Radical young Tatars have vowed to take up arms in a jihad against the Kremlin if it uses today’s referendum as a pretext to annex Crimea, writes Askold Krushelnycky in Simferopol.
About 100 Crimean Tatars have joined Muslim rebels fighting the regime in Syria, where many are thought to have become radicalised.
The Tatars, who make up about 13% of the Crimean population, are bitterly opposed to the vote and complain they are treated as second-class citizens by the local Russian authorities.
“I’ll pick up a gun and so will my friends,” said Ekram, a teacher living near the ancient Tatar capital of Bakhchiseray. “We know that other Islamic people in Russia like the Chechens will support us. We’ll make this a very unpleasant place for [Vladimir] Putin and Russia.”
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Mustafa Djemilev, a Tatar leader, said al-Qaeda and extremist Islamic sects had been trying unsuccessfully for years to radicalise Tatar youth. Community leaders have ensured moderate Islam has prevailed but this may become impossible if Russian control means discrimination rises to “intolerable levels”.
Nadir, a Tatar shopkeeper, said: “Islam has been growing in Crimea. This is our religion. But we’ll also be fighting for freedom. We don’t want to live under Putin’s dictatorship in a Russia where there is an army of 1m and the police number 3m. That’s not normal.”
After Russia conquered Crimea in 1783 the Tatars were harshly treated and many fled abroad. In 1944 Josef Stalin had the remaining Tatar population, by then numbering about 300,000, deported to Soviet Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the wartime German occupiers.
Almost half died because of inhumane conditions, locked in cattle wagons on trains or exposed to freezing winter temperatures without shelter.
After decades in exile, some Tatars began returning when Ukraine declared independence in 1991 and invited the Tatars to come back. Now 320,000 live in their ancestral homeland.
The Ukrainian SBU intelligence agency has identified and deported Islamic militants suspected of trying to whip up jihadist fervour on the peninsula.
A military intelligence officer said the Tatar community was divided between those who arrived back in the 1990s and and built homes and set up businesses and those who arrived later and found opportunity blocked by the Russian community which resented their arrival.
Pointing to a large-scale map in his office, the officer said: “Crimea could go up in flames if the Tatars are pushed too hard.
“Crimea is already full of weapons and I just hope that in this chaotic stand-off between the Ukrainian and Russian military more weapons don’t get out there.”