Rustem Umerov: Ukraine's First Muslim Defense Minister and a Well-Known Skilled Negotiator

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Amid a protracted war with Russia since February 24, 2022, Ukrainian authorities appointed Rustem Umerov as the Minister of Defense, following overwhelming support from the parliament.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy relies on Umerov to reduce bureaucracy and bolster confidence in the Ministry of Defense after a series of corruption allegations plagued his predecessor.

Umerov, aged 41, is a prominent figure in the Tatars community on the Crimean Peninsula. He is a devout Muslim known for his negotiation skills, practicality, and discretion, with connections in the Islamic world.

 

Majority Vote

On September 6, 2023, the Ukrainian parliament endorsed Umerov's appointment as Minister of Defense with broad majority support, as 338 out of 450 deputies voted in favor. His name was proposed by President Zelensky.

Immediately, the new minister pledged on his Facebook page that he would "do everything possible and impossible for Ukraine's victory, to liberate every inch of our land and every individual of our people."

Umerov replaced Oleksii Reznikov, who played a role in gathering billions of dollars in Western military aid since the Russian invasion. Reznikov had not faced corruption charges but became a target of smear campaigns.

The new Defense Minister announced that his priorities include making the ministry the central institution for coordinating defense forces, enhancing the value associated with individual soldiers, developing Ukraine's military industry, and combating corruption.

Serhiy Leshchenko, a presidential administration advisor, commented on the new Defense Minister's selection, stating, "This is the highest position in the state held by a Crimean Tatars."

The Crimean Tatars are Muslims with a long history in the peninsula that Russia occupied in 2014.

Umerov was born in exile in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in 1982 and hails from a family of indigenous residents of the town of Alushta in the Crimean Peninsula.

He returned to Crimea with his family in 1991, where he completed his primary and secondary education. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in finance from the National Academy of Public Administration. Furthermore, he pursued his postgraduate studies in the United States.

Umerov began his professional career in a private company specializing in communications and technology, holding various managerial positions from 2004 to 2010. Since then, he has been involved in investment activities.

In the beginning, he became an advisor to the National Assembly of the Crimean Tatars and later a member of the National Assembly of the Crimean Tatars in 2013.

He lived in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Umerov worked on international platforms such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

In 2021, he received the Order for Merits of the Third Degree by a decree from the President of Ukraine.

Umerov is proficient in both English and Turkish and served as the chief negotiator for Ukraine in the 2022 Black Sea Grain Agreement and the principal negotiator between Moscow and Kyiv, sponsored by Turkiye and the United Nations.

 

A Skilled Negotiator

Umerov's sincerity and political acumen led to his inclusion among the four Ukrainian delegates who traveled to Belarus for negotiations with Russia following the 2022 invasion.

He was one of several individuals, including Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who were reported to have experienced symptoms related to poisoning before talks in Istanbul in March 2022.

In the summer of 2022, Umerov chaired a separate committee to monitor foreign weapons donations.

During 2022, he also headed Ukraine's State Property Fund, responsible for privatizing state assets.

In the first quarter of 2023, the fund recorded its highest income in a decade, particularly from the auctioning of state assets, notably the Odessa Commercial Port, which garnered nearly $24 million.

During an interview, Umerov's deputy in the State Property Fund, Oleksandr Fedoryshyn, stated that the ministry requires not only military expertise but also financial management and that Umerov's "deep experience" in accounting and finance will aid in military operations.

Fedoryshyn also indicated that changes toward greater transparency in contracts within the ministry are likely, similar to those implemented in the State Property Fund.

On the other hand, Vitalii Shabunin, director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, stated that the appointment "may have been the best decision made by the president," as Umerov adeptly managed the privatization agency, a government pillar that had been plagued by corruption and insider dealings.

 

A Legislator

During his tenure as a parliamentarian, Umerov collaborated with colleagues in drafting nearly 100 pieces of legislation.

In May 2020, he was one of the authors of the law providing for sick leave payments to doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of insurance experience, at 100% of the average salary.

He was one of the co-authors of the law establishing procedures for recognizing statelessness, allowing such individuals to legally reside in Ukraine and obtain documentation verifying their identity and legal residency.

In partnership with Umerov, a bill was introduced to the parliament and subsequently passed, exempting internally displaced persons from paying a tourism tax for residing in temporary housing.

When he served as a deputy representing the Crimean Tatars in the Ukrainian parliament, he often emphasized that their struggle for the Crimean Peninsula, which is occupied by Russia, would persist.

He is credited for working to improve the lives of the displaced citizens of the Crimean Peninsula, as he was one of the initiators of building 1000 apartments for displaced Crimean Tatars and special categories of Ukrainian citizens with the support of Turkiye.

In early April 2021, Ukraine and Turkiye agreed to start the construction of these apartments, and an agreement was signed in which the Turkish side confirmed its intention to build 500 apartments in the cities of Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Kyiv in July 2021.

The Ukrainian parliament ratified the framework agreement between Ukraine and Turkiye regarding the construction of housing for Crimean Tatars and beneficiaries.

 

Appointment's Message

Many observers of Ukrainian affairs viewed Umerov's appointment as the Minister of Defense as "revolutionary" for Ukraine, sending a message that Kyiv would not tolerate the continued occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia.

Umerov's appointment symbolizes to Kyiv's allies that there is a civil society insisting on the rule of law promised by Ukrainian politicians, even in the face of an ongoing devastating war that has drained the country's resources.

This is a crucial condition for Ukraine to achieve its aspiration of EU membership.

The new minister is known for his respect for the values of freedom. In an interview on the UATV channel, which is based in Kyiv, he discussed the parliamentary elections in 2019 when he served as an advisor to the National Assembly of the Crimean Tatars. He stated that Ukrainian people must walk the path of freedom together, regardless of where they live … and the ultimate goal is to end the occupation of Crimea.

He also said he is particularly interested in the political developments in Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, the war in eastern Ukraine, and relations with European and Islamic countries.

Umerov played a significant role in increasing the presence of the Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian politics, focusing on working gradually with the Kyiv authorities to address their issues.

He added that the Crimean Peninsula and Donbas in eastern Ukraine are Ukraine's "red lines," according to Anadolu Agency in 2022.

Crimean Tatars, who are Muslims, have faced persecution since Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and Umerov made it clear that he agrees with Zelenskyy in refusing to cede any Ukrainian territory to Russia.

Umerov has an extensive network of Islamic relations, as he attended the Second World Congress of Crimean Tatars held in Ankara from August 1 to 2, 2015, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a delegation led by the honorary leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian deputy Mustafa Abduldzhemil Jemilev.

According to experts, Zelenskyy's confidence in Umerov stems from his background as an economic expert through training, his work in the communications and investment field, and his role as a figure in the Crimean Tatar People's Assembly and as an assistant to its leader in human rights and international activities.

It is crucial to note that Umerov also enjoys good relations with the Head of the Presidential Office, Andrii Yermak, who is often referred to as the most influential man in the country.

Umerov has often accompanied Zelenskyy on his foreign tours, especially to Turkiye.

Local Ukrainian media have reported that Umerov is one of the key intermediaries in Kyiv with the Turkish authorities and the Saudi royal family.

Umerov participated in the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September 2022. He traveled to Saudi Arabia during the complex exchange operation, taking on the role shortly after being appointed as the head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine in the same month.