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The Crimean blockade: how Ukraine is losing Crimea for the third time

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was not the first time that Ukraine lost the peninsula. In fact, Ukraine has been losing Crimea for 23 years.

Since the renewal of Ukraine’s independence in 1991, no Ukrainian President or government had ever tried to integrate Crimea into a wider Ukrainian society. Crimea was always a special region, and not in any good sense of the word. For the ‘pro-Russian’, oligarch-controlled political forces, Crimea – with its predominantly Russian ethnic population – was a source of an ‘easy electorate’ that readily provided a significant share of votes against the ‘pro-western’ national democratic forces.

For the latter, Crimea was a perpetual headache: Ukrainian national democrats simply did not know what to do – in terms of socio-political integration – with 1.5 million ethnic Russians and hundreds of thousands of largely Russified Ukrainians. The national democrats, however, seemed to get along well with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, an executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority. The national democrats and the Mejlis shared scepticism towards the domination of the Russian culture in Crimea.

Pro-Russian sentiments – ranging from the insistence on the recognition of the official status of Russian language to outright secessionism – were always a prevalent ‘faith’ among the politically active citizens in Crimea. Not that they constituted a majority of the Crimean population, but the general political atmosphere, generated and sustained by Russia’s soft power, media and the Ukrainian ‘pro-Russian’ parties, was always pro-Russian.

The failure of the national democrats to offer an integration project to the predominantly ethnic Russian population in Crimea was hardly a deliberate misdeed.

The problem was that the Ukrainian national democrats themselves – Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, and generally ‘Orange’ political forces – did not have any genuinely all-Ukrainian national project. In fact, nobody had. The Ukrainian politics has always been a power play between the oligarchs (who controlled political parties and certain MPs) and the ruling elites. Ideas and ideals rarely mattered, unless in the run-up to the elections when particular elements of the electorate needed to be mobilised under a particular ‘ideological’ banner.
Crimea was always a special region, and not in any good sense of the word

Thus, a pro-Ukrainian sentiment required a certain intellectual effort in Crimea.

Political allegiance to Ukraine, unless one was not an ethnic Ukrainian, has always been a conditional, rather than an unconditional, ‘reflex’ developed through discussions of, and reflections on, international politics, European integration, and the meaning of democracy. Yet only a minority dared to challenge the general pro-Russian consensus in Crimea.

Without firing a shot, the Ukrainian authorities had lost the battle for hearts and minds of the majority of the Crimean population well before Russia occupied and annexed it.

Confused and disoriented national democrats who came to power after the revolution did not even resist the Russian occupation of the republic, and easily surrendered it to Moscow.

No doubt, some national democrats even breathed a sigh of relief: their headache was over, while their opponents from the ‘pro-Russian’ political camp lost a significant share of their electorate.

The blockade and its raison d’etre

After the annexation, Crimea adopted a Russian legal system, which led to the significant suppression – in comparison to the ‘Ukrainian period’ – of civic rights of the Crimean population.

Many left for what became known as 'mainland Ukraine'. Crimean Tatars loyal to the Mejlis, especially those who openly expressed their allegiance to Ukraine and the national democrats, suffered the most. Unlawful arrests and abductions became a regular element of Russia’s state terror against its political opponents. Some missing people were later found dead. Pro-Ukrainian non-Tatar activists suffered too, the most infamous case being the prosecution of Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko.

In response to the repressions and the annexation of Crimea, the leaders of Mejlis, who had been banned from entering Crimea by the Russian authorities, launched, on 20 September, a land blockade of the Crimean peninsula denying transit of shipments of food and goods. The Mejlis publicised the goals of the blockade in a communique.

Crimean Tatars block Chonhar border crossing to protest Russian annexation, 20 September 2015. Photo: Demotix/Sergii Kharchenko Crimean Tatars block Chonhar border crossing to protest Russian annexation, 20 September 2015. Photo: Demotix/Sergii KharchenkoAccording to this communique, the main goal of the current blockade is the ‘de-occupation of Crimea and restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine’. Then the communique lists the demands, including the efficient protection of the right and freedoms of the Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, immediate termination of repressions against and discrimination against them, and the release immediate release of political prisoners, including Crimean Tatar activists, Nadezhda Savchenko, Oleh Sentsov, and Oleksandr Kolchenko. It also called for the lifting of the entry ban for the leaders of the Mejlis, stopping all unwarranted criminal prosecutions of civic activists, and a permanent presence of the international missions, including the UN mission, in Crimea. 

The final goal of the blockade was addressed to the Ukrainian authorities: the repeal of the Law on making Crimea a free economic zone, which was criticised by a number of human rights organisations.

The Ukrainian authorities tacitly agreed with the blockade initiative, and the police was deployed to the three entry points to Crimea from ‘mainland Ukraine’.

The fallacies of the blockade

The blockade, however, was not only doomed to failure from the very beginning, but has also turned out to be detrimental to the interests of the Ukrainian state and its citizens.

To make it clear, the blockade will not lead to the ‘de-occupation of Crimea’. Putin annexed the republic not because there was a threat to the Russians in Crimea (as claimed), but only to consolidate his regime at home. Therefore, no matter how difficult the blockade may be for the Crimean population, Putin will not give Crimea back, as this will undermine his legitimacy and end his regime. Most of the Ukrainians also seem sceptical about the efficiency of blockading Crimea. According to the recent public opinion poll, only 12.9 percent of the respondents believe that Crimea can be returned to Ukraine through non-military, non-violent acts of resistance.

Furthermore, the Russians will meet no demand of the blockade, because this will set a precedent and, therefore, encourage further pressure of a similar kind on the Russian authorities.

