Ten years since its illegal annexation, Crimea is a template for newly occupied parts

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CNN
 — 

A petite woman calmly exits her home, escorted by a group of large men in green fatigues, dwarfed by their sheer size and number. They look fierce: green balaclavas cover most of their face, hiding their identity, but their Russian flag patches reveal their allegiance.

The woman is Lutfiye Zudiyeva, a Crimean Tatar, and she shared video of the moment on her social media accounts.

“They came to my house to carry out a search,” she said in an interview from the occupied Ukrainian peninsula, looking as resolute as she did in the video. “I had been preparing for it for years.”

Her composure and foresight come from experience – this was her third arrest since 2019. On this occasion, she was held for an hour and accused of “abuse of mass media freedom,” she said, over posts she made on social media.

“When you cover politically motivated criminal cases or when you write about torture, you can’t help but get on the radar of the special services or the police,” she explained.

Zudiyeva is a human rights activist and also one of the many Ukrainians who have suffered under Russia’s now decade-long illegal occupation of Crimea, a period marked by the imposition of Moscow’s laws and institutions, the oppression and repression of any opposition, as well as serious human rights violations, according to the United Nations.

“There are arrests, searches, torture and repression,” Zudiyeva said. “As soon as you try to publicly express your disagreement… or you somehow get involved, you become a target. It’s inevitable.”

Arrests like hers, as well as large mass raids, especially, but not exclusively, in areas predominantly inhabited by Crimean Tatar communities, have been common since 2014.

The Tatars, a Muslim minority of Turkic origin, are widely considered to be Crimea’s indigenous population. They were also persecuted while the peninsula, and Ukraine, were part of the Soviet Union, with long-time dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly deporting them from Crimea in 1944.

It was only in the late 1980s and then into the 1990s, as Ukraine achieved independence, that Crimean Tatars were allowed to return. Tatars were among those who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and rights groups noted Russian authorities’ persecution of the minority group in the aftermath.

But what was already common has become more frequent and more invasive since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“The situation is only getting worse,” said human rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, himself a Crimean Tatar.  “The cases of kidnapping, detention of people without trial in prisons, have increased, especially after 2022.”

Crimean Tatar women rallying against the war between Russia and Ukraine on the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, on March 8, 2014.

Kurbedinov has lived in Crimea since 2008 and says he has also faced harassment by Russian authorities since 2014. He has been arrested on several occasions, most recently, in February, for the same alleged offense as Zudiyeva – who’s one of his clients.

He said Russian authorities act under the guise of the “fighting terrorism,” frequently claiming Ukraine is directing and controlling networks of dissent inside the peninsula. He believes it is just pure opportunism.

“They get people when it suits them and they add charges that would make clear to society that these are terrorists,” he explained.  “Under the auspices of the fight against terrorism, they can arrest at one time a religious figure, a civic journalist, people who discussed something disloyal to the authorities, some other discontented people.”

Russia’s occupation of Crimea began in 2014, shortly after the events of the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. Confusion and concern riled up pro-Russia sentiment in the region – which had been a part of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union until 1954, housed its Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol and already leaned more towards Moscow than other parts of Ukraine – leading to protests and clashes.

While politicians in Kyiv were trying to hold the country together following then President Viktor Yanukovich’s sudden departure on February 22, following months of political uncertainty and protests, Moscow set its sights on Crimea.

Russian soldiers in uniform without identifying insignia — at the time referred to as “little green men” — started popping up outside government buildings and military bases, though Moscow denied any involvement.

Amid the confusion, many Ukrainian troops simply barricaded themselves in their bases, as the green men lined the perimeter. Russian helicopters were spotted entering Ukrainian airspace. Two top commanders of Ukraine’s navy defected.

Pro-Russian supporters take part in a rally in Sevastopol, Crimea, on March 15, 2014. Displayed in the background are Russia's presidential flags.

While there were some pro-Russia pockets in cities like Sevastopol who favored annexation by Moscow, that sentiment was generally not considered to be widespread. A slim majority in Crimea also voted in favor of Ukraine’s independence in a 1991 referendum. In the 2010 regional elections, the party of then-leader Yanukovich – who never argued for Russian annexation of Crimea or any part of Ukraine – won with nearly 50% of the vote. Research also indicates that before 2014, most residents believed annexation by Moscow was either illegal or pointless.

