Canada’s NATO Podcasts: Interview with MP Mustafa Dzhemilev

Mustafa Dzhemilev – former Soviet dissident, leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement and Ukrainian MP

What has triggered your interest in politics? When did you realize that you want to dedicate your life to fighting for the rights of Crimean Tatars?

My life plan from early childhood included everything, depending on the books I read and movies I watched, but political activity. Furthermore, it was clear to me that there was no political future for Crimean Tatars under Soviet rule. Under the Soviets, political activity meant zealous service to the Communist Party and unequivocal approval and praise of everything that was happening in the country. This was simply not compatible with my religious identity and national dignity. My activities since 1961, when I became one of the co-founders of the Union of Young Crimean Tatars in Tashkent were directed at defending legitimate rights and human dignity. However, after multiple arrests and sentences in closed court hearings on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda and the creation of anti-Soviet organizations, I promised myself that I will fight this regime until the very end.

At that time I saw my death as the end of the fight, since nobody could even dream about the collapse of the powerful state. It seemed unreal back then. The only reason I was not arrested then on the charges of anti-Soviet propaganda was simply because I was not 18 yet; however, I was fired from work and was under constant surveillance by the KGB. Since then I started to study criminal and procedural law, judicial precedents, read all the available books about the political processes of the past, such as the case of Manolis Glezos,” The Leipzig process” by Georgi Dimitrov, “The Dreyfus Affair”, “The Beilis Case”, speeches by well-known lawyers, etc. I was preparing myself for the trial, which was clearly inevitable. I knew it was coming soon. All the free time after work I spent in Ali-Shir Nava’i library in Tashkent (Uzbekistan). The fact that political and legal knowledge would not save me from conviction was also clear to me. Before becoming a “camp dust” I wanted to get on the Soviets’ nerves, hoping to become an example for compatriots who no doubt will be incarcerated en masse in the future.

You are known for going on the longest hunger strike in the history of human rights movements, lasting 303 days. What impact did it have on you personally and did it somehow influence the Crimean Tatar National Movement?

The memory of those days is, of course, not a pleasant one. Many times after the end of the hunger strike I woke up in a cold sweat. I saw those dreadful days in my dreams time and again. Undoubtedly the hunger strike and the Omsk process of 1976, which was attended by academic Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner, have turned the attention of the world to the problems of the Crimean Tatars and had a huge influence on the activation of the Crimean Tatar National movement.

Western radio stations that were broadcasting to the Soviet Union have reported about the process. Hundreds of articles have been printed in the newspapers and magazines in the West, and especially in Turkey. In all these programs and publications, along with a message about my hunger strike, journalists have discussed the reasons for this hunger strike, explained who the Crimean Tatars were, what their history is as well as what they are fighting for and why they are discriminated against. In some countries activists created committees demanding my release. Publications have increased dramatically following the report published in “The Daily Telegraph” in early 1976 about my likely death in the hunger strike cell of the Omsk prison. People across the world started organizing protests and demonstrations outside the Soviet missions abroad.

When I was on the 7th month of my hunger strike, my mother decided to visit me in the Omsk prison. The prison guard, instead of declining a meeting, said, “Your son is not here.” Andrei Sakharov and General Grigorenko then called a press conference for the Western media in Moscow where they expressed fear that perhaps I was no longer alive. While the London based “The Daily Telegraph” reported on my likely death, the vast majority of radio stations and newspapers were printing obituaries, expressing condolences to my relatives until the beginning of my process in mid-April 1976 when it became clear that I was alive. This is how the story of my likely death made it to the headlines of major international newspapers.

The Omsk process itself, as well as the arrival of the Sakharovs to the trial, a resounding slap of a police officer by academic Sakharov’s wife, Elena Bonner, became the subject of many publications. Many years later, during Perestroika, I read all the obituaries and poems dedicated to my likely death with great interest.

What are the most important challenges that the Crimean Tatar people are currently going through?