If the organisers of the blockade hoped to reinvigorate the ‘Crimean question’ in the western media, then they failed too, as the Syrian case and the refugee crisis will now overshadow many other questions. Besides, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently voiced something that was an open secret among Western political experts and politicians: Crimea is not part of the Minsk deal.

There are also a number of serious questions regarding the blockade as such.

First, the very idea of a blockade seems to be profoundly wrong. If Ukraine considers Crimea its lawful territory and the population of Crimea – its own citizens, then blockading the republic is a rather odd approach to the fellow nationals. The blockade has already resulted in the price rise in some food groups, so it is the population of Crimea that suffers from the blockade, not the state that annexed the republic. If the Ukrainians in Crimea are victims of the Russian occupation, then the blockade is punishing the victims.

Second, the blockade leads to the alienation between Crimea and ‘mainland Ukraine’. It is textbook knowledge that economic integration leads to political and cultural convergence, while the discontinuation of the economic relations between the regions results in their political and socio-cultural estrangement. When the Russians occupied South Ossetia, they cut it from the rest of Georgia by ending all economic relations between them and, thus, undermining any possible rapprochement. The Georgian authorities, too, reduced contacts between Georgia proper and the occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Naturally, this only consolidated the Russian control over the territories.

Third, the blockade created a collapse of the Ukrainian state authority on ‘border’ with Crimea. The Mejlis activists and their supporters acted as a substitute of the state power – a development that further weakens, rather than consolidates, feeble state institutions in Ukraine. As German political scientist Andreas Umland argues, blockades such as this should either be imposed by the state only or not imposed at all.

The Mejlis activists’ thesis that economic collaboration with the occupiers is unacceptable does not stand up to scrutiny. Ukraine and Russia have reduced, yet not eliminated, trade and economic relations with each other, and Ukraine, in particular, supplies food products to Russia. One of the main three initiators of the blockade, Lenur Islyamov, would call the food supplies to Crimea ‘a trade made in blood’, but his position is morally problematic: not only is he a Russian businessman (he holds a Russian passport), but he also has business interests in Crimea and Moscow, as well as being a former ‘Vice Prime Minister’ of Russia-annexed Crimea. 

Adding insult to injury

One of the organisations that joined the Mejlis activists in the blockade was the notorious Right Sector, and its participation in the blockade raised many a brow.

The Right Sector is an ardently racist and homophobic organisation that opposes the Ukrainian authorities. Its members were involved in the attacks on police in July this year, while some of their members even threaten the Ukrainian state with acts of terrorism. On their website, the Right Sector explicitly acknowledged that they considered the blockade of Crimea as ‘a double blow’ to Moscow’s interests and the current political system in Ukraine. The Right Sector contacted one of the organisers of the blockade, Lenur Islyamov, and offered their assistance that was eventually accepted.
If the Ukrainians in Crimea are victims of the Russian occupation, then the blockade is punishing the victims 

During the blockade, the activists of the Right Sector, joined by the members of the infamous extreme right Azov detachment, have been involved in multiple violations of human rights and laws of Ukraine, as reported by the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission. The violations include unwarranted searches, illegitimate detentions, and physical abuse.

The Mejlis activists not only contributed to the political legitimation of the right-wing extremists, but also endangered Crimean Tatars in Crimea.

As Deutsche Welle’s journalist Anastasia Magazova correctly reminded, the Right Sector is declared a banned extremist organisation in Russia, so the cooperation of the Right Sector and the Mejlis activists poses a threat to Crimea-based Tatars who may now be accused of extremism.

Yet the cooperation of the Mejlis activists and the Right Sector seems to go beyond the tactical, blockade-related alliance. While there are no similarities between the ideas behind the Mejlis and Right Sector, they do have one thing in common: they are both nationalist organisations that oppose the domination of 'Russophone' culture in Crimea, while the Right Sector supports the idea of creating a Crimean Tatar autonomy in Crimea.

One of the foundational documents of the Mejlis is the Declaration on the National Sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar People that states that ‘Crimea is the national territory of the Crimean Tatars who have the exclusive right to self-determination in this region’, and that Crimean Tatars strive to establish their own nation-state on the entire territory of Crimea, although the Tatar minority constitutes only 10 percent of the population of Crimea.

This idea may even resonate with particular elements of the anti-Russian far right. Ukrainian national democrats never knew how to deal with the distinctive features of Crimea, the Ukrainian far right – even more so.

The future of Crimea

Naturally, all the current discussions about the future status of Crimea are largely useless. The republic is annexed by Russia, and Putin’s regime will not return it to Ukraine voluntarily. Moreover, it is not a given that Russia will return Crimea even if the moderate nationalist opposition comes to power.

However, by the time Russian society matures its democratic culture and realises the inadmissibility of infringement of sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, Crimea may already be lost for Ukraine in terms of social, cultural and family ties. Today’s blockade will not be the primary reason for this, but its contribution to the alienation between Crimea and ‘mainland Ukraine’ is already significant. The extreme right element of the blockade only makes the situation worse.

Before discussing the potential reintegration of Crimea, the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian society need to understand that the key to the reintegration of Crimea is Ukraine’s soft power. Soft power implies not only a healthy economy, a vibrant democracy, a strong civil society, and a consolidated and inclusive national project, but also a will and ability to make these an instrument of political attraction.

An even more challenging issue is that, by the time Ukraine is potentially ready to re-integrate Crimea, Crimean society will have changed dramatically. Not only will Crimean society differ from the society that Ukraine abandoned in March 2014, but it will be even less loyal to Ukrainian statehood.

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About the author

Anton Shekhovtsov is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Austria and editor of the Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verlag.


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