By Francesca Ebel
In the baking heat of the Eurasian steppe, a masked man waves a blue flag, a golden damğa emblazoned across it’s front. This is the flag of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority native to the peninsula, who earlier this week – helped by various pro-Ukraine organisations including the nationalist Right Sector paramilitary group – shut down key entry points along the Ukrainian-Crimean borderland, preventing food and supplies from entering the region and declaring an “economic blockade.”
Behind him, a line of trucks several kilometres long stretches into the horizon. At the front of the queue a heated argument breaks out between a lorry driver frantically waving some documents, his forehead dripping with sweat, and a battalion volunteer. His partner, Raisa, bursts into tears: they’ve been waiting at the Chaplynka check-point for four days.
“What is this going to achieve? What is this all for?” she sobs.
“We are doing this for the territorial integrity of Ukraine!” a man in military fatigues shouts back.
Since Russia’s annexation of the region in March 2014, the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority has seen members of its community arrested, leaders exiled, their television station shutdown and in some cases young men have even disappeared without a trace.
Struggling to bring attention to these issues with a bloody war raging in Ukraine’s east, Tatar activists decided to block trucks from entering Crimea, upping tensions along the narrow strip of land connecting the Russia-ruled peninsula to mainland Ukraine.
“The Crimean Tatars have been targeted for systematic oppression by the occupational authorities… because we do not accept the occupation” Refat Chubarov, a Crimean Tartar leader now living in exile in Ukraine, explained in an interview with The Nose.
“Our young men are disappearing, a few were found dead – for us, this is a repetition of what happened to our parents” he added, referring to the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tartars under Stalin.
Chubarov also claims that instances of corruption and contraband schemes exist on the Ukrainian administrative side of the border.
“A large cash sum is moving between the Ukrainian mainland and the peninsula and both sides are profiting. Part of this money goes into the pockets of the certain outlaws who rule over Crimea, those who raid our homes. The purpose of this protest is to put a stop to this shadow economy.”
Indeed, at the Chaplynka check-point, the voice of the Kherson region’s Chief of Police, Ilya Kiva, rises above the rest: “I am here to restore order and to verify your documentation, to make sure you are legally carrying your cargo!” he shouts at a group of weary truck drivers.
It is unclear, however, whether the blockade will help or hinder Crimean Tatars still left inside Crimea.
So far, Russian officials are putting on a brave face.
“There is no significant deterioration in the situation given that organisers announced their plans well in advance. We are adequately prepared.” Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Although Moscow now considers Crimea to be a part of Russia, the region is still dependant on Ukraine for many of its needs. A ferry link to mainland Russia at the Kerch Straights is heavily congested, and non-Russian vessels cannot dock in its port of Sevastopol due to international sanctions. This means Crimea relies on Ukraine for everything from food to electricity.
Controversially, the Tartar activists have joined forces with the right-wing radical Right Sector paramilitary group, whose members man roadblocks and seemingly dominate the workings of the blockade. Right Sector is viewed very negatively in Russia, where state news outlets frequently portray the group as neo-fascists.
Crimean journalist Anastasia Magazova, warned that the marriage of convenience with Right Sector could be counterproductive and lead to an escalation of harassment of the Tatars who might now be equated with the Right Sector.
“The Right Sector of today is [a group of] armed, loosely controlled radicals that are dangerous to the Ukrainian state… It is bad, very bad, that the Crimean Tatar people chose such allies. First of all, it is a huge threat to the Crimean Tatars who still live in Crimea, have not yet deserted their homes and sincerely support Ukraine. Because now every Crimean Tatar may be seen as a potential member or supporter of Right Sector.”
Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on far-right politics at The Legatum Institute, however, believes that the blockade in general will likely contribute to anti-Tatar racism in Crimea.
‘It’s not really connected to the participation of the Right Sector. Negative feelings will be reinforced anyway.”
The blockade is proving controversial for Ukrainian officials too. Former Georgian President and current governor of Ukraine’s port city of Odessa Mikheil Saakashvili, warned against the involvement of paramilitary groups.
“I have great respect for the people, the patriots, who are involved in all this. But not in this case. The government should not give anyone a monopoly on the use of force.”
The blockade alone is unlikely to return Crimea to Ukrainian control, but some Ukrainian politicians feel it necessary to turn up the heat on the occupation to make it harder for Russia to rule there.
“We want to return Crimea to Ukraine. We realised that we can’t return Crimea to Ukraine tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. So our strategy is to show that we are still fighting for it – we haven’t given up,” Volodymyr Parasyuk, a camouflage-clad member of Ukraine’s parliament told The Nose.