There are multiple problems, but the most important one currently is associated with the annexation of Crimea and the need for liberation. No other problem will be solved under Russian occupation, which has established a cruel totalitarian and chauvinistic regime. It is extremely important to protect people against the powerful Russian propaganda, which brainwashes people. We also have to prevent a mass exodus of Crimean Tatars from their homeland. The end goal of Russians who inflict terror through unlawful raids, multiple arrests, murders and kidnappings, is to force Crimean Tatars to flee their homeland. There is a problem of settlement of IDPs from Crimea in mainland Ukraine. We also want to ensure that students have enough spots in Ukrainian and foreign Universities. Other vital problems include: providing legal assistance to our compatriots who were persecuted in Crimea, and assisting the families of those whose loved ones have been arrested, kidnapped or killed.

You frequently meet with various world leaders. Do they understand the situation on the ground in Crimea and do they fully grasp the threats that Crimean Tatars are currently facing?

Many leaders understand what is going on in Crimea, but one can understand well and still do nothing. At the UN General Assembly meeting on March 27, 2014, dozens of countries abstained from voting for the resolution demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops and guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity with 10 countries voting in support of the aggressor. Did they not understand that restoration of justice and the principles of international law were at stake? Obviously they did, but they decided not to “provoke” Russia for political, economic, and other reasons. Some countries feared that Russia would stop supplying natural gas to them, others have signed lucrative arms deals with Russia, and some did not want the same occupation to happen on their territory. For instance, the Ambassador of Armenia to the UN told me at the cocktail party following the vote that Armenia, despite understanding the situation and supporting Ukraine, was forced to vote otherwise in exchange for Russia’s support of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Everybody understands that in order to liberate Crimea and restore trust in the international law peacefully, one has to implement effective economic sanctions, which would compel the aggressor state to return the occupied territories and operate within the framework of the existing international order. However, not all countries have joined the sanctions regime due to economic reasons, and some states among those that did, have started complaining that they are losing their market in Russia. These people prefer not to think about the fact that current Russian aggression might lead not only to economic loss but also to the loss of many lives.

Russia is spending enormous amounts of taxpayers and oil money to divide Western countries by bribing select politicians, journalists, mass media outlets, and even political parties. We sincerely hope that common sense will prevail and sanctions will not only be maintained but strengthened until restoration of justice is complete.

Where do you see the future of Ukraine? Will Ukraine have to find a balance in relations with Russia or should Ukraine join NATO and the EU?

In order to survive and successfully develop Ukraine must be a strong state. Knowing that the neighbor state is using every opportunity to subordinate Ukraine or tear off a piece of its sovereign territory this is the only option for Ukraine. Russia has once again demonstrated that not a single memorandum or agreement signed with it guarantees security and territorial integrity. Since Ukraine is not likely to have military capabilities equal to Russia’s, due to the difference in the size of the country, human and natural resources, Ukraine will have to join NATO or any other regional defense alliance of collective security. Ukraine’s relations with Russia may only be settled after Russia withdraws from the occupied territories and compensates for the damages caused to Ukraine. However, under the current regime in the Kremlin it is highly unlikely that the situation will change.

Photo: Mustafa Dzheilev Senate of Poland (2014), by Katarzyna Czerwińska via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Magdalena Surma

Magdalena Surma is currently Canada's NATO Program Contributor and Outreach Coordinator. Former Program Editor of Global Horizons, Magdalena completed a BA in Legal Studies (Honours) and a Masters in Public Service at the University of Waterloo. She also attended Harvard during two summers, where she completed courses in psychology, government, and law. In addition, she successfully completed Harvard Law School’s Executive Education Program in Negotiation and Leadership. Magdalena is currently completing an LLB through University of London’s International Program. She is passionate about law, government, and charitable non-profit organizations. As an avid researcher, she hopes to extend her research to investigate women in security while examining society, culture, and international relations. In addition, Magdalena is also passionate about international business and economy. She is very excited about being involved with various projects at NATO, specifically engaging youth and society about international affairs. Apart from a love of politics, Magdalena enjoys fine art, ballet, and classical music.