On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an offensive against Ukraine simultaneously in the north, east and south of the country. Thus, Russian troops expanded their temporary occupation of Ukrainian territories, which began in 2014. Millions of Ukrainian citizens, including indigenous peoples and national minorities, found themselves in the temporarily occupied territories. In the following blog piece, we will review the current situation in the regions inhabited by those communities.
This blog post was originally published as part of the blog series ‘ECMI Minorities Blog’ published by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI)
The town of Henichesk, the settlement of Novooleksiyivka, and the surrounding villages, home to more than 2,000 Crimean Tatars in the Kherson oblast, came under Russian control in the early days of the full-scale invasion. On March 6, local residents under the flags of Ukraine and the Crimean Tatar people went on a peaceful protest against the occupation of Novooleksiyivka. On March 12, the legally elected mayor of Henichesk, Oleksandr Tulupov, announced that he was resigning because he could not work in the conditions created by Russian forces. The next day, the local media outlet, Novyi Visit, was closed.
Later, reports of persecution of Novooleksiyivka residents, including Crimean Tatars, emerged. On April 6, the Russian occupiers concentrated additional forces in the settlement, blocking exit routes. The Crimean Tatar Resource Center informed that troops had begun visiting every house and apartment. During this time, they fired machine guns and grenade launchers at a two-story house in the Cheryomushky residential area. Iskender Bariev, a member of the Crimean Tatar People’s Majlis, later informed that at least one person had been killed. He also said that the Russian occupiers were illegally detaining and intimidating people throughout the Henichesk district. This information was confirmed by the Prosecutor’s Office of the Kherson oblast, adding that on April 6, Russian troops also detained 3 people during searches in Novooleksiyivka.
I contacted for comment Tamila Tasheva, Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (at the time of the interview – Deputy Representative). The institution’s mandate is to monitor the situation in the temporarily occupied peninsula, as well as analyse the implementation of the rights of the Crimean Tatar people in other regions of Ukraine. “We understand that this [Crimean Tatars] is a targeted group for the occupying forces. As we do not actually have access to the territory of Kherson oblast, the cases of pressure may increase.” As an example of such pressure, she cited the story of an activist of the Crimean Tatar people, Venera Kurtbedinova. She was among those detained on April 6, and illegally held captive for 2 days.
The members of the Roma minority – about 600 people – compactly live in the city of Kakhovka. A member of the community, Roman (name changed), reported that the occupiers did not allow residents to leave the city. In addition, he said that Russian military vehicles were driving through the streets. At such moments he tries to stay indoors due to safety precautions. Also, according to him, the local school, where the vast majority of Roma children studied, is currently closed. Children study remotely, but not every day.
He further added that in Vysokopillya, Kherson oblast, where members of the Roma minority live compactly, the Russian troops are occupying the homes of local residents, taking away their valuables and vehicles. This is especially affecting those Roma people who evacuated from the village. Nevertheless, Roman is aware of similar cases concerning those who remained. He also mentioned that the Russian troops were illegally detaining Roma in Vysokopillya. He specifically referred to a case in which R., a man of Roma background, disappeared. Later local residents found out that the occupiers had imprisoned him for lack of documents. Upon identifying R.’s personal details (his family provided the occupiers with documents), they refused to release him. This has eventually happened, however, he refused to say what the occupiers did to him.
On March 12, Kherson journalist Kostiantyn Ryzhenko reported that in the temporarily occupied cities of Kherson Oblast, Russian invaders were harassing journalists, activists, former Ukrainian servicemen, and other citizens who had experience in public activities or made no secret of their desire to live in Ukraine. For these purposes, units of the Russian Guard and the Special Unit of the Russian Police were brought to the region. According to Kostiantyn Ryzhenko, the Russian occupiers are searching for the “unreliable” residents of cities in Kherson Oblast, detaining, torturing, and forcing them to cooperate. On May 7, Tamila Tasheva informed that the Russian troops had already detained about 500 people in the region.
The southern districts of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast – Melitopol, Berdiansk, Prymorsk, Polohy, Orikhiv, Hulyaypole – are under Russian control as of May 12. Bulgarian, Greek, and Albanian national minorities live compactly in this part of the region. In addition, a significant number of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine – Karaite and Crimean Tatar – live there as well. Since the beginning of the occupation, Russian security forces have been pressuring the local authorities of the captured settlements, persecuting its representatives, and demanding cooperation. Outstanding examples are the cases of the Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov and Prymorsk Mayor Oleksandr Koshelevych, whom the occupiers kidnapped in March. They were subsequently released and are now on the free territory of Ukraine.
In order to better understand the situation in the region, I contacted Naufal Hamdani, head of the Association of National Minorities of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. According to him, members of national minorities and indigenous peoples in many parts of the region experience problems with covering the basic needs something that applies to the members of the Ukrainian majority as well. There is also a direct threat to life due to the fighting caused by Russian aggression. Many people have to hide in shelters. “We cannot remain silent about the detention of peaceful people by the rashist occupiers, including members of national minorities who defend their pro-Ukrainian position… People are forcibly detained, tortured and killed. Children are frightened.”, said Naufal Hamdani.
