Alliances crumble along the Crimean border
Blockade of Crimea stands firm as tensions rise and accusations fly against Right Sector troops stationed on border.
Kherson, Ukraine – Right Sector supporters wearing camouflage fatigues hauled bags of potatoes and cabbages out of the tents to load them into a blue van that was waiting nearby.
Members of the far-right Ukrainian group were packing up and leaving the blockades that had been set up on the roads leading into Crimea from Ukraine.
“We’re heading back to headquarters,” said one man, who would not give his name. “It’s a long story,” he added brusquely when asked why the group was leaving the blockades it had previously supported.
Right Sector’s spokesman, Oleksiy Byk, was more forthcoming about the withdrawal when he spoke to journalists last week.
“Due to the fact that our partners were allowed to transmit electricity and virtually eliminate us from decision-making, we are changing the format of our presence on the border with Crimea,” he said.
“We will no longer take part in the Crimean Maidan, block roads or be present at checkpoints. We have completed our participation in the blockade of Crimea,” he added.
The transmission of electricity mentioned by Byk refers to the explosion in November, when unidentified members of the blockade – widely thought to have been Right Sector operatives – blew up several electricity pylons that supplied electricity to Crimea from Ukraine.
Crimea was blacked out which, along with the blockades, was part of a campaign by Crimean Tatars and nationalist political groups in Ukraine to pressure Russia into returning the peninsula.
In retaliation, Russia announced that it was ceasing the delivery of coal supplies to Ukraine.
The blackout, now mostly over, did place some strain on the relations between Crimea and Russia, and thrust Crimea back into the media spotlight. However, with repairs taking place along some of the destroyed lines, Right Sector has withdrawn its support for the roadblocks and those groups, such as the Crimean Tatars, who continue to man them.
But the people on the blockades say this is not the only reason why they are leaving.
An unwelcome guest
There is a saying in Ukraine, that if something is beyond my walls, it does not concern me, but that does not work any more.
The only woman on the Chaplinka blockade, who seemed to be heading Right Sector’s decamping efforts, told Al Jazeera that people had been levelling untrue accusations at them and questioning their motives.
“People had given up work, given up school and businesses to travel a long way to join these blockades,” said the woman who gave her name as a word meaning “victory” in Ukrainian.
“And now, they are being accused of taking bribes and extorting money; this is not what we came here for. We came because we care what country our children grow up in. If you look around, it is lots of young men – they will have families and children, and it matters to them that these children will be Ukrainian.”
She was not concerned if electricity supplies returned to Crimea after they left, she said, adding: “People know now who is in the right.”
“We are not murderers; we are ordinary people. But we have seen something bad happening and we are trying to stop it.
“It is like if an unwelcome guest walked into your house – would you welcome him, or would you block the door? This is what we are doing. Putin is not welcome here.”
‘Ukraine has not forgotten them’
And the blockades do seem to have had some political effect.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced that trade with Crimea would be suspended in mid-January 2016, adding that the supply of electricity would be treated as a separate matter.
In Kherson, the Ukrainian village where a second roadblock stands, the Crimean Tatars manning the blockades did not seem concerned about the departure of Right Sector.
Sytomerov Delavera, a Tatar living on the blockade at Kherson, said that others would simply replace those who had left.
“Of course the Tatars are not leaving. We will stay and more people will come to help us. The Ukrainian forces from Kherson have already come several times to try to move us on with guns and bullets, but it came to nothing,” he said.
“This is the time people need to decide in which country they want to live; if they want to be returned home, then it will be difficult – but they must decide,” he added when asked about the problems of both people living in Crimea and those in the Ukrainian border villages near the blockades.
READ MORE: Life in the shadows of the Crimea blockade
“This blockade is to show to people in Crimea that Ukraine has not forgotten about them. I have 300,000 family members in Crimea, and I want to show that they are not alone.”
The people on the blockades search cars travelling to Crimea and confiscate anything they think is going to be sold there. Drivers are given personal allowances of building supplies, food, and other goods, as long as the Ukrainian items are not destined for retail.
The argument of those on the blockades is that if Crimea is part of Russia, it should not be relying on Ukrainian goods and power for survival.
Delavera told Al Jazeera that the majority of residents said that they wanted the blockades to continue, although he did accept that some wanted it to end.
“Only 1 percent, maybe, say they don’t need this,” he said.
“The blockade is making people start to think for themselves and start to see the truth about things – not what Russian TV is telling them to think.”
While many of the political groups who man the blockades want the return of Crimea as a matter of principle, the Crimean Tatars want to return home to the peninsula, but many are afraid to do so while Russia controls the territory.
Tightening the screws
Since the annexation, there have been reports of increased persecution of Tatars, with stories of homes and schools being searched, and Tatar-run businesses closed down.
In November 2014, eight months after the annexation of Crimea, Human Rights Watch released a report chronicling the declining human rights situation in Crimea.
This year, researcher Yulia Gorbunova added to these concerns, saying that Russian authorities “have particularly targeted Crimean Tatars … who openly opposed the Russian annexation”.
“Local authorities continue to tighten the screws, silencing critics and controlling information. Most independent or critical journalists and activists have left for mainland Ukraine, and those who remain are constantly at risk of being attacked or worse – especially if they are perceived as pro-Ukraine,” she added.
Back on the blockade, Delavera told Al Jazeera that he had heard of many problems among the Tatars who had chosen to stay in Crimea.
“They are checking Tatars’ houses every day. They are looking on our computers,” Delavera said. “Even the [schools] are being searched. They broke the door and came in at 6am, and children were threatened with weapons.
“There is a saying in Ukraine that if something is beyond my walls, it does not concern me, but that does not work any more.
“Soon, everyone will have to answer for what is happening. Even the rest of the world. These troubles will come to them as well.”
Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart