukraine, can’t a Tatar enclave secede from an independent or Russian Crimea?  The problem, here, is that Tatars live everywhere in the Crimean peninsula.  Plus, Tatars were forced out of their homeland in great numbers by Czarist forces in the 18th and 19th centuries, and deported by Stalin in the 20th.  They’ve been moved enough.  They won’t move again.  They are planning to stand their ground and fight.  What remains to be seen is whether they will have to do so alone.

Members of the Ukrainian feminist political collective Femen
were arrested in a demonstration in Simferopol, Crimea.
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in mid 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Related articles from this blog:
“Donetsk Putsch Nipped in Bud, but Could Odessa or Kharkiv Be Next as Russia Eyes Ukrainian Mainland?” (March 2014)


  1. The Mingrelians speak a Georgian dialect, not a Turkic language.

  2. You're right! I meant to type Meskhetian. I've corrected it now. Thank you!

  3. Very low informed person wrote this. Post soviet period has more difficulties than you mentioned.


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