The activist also draws attention to the fact that without functional local authorities and due to obstacles from the Russian occupiers, in the temporarily uncontrolled territory of Ukraine difficult humanitarian conditions have developed: “There is no gas, water, or light in the occupied territories. There is no telephone connection, and theinformational agenda is distorted (this is the case in, for example, the Prymorskyi district – where members of the Bulgarian community live compactly). Rashists seize the media, and broadcast propaganda, with lies and distortions of the real picture. Our people do not have access to the true news.”
Russian occupation forces put pressure on the representatives of different social institutions. In Melitopol in early April, they kidnapped the principals of four schools. Thus, the invaders tried to force educational institutions to start teaching under the Russian syllabus. On March 10, on the other hand, Iskender Bariev announced that the director of the Melitopol Museum of Local History, as well as a member of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast Council, belonging to the Crimean Tatar people, Leyla Ibrahimova, had been kidnapped. She was held captive for several days. Furthermore, on March 26, journalist Olha Vesnianka reported that Russian occupiers had kidnapped the journalist and cultural activist Kostiantyn Ovsiannykov in Prymorsk, who worked on preserving the cultural heritage of local Bulgarians. “In the end, the culture and spirituality of Zaporizhzhia national minorities suffer. People do not have the right to express their opinion, organize cultural events, and declare their unwillingness to accept the ‘Russian liberation’! Not only do they not hear us, but when they hear, they kill everyone who has an opinion”, Naufal Hamdani concludes.
On April 29, Olena Arabadzhi, a representative of the Karaite people and director of the Center for the Study of the National and Cultural Heritage of the Azov Peoples, addressed the participants of the 21st session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, she lived in Melitopol. She stressed that the Karaites have special feelings for their historical homeland – the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian occupation of this region of Ukraine in 2014 broke this connection. Russia’s full-scale aggression in February 2022, according to Olena Arabadzhi, forced about half of the Karaites to leave their homes in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. This is how she described the lives of her people under temporary occupation: “My children and grandchildren are deprived of the opportunity to study the Karaite language. The teacher of the Karaite language remains in the temporarily occupied territory. The access to the Karaites’ cultural centre has been blocked. Under the Russian occupation, which I had been experiencing myself, we were deprived even of the right to express our opinion and to participate in assemblies. As far as I know, other indigenous peoples of Ukraine, namely Crimean Tatars and Krymchaks are having the same dramatic experience”.
Much of Donetsk Oblast was occupied by Russia until February 24, 2022. After that, Russia launched a large- scale offensive, supported by heavy artillery and aircraft, throughout the region. The Donetsk Oblast is home to the majority of the Greek national minority in Ukraine (Azov Greeks); according to the 2001 All-Ukrainian Census, more than 80% of all members of the community lived there. The Oblast is also home to large communities of Armenians, Roma, Crimean Tatars, and other communities.
Until February 24, Russian forces controlled some of the settlements where the Azov Greeks live. Among them were Starobesheve, Rozdol, Starolaspa, and Novolaspa. As of April 10, all towns and villages inhabited by the Greek national minority in the Donetsk Oblast were either under Russian control, or in the area of active hostilities, except for a few settlements in the central-western part of the region.
The most difficult situation is in Mariupol and Volnovakha. Before the war, about 450,000 and respectively 21,000 people lived in these cities. Both were almost completely destroyed by Russian artillery and aircraft. There is no water, electricity or gas, and no mobile communication. On May 10 the MP of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the head of the parliamentary committee for the human rights Dmytro Lubinets informed that the city of Volnovakha is 90% destroyed by the Russian invaders. Approximately 2,500 – 3,000 residents remain in the city out of the 26,000 before the full-scale war.
On April 29, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said that the Mariupol City Council estimates the number of civilians killed by Russian attacks at 20,000. On April 30, the Mariupol City Council announced that in Mariupol and the settlements of the Mariupol community, the Russian occupiers were handing over the apartments of people who had left the war zone to other people. In addition, on May 11, the Mariupol City Council released a forecast according to which by the end of 2022 in Mariupol may die about 10 thousand inhabitants due to the spread of disease and intolerable living conditions. It is estimated that about 150,000 – 170,000 people remain in the city. Earlier, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Liudmyla Denisova reported that Russian forces were transporting mobile crematoria to the city to eliminate the bodies of people killed in Mariupol. Fighting continues in the blocked city.
On May 3 Vadym Boychenko reported that the Mariupol City Council had verified information on more than 40,000 people who were forcibly deported from Mariupol by the Russian troops to other temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk Oblast or throughout Russia. According to Liudmyla Denisova, before deportation, the citizens are obliged to pass the “filtration” in the special camps. There the Russian occupiers check the personal details of the people trying to detect their loyalty to the Ukrainian state. People are going through pressure and humiliation. Those who do not pass the “filtration” are imprisoned in Olenivka or in the concentration camp “Izoliatsia” in Donetsk. Liudmyla Denisova added that almost 1,2 million people from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine were forced to pass through “filtration” by the Russian invaders.
