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Crimean Tatars Pressured To Become Russian Citizens


All this week we're reporting from Crimea. The Vermont-sized peninsula on the Black Sea was forcibly taken from Ukraine by Russia earlier this year, and when borders change, so do lives. The takeover by Russia has forced Crimeans of all ages and backgrounds to rethink their identities. Just imagine waking up and feeling like you're in a whole new country. Or in the case of some Crimeans, imagine the new country is the old country that brutalized your people. That's how Ernes Ayserezli is feeling these days. The 26-year-old is part of an ethnic minority, the Crimean Tatars. He and his dad own a goat farm that's on a windy mountainside overlooking the city of Simferopol. We're driving across the grass in Ernes's boxy Soviet Lada. It's a car he regrets buying.

ERNES AYSEREZLI: It's one of the worst things that have happened to mankind. I had to buy it because it was really cheap, and I had no money at the moment. And now I cannot sell it. I'm stuck with it.

GREENE: But Ernes has decorated the old Soviet car with the flag of the Crimean Tatars. The flag is right on the dashboard, the Cyrillic letter T yellow against the sky-blue background.

AYSEREZLI: I didn't have it six month ago. I just felt the need to put it out, maybe opposing some Russian flags that some pro-Russian people put on their windshields.

GREENE: That little flag means so much to Ernes, and here's why. Given recent history, it's a miracle Ernes and his family are even here in this place. The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslims native to Crimea. They've been persecuted by Russia for generations. Stalin brutalized them in World War II. He labeled the Tatars Nazi sympathizers and shipped the entire population to Central Asia in boxcars, including Ernes's grandmother.

AYSEREZLI: At least half of the population died during deportation because of the conditions they were kept in, and the conditions were no conditions at all.

GREENE: But the hardship wasn't over even for the survivors. Once they arrived in Central Asia, in places like Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan...

AYSEREZLI: Most of them were just thrown out in the fields with no houses, nothing.

GREENE: Ernes's family made the best of their new life there, but they always wanted to return to their homeland, and beginning in the 1980s Tatars were allowed to go back to Crimea. Ernes and his family returned when he was just 2, and they had to start from scratch again. We've driven from the goat farm to Ernes's family home, just a few miles away.

AYSEREZLI: 'Til this day, I wonder how they did it with no money and no connections, none whatsoever. They managed to build a house.

GREENE: This one?

AYSEREZLI: This one, yeah.

GREENE: The one we're standing in now.

AYSEREZLI: Yes, yes.

GREENE: Given all this history, it is understandable that Crimean Tatars are wary of Russia, but now they are under pressure to sign a document declaring, yes, I want to be a citizen of Russia. It feels like a nightmare for many. But if Ernes and other Tatars want to stay here in this new Crimea, they really need to become Russian citizens. Without that, it's much harder - maybe impossible - to get health care or a driver's license or own a business. Ernes tells us about his trip here, to downtown Simferopol, a place we went to check out ourselves. It's the Federal Migration Service, and this is where Crimeans can change their citizenship from Ukrainian to Russian. It's on this little street - it's almost feeling like a back alley - a tree-lined street. And there's this crowd of people standing in front of a concrete wall. People are bundled up. There are men and women, some holding their kids and just waiting, staring at these people who hold lists, that give people numbers and will determine when they can actually get inside, get new passports and get new migration status. It is hard just to get inside that building, so when Ernes was here, he had to wait and wait as this woman called out names.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Russian).

GREENE: The lists here are 400 people long, and they only let around 10 people inside each day. And there are different emotions out in this crowd, some people, just like Ernes, come reluctantly, others are giddy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: This woman comes out of the building bragging about her new citizenship. She is now officially Russian.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: That was a kiss, kiss, kiss.

She runs into a guy who is not sharing in the celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) No, I don't agree with you because I just did not want to come here every day.

GREENE: The whole scene harkens back to Soviet times, when lines for food, documents, anything were long and confusing. Ernes tells us he finally got his turn.

AYSEREZLI: A couple days ago, I had all my documents set to get Russian passport, I was at the - almost at the desk, and I just couldn't do it. I turned and left. I realized I have to do it at some point.

GREENE: You were that close?

AYSEREZLI: Yeah, I was that close. I just turned around and went home - I just couldn't do it. My grandparents and parents have been fighting the Soviet machine for years and years for the kids, and this is all happening again.

GREENE: Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, says it isn't. He's vowed to respect the rights of Crimean Tatars, but over the past few months several Tatar leaders have been deported. Tatar libraries and political offices have been raided, and young Tatar men Ernes's age have been kidnapped. He is trying not to let the fear get to him.

AYSEREZLI: I have to stay. This is my homeland. I have nowhere to go, and my grandparents and my parents struggled to come back here and live here, and some people died. Some people died in the deportation hoping to return, but they didn't live through it.

GREENE: Ernes knows he'll probably have to change his citizenship to Russian, and he says he kind of hates himself for it. He fights back in small ways, like the Tatar flag he planted on his dashboard. And there's this...


GREENE: His infant son, Ali, is on his lap. The baby's birth this summer was kind of a race against time. Ernes and his wife were determined to get Ali a Ukrainian birth certificate. They made it just under the wire before hospitals began printing Russian ones.

GREENE: And why was that so important?

AYSEREZLI: To be honest, we still hope that in some time, maybe some years, we're going to be part of Ukraine again. That's the kind of symbol for our hope.

GREENE: His son may have to be a Russian citizen soon. Ernes isn't ready to lock in that future just yet. And Crimean Tatars like Ernes know that even small acts of defiance are dangerous in a country where Russia is now in power.

AYSEREZLI: Nowadays, every time I post something or even like something on social media, I remember my father's words, son, please be careful, do not get into any trouble.

GREENE: He doesn't go anywhere alone at night, and young Tatar men like him have reason to be afraid. There have been disappearances and kidnappings, and we'll hear that story from Crimea tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.