Weeks after the appearance of the little green men, a sham referendum, illegal under international law and unrecognized by a large majority of the international community, showed 95.5% of people in the peninsula wanted to secede from Ukraine and to join Russia.

“We are going home. Crimea is in Russia,” Russian-installed Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov told crowds gathered in Simferopol, while votes were still being counted. A decade later he is still in charge, as the head of the so-called Russian Republic of Crimea.

The replacement of Ukrainian institutions and repression of dissent started quickly after the vote.

Heavily-armed soldiers without identifying insignia guard the Crimean parliament building shortly after taking up positions there on March 1, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine.

“From the first months we faced a huge number of human rights violations. There were hundreds of administrative cases, kidnappings, and so on and so forth,” Kurbedinov said. “We realized that we were in a completely different reality.”

That new reality is one Russia is trying to make permanent and irreversible, according to the UN.

“We have seen a systematic effort essentially to erase Ukrainian identity to erase and suppress all things Ukrainian. It also involves suppression of Tatar national identity,” said Krzysztof Janowski, from the UN’s Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. “We know, for example, of at least 100 forced disappearances among people who oppose the new regime and oppose the occupation,” he added.

The UN says Moscow expropriated at least 730 plots of land belonging to Ukrainian and Tatar citizens, which it then gave to Russian servicemen, or ex-servicemen involved in the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. It has also made it almost impossible to live in Crimea without a Russian passport.

“Without a Russian passport, you cannot have any access to any of the social services: healthcare, pensions, and so on. So, people are often presented with an offer they cannot refuse,” Janowski said. “They cannot get access, they cannot essentially survive. Accepting a Russian passport is a way of surviving this horrible situation.”

People walk in front of a poster showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading

The major concern now is that Crimea is a template for the other four Ukrainian regions now fully or partially occupied by Russia.

A spokesperson for Russia’s interior ministry, Irina Volk, has claimed 90% of residents of those four regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – now have Russian passports. Less than a week after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the eastern town of Avdiivka, the first residents there had applied for Russian passports, Volk said.

Propaganda effort

When it comes to Crimea, Russia has tried to hide its oppression under a veil of public investment, and patriotism.

Ahead of the 10-year-anniversary of the annexation, billboards and posters have popped up all over the peninsula celebrating how Moscow’s investment has made life there better. Some show Crimea covered in the Russian flag, others feature Russian President Vladimir Putin and read: “The West doesn’t need Russia. We need Russia.”

That narrative is not a novelty, as Russian state broadcasters and local pro-Russian media reports often highlight the construction of new roads and other public infrastructure, like sports centers and even mosques in some cases.

The Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland and inaugurated in 2018, is a major source of pride for Moscow and the focus of a large part of its propaganda. Its significance from a symbolic and strategic standpoint also explains why Ukraine has targeted it several times during the war.

“This is how we live,” says Kurbedinov. “Today you drive along nice roads, arrive home, tomorrow you simply disappear.”

A woman poses for pictures with an artwork featuring the map of Crimea in the colours of the Russian flag, days before the 10th anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, in Simferopol, March 13, 2024.

Zudiyeva, like others in her community, didn’t set out to be a human rights activist. She wanted to work in education and even opened a children’s center before Moscow took over the peninsula.

But then came the Russian soldiers, along with the Kremlin’s surveillance and oppression.

“We began to read news about people going missing, we began to read news about some of them being tortured,” she said. “I realized that I would not be able to abstract from this and live my life as if nothing was happening.”

For a while, she combined her children’s center with her newfound activism, but Moscow came knocking at her door.

“It was difficult to explain to the parents, who brought and trusted us with their children, why their teacher was being harassed and the children’s center was being searched,” she said.

She closed the center down and focused on her activism; in 2020, she became a journalist as well.

“I dream of writing a text (that will change the course of events) or hope that my work will bring such results that would stop the repressions in Crimea,” she said. “I do it consciously, and I think I overcame my fear back in 2014.”

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