According to Denisova’s information from April 9, the Russian occupiers, despite the destroyed infrastructure and proximity to the front line, were forcing children who remained in Volnovakha to go to school, with the intention to complicate the liberation of the city by Ukrainian forces. In addition, the Vice Prime Minister for the Reintegration of Ukraine’s Temporarily Occupied Territories Iryna Vereshchuk said in late March that Russian forces had blocked humanitarian convoys near Nikolske and Melekine on their way to Mariupol, whereas in Manhush evacuation buses were seized.
The attacks of the Russian army and the destruction it brought affected all residents of the southern part of the Donetsk Oblast, regardless of ethnonational self-identification – Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Roma, Crimean Tatars, Turks, and others. Hundreds of thousands of people continue to suffer from constant shelling, water and food shortages, lack of medical care and fear of persecution. Currently, the most basic right of all people who remain in this territory is threatened – the right to life. At the same time, the fate of cultures and languages of two subgroups of the Azov Greeks – Rumei and Urum – is in great danger as due to the actions of the Russian occupiers they are dispersed and deprived of the right to express their needs.
Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts
Most of the Luhansk Oblast is now under the control of Russian troops. The cities controlled by Ukrainian forces – Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizhne – suffer daily from artillery and air strikes of the occupiers. Russian troops captured the north-eastern and eastern parts of the Kharkiv Oblast, almost completely destroying the city of Izium. Currently, there is not enough data to assess the situation of national minorities in the temporarily occupied territories of these regions, such as large Roma communities.
Territories temporarily occupied by Russia before February 24
It is also important to briefly mention the current situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sevastopol, the south-eastern districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, which Russia illegally occupied eight years ago. As reported by Tamila Tasheva, the persecution of Crimean Tatars, as well as Ukrainians who disagree with Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, has been going on for eight years. It manifested itself in detention, kidnapping, and murder of activists, manufacturing / fabricating of administrative and criminal cases, and denouncing Crimean Tatar people’s organizations as extremist. “Persecution and pressure were already intensified to the highest level” Tasheva said in response to a question whether the situation had changed since February 24, 2022.
Nevertheless, Russia’s full-scale offensive on Ukraine still had a significant impact on the atmosphere in Crimea, in particular affecting Crimean Tatars. Tasheva points out that the Crimean Peninsula is one of the bridgeheads on which Russia has concentrated troops and from which they carry out attacks. This leads to changes in everyday life: “A propaganda campaign is being carried out on the territory of the peninsula, in particular in schools. Crimean Tatars are actively used in this process. School directors demand from teachers who belong to the Crimean Tatars support and public approval of the actions of the Russian army and the President of Russia.” The official also said that she was aware of cases when Crimean residents protested against Russia’s attack on Ukraine. However, in all cases, the protesters were detained by law enforcement agencies.
In addition, in the temporarily occupied Crimea and in some temporarily occupied districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, Russian occupiers are forciblymobilizing men to take part in the war against Ukraine. Given the scale of conscription, there is a high probability that many members of national minorities and indigenous peoples, who at the same time are Ukrainian citizens, will be involved in hostilities against their country.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed due to Russian aggression against Ukraine since 2014. From February 24, 2022, the number of casualties increased proportionally with the scale of the attack. The lives of millions of people in Ukraine have changed: they are either forced to flee or to somehow meet their basic needs. Under such conditions, the usual policy of diversity management is reduced to the struggle for the life of every citizen, regardless of ethnonational belonging.
As of mid-May, seven regions of Ukraine remain fully or partially occupied by Russian troops and security forces. Thus, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society cannot have control over the developments taking place there. Similarly, international organizations do not have access to these territories to help, or have lost their access to them in the meantime (the examples of the Red Cross, which is unable to get to Mariupol, or the OSCE observation mission, forced to leave from the previously occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, prove this point).
Photos from the liberated Bucha, Irpin, Makariv, Hostomel, Borodyanka, and Trostyanets showed that in the areas of Ukraine that are temporarily occupied by Russian troops, there is a high risk of violations of humanitarian law. Residents of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts remain under great threat. The Ukrainian state, without control over these territories, cannot guarantee the security of indigenous peoples and national minorities that it used to ensure.
Under such conditions, the inhabitants of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, and in particular those belonging to indigenous peoples and national minorities, need two things. On the one hand, it is necessary to ensure the access of international organizations and missions to Russian-controlled areas and Oblasts. On the other, it is necessary to de-occupy these territories as soon as possible, with the subsequent return of Ukraine’s control over them and resulting guarantees concerning rights and freedoms. Only this can bring the usual issues of diversity management back on the agenda. Until then, the struggle for human lives continues.