Crimean Tatars under Stalin: Ethnic cleansing or an act of genocide?

By Kumush Suyunova

Kara-gun (dark day) – May 18, 1944 was a day when the Crimean Tatars learned the full horror of the sanitized term “deportation” as part of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing program. [1] Under the slogan “Za Rodinu”- “For the Motherland” less than a week ago, they fought in the ranks with their multinational compatriots in The Great Patriotic War.

Rifle units of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs surrounded all Tatar suburbs and drove the frightened residents to several specially designated transit points. The mentally injured Tatars were given less than an hour to collect some belongings. Accused of treason, they coped with injuries, death, inadequate living conditions, poverty, lack of community support, even their names were removed from official documents. The authorities wiped their homeland off the map, abolishing the Crimean Autonomous Republic and making Crimea a province. [2] The offensive on the cultural roots of the Crimean Tatars took place after the dispatch from their homeland.

If we refer to the origins, in his masterpiece Axis Rule in Occupied Europe R.Lemkin – the father of the term “genocide”, stated: “genocide … is intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups… The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups…”. [3]

A. Jones argues that in the case of the Crimean Tatars intention of genocide implied in its design of phased and general destruction of the nation, rather than in specific and clear desire of killing, as the mass death of the victims had taken place during the transit and after arrival at the place of exile as a side effect. [4]

In the history of forced resettlements, it was during transportation that the death rates were very high. In the 40s, given the situation of infrastructure and vehicles as a result of a long trip to Central Asia (mainly to the Uzbek SSR), the high death rate could certainly be predicted. It is estimated that from 190 thousand Crimean Tatars 70-90 thousand died on the way or in the first years of exile. [5]

As John Quigley argues that forcing a group out of its home area, as well as its forced assimilation arguably destroys it. As a result of threats or legal prohibitions, a group’s members may refrain from speaking their language, or from practicing their religion or customs, which can lead the group to cease to be identifiable as such. He considers two possible ways of intending to destroy a group: an intent to injure, but short of killing; and an intent to destroy the group’s social identification, like it was planned in the case of Crimean Tatars. [6]

Furthermore, N. Naimark notes that the Genocide Convention did not include crimes against social and political groups, only in order for the USSR to join the Convention. The scientist writes that “according to any objective understanding of international law, Stalin’s violence against the Soviet people could have been included in the Genocide Convention” and that researchers cannot exclude these cases from the study of genocide based on the politically motivated provisions of the Convention. [7]

William A. Schabas argues that genocide as well as ethnic cleansing may have the same goal of removing an undesirable group from a particular place of residence. He admits that ethnic cleansing, called “deportation”, remains a punishable crime against humanity and a war crime. Ethnic cleansing is also a warning sign of the coming genocide. Genocide is the last resort for disillusioned ethnic cleansing. [8]

Only after the death of Stalin in 1956 the Crimean Tatars were released from administrative supervision, but without the right to end the banishment and recovery of forfeit property. In 1967, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR eliminated the treason charge, but this decision was purely hypocritical. When Crimean Tatars tried to return to Crimea, they were sent back, as the ban on their return continued to apply.

Until 1989, no significant measures were taken. The “Declaration on the recognition of illegal and criminal repressive acts against peoples subjected to forced relocation and ensuring their rights” adopted in 1989 became the first official confirmation of victimization of the Crimean Tatars under Stalin. According to Article 2 of the Law of the RSFSR of 26.04.1991 N 1107-1 (ed. from 01.07.1993) “On rehabilitation of repressed peoples” Crimean Tatars were included in the list of repressed people under the Stalinist regime. However, their forced resettlement was mentioned as an act of genocide very vaguely and ambiguously. [9]

It is interesting to note that the question of the fate of the Crimean Tatars, seemingly, received due attention after the events of 2014. The political response by Ukraine to the annexation of Crimea by Russian Federation was the declaration of May 18 as the “Day of remembrance of the victims of the Crimean Tatars genocide”. Following Ukraine, in 2019, the parliaments of Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Canada, recognized the forced resettlement of Crimean Tatars as an act of genocide.

