Russia has freed two imprisoned Crimean Tatar leaders after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan advocated on their behalf, a significant victory for Turkish diplomacy in Russia and Ukraine.
On October 25, Russia freed Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, two deputy chairmen of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis assembly jailed for their opposition to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The two men were then flown to the Russian city of Anapa and, from there, sent to Ankara. They will now return to Ukraine, Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev told the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.
The exact grounds for the two activists’ release remains unclear. Initially, Radio Svoboda cited the men’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, as saying that they had received a presidential pardon, but that the Russian authorities had classified the pardon document and so it would not be published. Later, however, he clarified that neither of the men had requested a pardon, a legal requirement for receiving a pardon in Russia.
Tatar leaders and Ukrainian officials were quick to credit Erdoğan for Chiygoz and Umerov’s release. Dzhemilev told Ukrainska Pravda that the men were freed thanks to agreements reached during Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine earlier this month and negotiations between the Turkish leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The exact contents of these agreements and the nature of the negotiations remain unknown. However, Polozov said that, as far as he knows, there were never discussions of a prisoner exchange.
Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s deputy minister of information policy and a Crimean Tatar herself, emphasized that Chiygoz and Umerov’s release did not come as a complete surprise for Kyiv: during his visit to Ukraine, Erdoğan had informed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that the men would be freed.
“This was the result of a very powerful diplomatic component, as the Ukrainian President repeatedly appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but negotiations between Turkish President Erdoğan and Putin proved to be effective,” she told Ukraine’s Espreso television channel.
On Facebook, Poroshenko thanked Erdoğan for “his efforts in freeing our heroes, as we agreed in New York and Kyiv,” referring to his two meetings with the Turkish president.
Chiygoz and Umerov’s release represents a demonstrative win for Ankara’s delicate balancing act between Ukraine and Russia. Turkey is a critical trade partner for Ukraine and has close relations with the Crimean Tatars, whom it considers to be brethren Turkic people. At the same time, it also maintains strong economic and political ties with Russia, the country with which Ukraine is de facto at war.
For his part, Erdoğan has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also has opposed Western retaliatory sanctions on Moscow. Such conflicting policy has made Turkey at times appear ambivalent on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
However, behind the scenes, Ankara has stayed involved in the Crimean Tatar issue, according to Sergiy Korsunsky, who served as Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2016.
“I know for sure that at every meeting of Turkish officials with Russian officials, they raise this issue,” he told Ukraine’s Hromadske International earlier this month.
In September, a Russian court in Crimea sentenced Chiygoz to eight years in prison for organizing mass disturbances outside Crimea’s Supreme Council in February 2014, during the Russian annexation of the peninsula. Two weeks later, Umerov was sentenced to two years for making statements the Russian authorities believed advocated separatism during a television appearance.
The charges were widely viewed as politically motivated. Many Western governments and rights organizations condemned the verdicts against the two men.