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'We cannot afford to freeze the Crimean conflict,' says Crimean Tatar leader

In a DW interview, Crimean Tatar council chair Refat Chubarov criticizes German FDP party head Christian Lindner, whose proposal for addressing the Crimea conflict, he says, could spell disaster for Chubarov's people.

Krimtataren Protest in Kiew Flagge (picture alliance/ZUMA Press/S. Glovny)

The Crimean Tatar flag at a protest in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine

Refat Chubarov is a member of Ukrainian parliament and the Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People. The body serves as a self-governing council for the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that has lived in the Crimean peninsula for centuries. A vocal critic of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities banned Chubarov from entering the peninsula, where he and his family lived.  After the annexation, the Mejlis was dismantled and outlawed by Russian authorities. Many activists are being held in custody.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Chubarov describes how Crimean Tatars feel about statements made by German politicians regarding the Crimean annexation and the future of the peninsula. In this interview, he also comments on the recent DW interview with Christian Lindner, the top candidate of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) for this year's Bundestag elections.

DW: Mr. Chubarov, the comments FDP leader Christian Lindner made about the Crimean crisis have caused a stir in Ukraine. What do you think of Lindner's proposal to "freeze" Crimea conflict?

Refat Chubarov: I view Mr. Lindner's remarks in relation to the feelings of the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea. In light of the political repression of Crimean Tatars - and basically anyone in Crimea who feels a bond with Ukraine - I see Mr. Lindner's proposal to postpone the resolution of the Crimean crisis as an invitation to Russia to continue the repression with renewed strength. What Mr. Lindner asserts is a kind of "remission of sins" for the crimes committed by Russia in Crimea.

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Refat Chubarov, leader of the Crimean Tatar people's governing council, at the Congress of Crimean Tatars in Kyiv (DW/A. Sawitzky)

Refat Chubarov: "We Crimean Tatars have no time to wait"

DW: Which crimes are you specifically referring to?

They started in the initial days of Russia's military operation in Crimea. On March 3, the Crimean activist Reshat Ametov disappeared in Simferopol. On March 15, his body was found in a ditch, and apparently he had been tortured terribly before his death. He was just the first victim. More murders followed after the final occupation.

Eight Crimean Tatars simply disappeared without a trace. To this day, we still do not know what happened to them. Last spring, for example, World Congress of Crimean Tatars executive board member Ervin Ibrahimov disappeared. He was only about 30 years old when he disappeared. We still don't know what happened to this young man. The annexation was also followed by a wave of arrests of Crimean Tatars, many of whom have been accused of "extremism." My deputy in the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz, has been behind bars for two and a half years. The court ruling is set to be handed down September 11. The prosecutor illegally appointed by Russia is calling for eight years on prison. My other deputy, Ilmi Umerov, is currently being tried - just because he dared to make the obvious public announcement that the Crimean annexation was illegal under international law. He faces at least five years in prison. Just a few days ago, another Crimean Tatar was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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DW: Do you think the criminal prosecution is systematic?

Russian leaders want to drive away everyone in Crimea who is not loyal to the Russian occupying powers, meaning Ukrainian citizens and especially Crimean Tatars. This is a disaster for Crimean Tatars in particular because they fought a long time to return to Crimea after decades of expulsion. Crimean Tatars fought for their return almost half a century after Stalin drove away the entire Tatar population in 1944. It is hypocritical of politicians to tell these people that we will wait, loosen sanctions on Russia and then sit down at the negotiating table with Putin. Quite frankly, it may be that Mr. Lindner or other politicians think they can take their time with Crimea but we Crimean Tatars do not have that time.

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DW: Mr. Lindner suggested "freezing" the Crimean crisis without accepting the annexation. Merkel, Macron, Poroshenko and Putin talk about the Donbass region and not about Crimea. So is Lindner maybe just expressing what has long since become reality?

Lindner's comments on Crimea have sent shockwaves throughout Russian media. Reality is always what politicians make it out to be. We can, of course, say that Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine has been prioritized over this problem and that Crimea should only become the focus of attention when the other conflict has been resolved. But we must already clearly define our goal. And the goal must be to restore Ukraine's sovereignty and its internationally recognized borders.

If we start off saying that we will first talk about eastern Ukraine and accordingly loosen sanctions on Russia, and then ask Putin to the negotiating table on Crimea, then we must clearly define our goals with regard to Crimea; otherwise, we will only encourage Putin to continue doing what he is doing.

Russian press reporting Christian Lindner's statements about Crimea (A. Riekmann)

FDP head Lindner's statements made major waves in Russian online media

DW: In the DW interview, Lindner also mentioned Turkish-occupied territories in northern Cyprus. EU accession negotiations were initiated with Turkey, even though the Cyprus dispute has still not been settled. For over four decades, this issue has not been resolved. What makes you believe that Crimea will not share the same fate?

Cyprus is divided and I hope that one day this country will finally be reunited. But there, however, two groups have essentially been separated. Greece and Turkey are both NATO members. Both sides have been able to avoid the repression of the other ethnic group. There are no mass arrests, searches or kidnappings. Yes, the conflict is frozen, but the situation is different. In Crimea, however, we have a situation in which an ethnic group is being driven out of its country, as it has been twice before in history: after Crimea's annexation by the Russian Empire in 1783 and then under Stalin in 1944. Whatever comparisons are made with frozen conflicts, for example northern Cyprus, Transnistria or the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - we Crimean Tatars have no time to wait for a solution someday in the future. Russia is displacing all Crimean Tatars on the peninsula and in the meantime, relocating masses of Russians to Crimea. These are all offenses that must be punished under international law.

The interview was conducted by Eugen Theise.

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