Moscow’s Slow-Motion Ethnic Engineering in Occupied Crimea Accelerating

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When a government engages in mass murder or forcible deportations, most observers see that as a clear sign of ethnic engineering—even if there are unresolved debates as to whether such actions fall under the terms of the international convention against genocide, writes Paul Goble for jamestown.org.

Yet, when the powers that be change the composition of the population of a region by encouraging the emigration of some groups, the immigration of others, or a combination thereof, few see this process for what it is: slow-motion ethnic engineering in ways that approach (even if they may technically fall short of) acts of genocide as defined by the United Nations (Ohchr.org, January 12, 1951).

In Crimea, one can see historical and contemporary examples of both. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars in 1944, he loaded all of them on trains in the course of a few days and sent them to Central Asia—an action that is increasingly viewed by people around the world as an “act of genocide.” Earlier this year, for example, the Latvian parliament formally recognized the 1944 events as such (Saeima.lv, May 9). But over the past five years, since the restoration of Russian occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula, President Vladimir Putin has been doing much the same thing, albeit slowly rather than all at once, thus typically escaping criticism. Now, new Russian government statistics suggest, the results of this illegal practice are accelerating.

In the five years since invading and annexing Crimea, the current Kremlin leader has expelled as many as 40,000 Crimean Tatars and destroyed almost all of their cultural institutions in their centuries-old homeland, effectively presenting them with a Hobson’s choice of assimilation or expulsion. Few people are prepared to put the issue so starkly, but one who does is Rafis Kashapov, the former leader of the All-Tatar Social Center and current émigré head of the organization Free Idel-Ural. In an interview with the Yenicag online portal, he makes these parallels clear (Yenicag, March 14).

“We remember the deportation of the Germans, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, and Balkars and that the Crimean Tatar people shared the same tragic fate as they,” Kashapov said. “Many peoples experienced such a horrific tragedy [because] this was the continuing practice of the Communist regime,” the activist noted. “Fifteen peoples and more than 40 nationalities were deported” in Soviet times. “About 3.5 million people were driven from their native places—in fact, from their historical motherlands. Many of them died during the deportation,” Kashapov continued. “Tragically, that old wound has not yet healed; and it is being made worse by new ones.” Now, “in Crimea, a new wave of widespread repression toward the Crimean Tatars is going on. Since the beginning of the annexation of Crimea, from 30,000 to 40,000 Crimean Tatars have left the peninsula; and therefore, one cannot speak about the rehabilitation of the repressed.” And the occupiers have closed schools, mosques, newspapers and governing institutions (Yenicag, March 14).

According to Kashapov, the world is fully justified in speaking about a new “deportation,” even though it has not been total or all at once. He said the situation is “deteriorating and will deteriorate still further” (Yenicag, March 14). Remarkably, and in contrast with the situation in Stalin’s time, official Russian sources provide a kind of confirmation for his prediction.

In its report for the first five months of 2019, Rosstat, the Russian government’s statistical service, gives figures for so-called natural population losses in Crimea caused by migration flows and excess deaths over births (Gks.ru, accessed August 6). As analyzed by Tetyana Ivanevich of the Crimean Tatar QHA news agency, these numbers suggest a continuing and even growing decline in the numbers of Crimean Tatars and other indigenous groups on the peninsula and a continuing and even growing influx of ethnic Russians from the Russian Federation (QHA Media, August 2).

Between January and May 2019, Ivanevich notes, the figures show that the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in the Republic of Crimea by 4,407, 13 percent higher than was the case in 2018. Indeed, she says, these losses were “the highest over the last five years, with the total for Crimea exceeding 4,000 for the first time, and that of Crimea and Sevastopol together exceeding 5,000.” This development seems likely to continue because “the number of births is declining and the number of deaths is growing” (QHA Media, August 2)

That, however, is only part of the slow-motion ethnic engineering now taking place in occupied Crimea that Rosstat figures show. Over the same time period, 12,740 people left Crimea to live elsewhere, while 15,329 moved to the occupied peninsula. While Rosstat does not specify the ethnic composition of these flows, most of the former are likely Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, while nearly all of the latter are ethnic Russians, a trend that has been true since 2015 (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, August 6) but is now becoming increasingly dramatic.

Shortly after the Russians annexed and occupied the Crimean peninsula, Rosstat reported that ethnic Russians formed 68 percent of the population, ethnic Ukrainians 16 percent, and Crimean Tatars 13 percent. Those figures already reflected new arrivals of many of the first and the flight of many of the latter two (Gks.ru, accessed August 6). Since then, the occupation authorities have not released a new enumeration, but Ukrainian and Western estimates suggest the share of ethnic Russians has risen significantly while that of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars has fallen, the result of Moscow’s support of the former and its attacks on the latter (Ukrcensus.gov.ua, January 1). This act does not equal the cruelty of the deportation of 1944, but it should nevertheless be seen as a clear case of state-sponsored ethnic engineering—a policy explicitly banned by international law.

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