A small two-story building in central Simferopol would have looked ordinary, if not for one small but highly symbolic detail: It is the last building in Crimea to have a Ukrainian flag on its facade.
Five months after Russia invaded and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, the elimination of visible symbols of Ukraine is well under way with the transition to rule by the Russian Federation. Ukrainian symbols are not welcome. Some local car owners have covered the Ukrainian flag on their license plates with Russian flag stickers.
The last building flying the Ukrainian flag is the headquarters of Mejlis, an informal representative body of Crimean Tatars, a large ethnic minority group and the native people of Crimea, a peninsula with two million residents.
But even though the Mejlis office defies the new Crimean reality by showing the Ukrainian flag, deputy head of the Mejlis Nariman Dzhelyayev says all 250,000 Crimean Tatars are not pro-Ukrainian.
Then and now
The relationship between Crimean Tatars and Russian authorities is not a happy one. Elder members of the community still remember how, in 1944, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union deported Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and northern Russia. Some 170 years before that, the Russian empire annexed Crimea, previously the territory of Ottoman Empire, and began replacing Tatars with Slavic people.
“There are some obvious similarities between then and now," says Rustem Eminov, a historian working in the museum of Khan Palace in Bakhchisaray, a tourist attraction and a key establishment for the Crimean Tatar culture.
The history has discredited Russian authorities, but also Ukrainian ones, also.
According to Dzhelyayev of the Mejlis, Ukrainian authorities failed to help Crimean Tatars to return home beforethe 1980s. Later the Mejlis tried to pursue official acknowledgment of Crimean Tatars as the peninsula's native population, which would give them stronger representation in local councils. But the local authorities hampered these attempts.
So when Russian soldiers showed up in Crimea in late February, the Mejlis secretly negotiated the status of Crimean Tatars with the Russian-installed Crimean government headed by Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov.
“We have to negotiate with this government. Even in the toughest times, when there were APCs (armored personnel carriers) riding the streets here, we unofficially kept in touch with Aksyonov and ‘self-defense’ teams," admits Dzhelyayev.
But the truce was short-lived. Leaders of CrimeanTatars refused to support the March 16 illegal referendum that Russia used as a pretext to annex the peninsula.
On the eve of the referendum of March 16, Reshat Ametov, a 39-year-old Crimean Tatar man, was having a picket in Simferopol when he was abducted by men in military uniform and later found slain. No suspects have been identified, to the anger of Crimean Tatars, who don’t think the case will be solved.
A draft law instigated by Aksyonov offers to amnesty insurgents and vigilantes for crimes committed during the month of invasion and annexation, as long as they acted to "protect the interests of the Crimea republic." Dzhelyaev is concerned that the law, when adopted, will be used to excuse the murderers of Ametov.
Ukraine's government is belatedly trying to curry favor. On March 20, Ukraine's parliament gave Crimean Tatars what they had been asking for all along – guaranteeing the rights of Crimean Tatars as indigenous natives of Ukraine. But it was too little too late.
Religion under constraint
When asked if he thinks that Russia and Ukraine compete to win the trust of Crimean Tatars, Ramazan Asanov, the chief imam of Bakhchisaray district, responds firmly: "They do compete. But what they really want is not Crimean Tatars, it is Crimea," he says.
As a district imam, Asanov oversees 35 mosques. Lately, he has been especially busy. More than 20 Turkish imams who served in Crimea, invited by local Crimean Tatar religious authorities had to leave the peninsula because their visas were not valid in Russia. The peninsula is now short of Muslim priests. While at least 20 potential imams graduate from a local religious academy every year, almost all of them are scared off by low salaries.
"I have to teach (Muslim laws to) Russian-speaking children, and how can I do so without the Russian translations of some of the most important books?" asks Asanov, as he sits on the floor of a mosque in Bakhchisaray. Without the necessary books, Asanov has to explain their essence to children in his own words.
The books were banned by various Russian courts on various pretexts, most popular one being "extremist content." Among the banned books there is a Russian translation of The Quran and "The Strength of a Muslim," a book of prayers to Allah.
Dzhelyayev recalls that the Mejlis continually warned the Ukrainian government about the activities of pro-Russian organizations in Crimea. Months before the Russian military invaded, they warned about separatist activities.
"We rang all the bells, but nobody listened," says Dzhelyayev. "The Ukrainian government always chose to support the Slavic population of Crimea against Crimean Tatars.
Agrees historian Eminov: “Ironically, the Ukrainian government considered that the Crimean Tatars pose a separatist threat, not the Russians," agrees historian Eminov.
Crimean Tatars are not hopeful about life under the new authorities – partly because they are not new. "The current local authorities of Crimea are the same old local politicians. Many of them have openly spoken against Crimean Tatars," says Dzhelyayev.
On Aug. 6, Mejlis chairman Chubarov announced that three out of 33 elected members of the organization left due to "the pressure of Kremlin."
Others, Dzhelyayev says, were forced to get Russian passports.
In Simferopol, the Mejlis headquarters stands on the street named after Piotr Shmidt, a Russian fleet captain who got a single warship to rebel against the Russian Empire in 1905.
Like him, the Crimean Tatars' Mejlis stands alone against authorities. The Mejlis' Chubarov believes that the peninsula can somehow be returned to Ukraine and that the negotiations can begin "in several months," he said in Kyiv on July 28.
"The last word in Crimea situation has not yet been spoken," he adds.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development.