For one who is likely to be among the first to be taken away at gunpoint if the new men in power here have their way, Fazil Amazayev, was being remarkably calm. Such actions, he insisted “will unite all the Muslims here; they will make enemies of us all”.
Mr Amazayev is a senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic political organisation which is legal in Ukraine. However, among the first pronouncements made by the new separatist Prime Minister of Crimea and the security chief he has appointed is that it is a “ dangerous terrorist organisation” which will have to be dealt with. Hizb ut-Tahrir has been blamed in many countries for promoting radicalism; but violent militancy caused by it is hard to find in Ukraine. And the fear of becoming sectarian targets is not just confined to activists among the Tatars: many in the community are staying away from city centres where Russian-speaking vigilantes hold sway, and some are leaving for other parts of the country. In pictures: The crisis in Ukraine
Mr Amazayev says he is confident that the Tatars of Crimea will not let him and others from his group be picked off by the new head of security, Petr Zima, who was promoted from his previous post in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. “Zima built up a reputation in Sevastopol for carrying out raids, accusing people of being involved in extremism. But, if he starts doing that now, he will make a big mistake. The people in the [Tatar] establishment, the Mufti and the Mejlis [representative council] criticised us in the past, but now we are all facing the common enemy. And, if they do start persecuting us, we know how to survive, we have done it in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia.” Nevertheless, Mr Amazayev has started to be very cautious, not straying outside his home town, Bakhchisarai, a historic place of mosques where Muslims form a sizeable portion of the population. “I don’t think it will be safe for me to travel, not at this time,” he said. The larger Tatar community is in friction with the Russian nationalist population over the issue of secession from Ukraine.
The new Crimean administration of Sergei Aksenov is organising a referendum on the issue, clearing the way to rule by Moscow – anathema to the Tatars who were deported from here, en masse, to Siberia and the central Asian steppes by Stalin at the end of the Second World War.
Today the head of the Russian republic of Tatarstan arrived in Crimea. Many, however, view Rustam Minnikhanov as an emissary of the Kremlin sent to persuade the Mejlis to change its policy of refusing to recognise the new separatist Crimean administration. “ He is not someone we see as our protector,” said one of its officials. The sense of being under threat has led to the formation of self-defence groups in Tatar neighbourhoods: the growing prevalence of fear in a people who have lived, on the whole, amicably with those of Russian and Ukrainian extraction since they returned from exile in the 1990s.
The current tensions emerged quickly. A demonstration against secession drew 10,000 from Ukraine’s largest Muslim community to the streets of the Crimean capital, Simferopol, last week. There were chants of “Allah hu Akhbar” from a small band of Tatars which some among an opposing protest by Russian speakers complained they found intimidating.
There were no serious acts of violence by either side or the police; but two people were reported to have died in the crush as the crowd converged outside the state parliament. Read more: Urgent talks, angry words, but still no coherent plan to end Crimea’s stand-off Pentagon sends jets to patrol the Baltics.