As B. Glyn claims, Stalin used WWII as an opportunity to carry out ethnic cleansing. Already in 1943, Stalin began a series of surprise operations aimed at the destruction of entire national groups, including the Crimean Tatars, who were arbitrarily considered guilty of “mass collaboration” with the Nazis. The accusations of mass national treason were, in all probability, just a pretext for ethnic cleansing of the border areas of the Soviet Union from the non-Slavic, mainly Islamic, population. Stalin actually used the term “Chistit”-“clean” in his orders. [10]

According to Norman Naimark, Stalin may have had some reason for questioning the loyalty of the Crimean Tatars and genuine fears of a military-political nature in connection with the strategic vulnerability of the Crimean Peninsula. However, he believes, that the forced resettlement and persecution of national groups were caused primarily not by real threats of war and infiltration, but by Stalin’s general xenophobia and his pathological fear of losing power. [11]

As a result, the attacks on certain “enemy” nationalities, like in the case of Crimean Tatars took on genocidal characteristics. In 1944, during the war, the Muslim peoples from the northern Caucasus and the Crimea were sent to “spetsposeleniya” in Central Asia. In the process of deportation and resettlement a substantial percentage of those peoples, Crimean Tatars in particular, died. It was not an act of a direct blood purge, however, Naimark claims that at the very least, the attacks against the Crimean Tatars should be considered as attempted cultural genocide. [12]

After the deportation of Crimean Tatars and the re-formation of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic into a region in 1945, the Soviet government used enormous resources to eradicate any memory of the existence of an entire culture. Topographical names of historical origin were changed, for example, the area of Ak-Metzit (White mosque) became the Black Sea district, Alushta was renamed in honor of the Russian General Kutuzov, as Alexander Pushkin honored his visit to Bakhchisarai, it was renamed in his name, and so on. Most topographical names have become a reflection of Russian history, in contrast to the Crimean Tatar history. The cultural and administrative Russification of the Crimean Tatar homeland was accompanied by government-sponsored settlement of Russians from other regions in Crimea. [13]

Furthermore, textbooks of the Crimean Tatar language published in the 1920s were burned and many aspects of the centuries-old history of the Crimean Tatars on the Peninsula were destroyed, including religious and cultural architectural elements such as cemeteries, mosques, marble fountains, and other buildings with cultural elements. Large mosques in Crimea were re-registered for use as warehouses, museums or for other purposes, including Kuma-Kami, Kebir-Kami, Khan-Kami, and the Uzbek Khan mosque, while smaller ones were destroyed on the spot. [14]

The question remains open: whether an act of genocide took place or not in the case of Crimean Tatars under Stalin. However, the facts are that half of the nation died due to expulsion, their national identity was suppressed, their cultural and traditional values were destroyed, their historical, linguistic and religious heritage was demolished, and their textbooks and literary works were burned. In addition, they were exiled due to unjustifiably strained charges of treason and were not restored to their rights, were not compensated for any moral or material damage.


References

[1]  Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 99.
[2] Adam Jones, Genocide: a Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 344.
[3] Dominik J. Schaller and Zimmerer Jürgen, The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence (London: Routledge, 2013), 5.
[4] Adam Jones, Genocide: a Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 343.
[5] Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 109.
[6] John Quigley, Mark Findlay, and Ralph Henham, The Genocide Convention An International Law Analysis (Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis, 2016), 101.
[7] Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 4.
[8] William Schabas, Genocide in International Law: the Crime of Crimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 234.
[9] N. V. Mikhailova, L. M. Savina, Crimean Tatars: Deportation and Rehabilitation, Bulletin of the Moscow University of the Ministry of internal Affairs of Russia, 2015, 32-37. Original title: Н.В. Михайлова, Л.М. Савина, Крымские Татары: Депортация и Реабилитация, Вестник Московского Университета МВД России.
[10] Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 98.
[11] Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 84.
[12] Ibid, 135.
[13] Ibid, 111.
[14] Ibid, 112.

Picture Credits: National Bank of Ukraine, Flickr.

Germany’s Steinmeier: A New Direction for the Presidency

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President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo by Arne List

Lauren Rogers

On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.

On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.

However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.

From Freedom to Courage

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President Joachim Gauck. Photo by ACBahn

Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.

Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.

Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.

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Frauke Petry. Photo by Michael Lucan

But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.

 

The “Anti-Trump” President?

Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.

In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”

Or the “Pro-Russia” President?

Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President.  As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.

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Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Photo by Kremlin.ru

However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accused the organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”

Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.

Emphasizing German Leadership

In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.

Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.

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Understanding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine

Maksym Beznosiuk
Edited by Catlin Seibel-Kamel

Introduction

It has almost been two years since the dramatic events in Ukraine that led to the first redrawing of borders in Europe after the World War II. Russia’s offensive policies in Ukraine marked a shift from a universal approach to a selective interpretation of international legal norms and shook the foundations of international legal order and the balance of powers in Europe.

A lot of scholars in defense, security and other areas of study have been struggling to explain the driving force behind the current Russian foreign policy and the ongoing hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine. The latter caught the of attention of many interdisciplinary specialists in the West due to the recent emergence of the hybrid warfare concept, coupled with the special characteristics of Russia’s hybrid warfare instruments applied in Ukraine. Continue reading “Understanding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine”