Crosses have begun appearing on the doors and gateposts of Muslim Tatars in Crimea in a sinister echo of their community’s greatest tragedy 70 years ago.
In May 1944, Stalin’s police marked the houses of the Tatars, the native inhabitants of the peninsula, with crosses. Within days the entire population, almost 200,000, were branded Nazi collaborators and deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Half of them died in the first year and the remnants did not return home in large numbers until the 1990s.
Abdur Rhman Egiz, 28, a member of the Mejlis, the representative body for the Tatars, said that crosses had been spotted on doors in several towns. “They started to appear four to five days ago and that’s never happened before, or not since 1944,” he said.
The reappearance of the crosses threatens to disturb the delicate relations between the Tatars, who make up 13% of the Crimean population, and the ethnic Russian majority.
For the past week, Crimea has been in turmoil, subject to an unacknowledged Russian invasion and in the grip of surging pro-Russian nationalism fanned by Kremlin propaganda about murderous “Nazis” and “Fascists” taking power in Kiev. Last weekend, President Putin sought and received permission from the Russian parliament to send troops to Ukraine.
Russian forces have been tightening their grip in Crimea ever since. Last night armed men arriving in military trucks stormed through the gates of a missile base near Sevastopol without a shot being fired. They were reported to have left a few hours later. The Pentagon estimates that there are 20,000 Russian troops on the peninsula.
On Thursday the Crimean parliament, under a government appointed after pro-Russian gunmen seized control of the building last week, voted unanimously to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. The decision is expected to be endorsed by a referendum hurriedly scheduled for next Sunday, and about which no procedural details have been released.
Diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis have borne no fruit so far. Yesterday, Russia flatly rejected US and European pressure to pull back from Crimea, insisting that nothing would deflect it from its “duty” to protect the ethnic Russian majority in the Ukrainian province. “Russia will not accept the language of sanctions and threats,” the Foreign Ministry said in response to a series of Western retaliatory measures.
Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the Mejlis, has denounced the Crimean parliament’s decision to join Russia as “insane” and called on his community to boycott the referendum. Yesterday he attended Friday prayers at the 500-year-old Kebir-Jami mosque, the largest in Simferopol, the Crimean capital. He was one of the last to emerge into the drizzle outside.
“We feel threatened now,” he said, adding that the referendum was sure to be a sham. “Nobody can make a referendum in ten days. It will just be an imitation of the will of the Crimean people.”
A spokeswoman for the mosque complex, which also houses the administrative headquarters of Crimea’s Islamic authorities, said that unarmed groups of up to 15 Muslims were guarding most of the 300 mosques on the peninsula at night. Susanna Betola, 49, a Tartar journalist with Crimean television, said: “There is always peace in Crimea until Russia comes here.”
The first mass exodus of Tatars came after Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in 1783. The second was under Stalin. “Now people are thinking this is the beginning of a new deportation. Between two big nations [Ukraine and Russia] we can disappear.”
Moussa, 51, was selling beef sausages from a stall by the mosque. “The deportations is a theme that never ends,” he said. “It is in the hearts of every Tatar person. Maybe it will happen again.” He had learnt about the crosses from the news. “Maybe it’s some fool. Maybe it’s a provocation to create some tension between us.”
Ten days ago, 10,000 Tatars demonstrated in support of a united Ukraine outside the Crimean parliament. They were met by pro-Russian nationalists and at least one man died in the crush. Since then the Mejlis has advised Tartars to stay indoors at night.
The Kremlin has stepped up attempts to win over the Tatars, sending emissaries for meetings with community representatives, including the President of Tatarstan, a Muslim republic inside Russia. The Crimean Tartars are understood to have been offered incentives, including financial help, seats in the new Government, language rights and development programmes.
So far, the charm offensive is failing and they remain loyal to Kiev and hopeful that they can maintain good relations with their neighbours.
Ruslan, 17, a waiter in a café at Bakhchisarai, said: “The best way to avoid a war is not to break up the country.” He said he would fight if he had to, but knew that the Tatars would be hopelessly outnumbered: “It would be like a naked man attacking a tank.”
Divisions in Ukrainian society are deepening fast, made worse by the speed with which the country has experienced a revolution, then an invasion, and now apparent dismemberment.
In Kiev yesterday, a senior member of the far-Right movement Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) announced that its leader, Dmitry Yarosh, would run in the Ukraine presidential election on May 25 and that the party would contest mayoral elections across the country.
Pravy Sektor is regarded with fear and disgust in Crimea. People across the peninsula believe that right-wing extremists are waiting to invade, even though there has been no tangible evidence of any threat.
At Belbek, near Sevastopol, this week, Lena, 48, a watch repairer, leant on a stone wall overlooking a Ukrainian military base under low-key siege from Russian troops. “We haven’t seen any Fascists here, but that’s because they are afraid of Russians,” she said.
In Simferopol, Cossacks with whips now guard parliament. Opposition MPs complained that they were blocked from entering the building when the decision to call the Crimea referendum was made. A seven-strong international film crew flew home last night after Cossacks held them captive and armed men in balaclavas confiscated half their equipment.