While many Ukrainians cheered the start of the electricity blockade of Crimea in late November and called it long overdue, Ukrainian rights activists monitoring the Russian-occupied peninsula see it only as a cause for alarm.
“If prior to these actions it was possible to definitely say that Russia was the only player permanently violating human rights in Crimea, and that for the restoration of these rights it would be necessary to have the peninsula de-occupied, now that is not the case,” Vissarion Aseyev of the Yalta-based Almenda human rights group told the Kyiv Post.
“Ukraine is now also violating the human rights of Crimeans. And it is becoming systematized,” he said.
Aseyev’s concerns have also been voiced by many ordinary residents in Crimea, the peninsula with a population of about two million people that Russia invaded and annexed last year.
Residents have found themselves the victims of this ongoing tug-of-war. And while Ukrainian activists manning the blockade in Kherson Oblast have proudly spoken of their actions as a necessary measure to wrest their homeland back from Russia, many ordinary Crimeans, like Aleksei Yakovlev, say they will never trust the Ukrainian authorities again.
“The blockade’s organizers were always going on and on about their conditions and demands. But what they didn’t realize is we have already given up on them, we aren’t waiting for their help,” Yakovlev, out on a stroll with his wife, told the Kyiv Post.
“Russia has already finished most of the work on their power bridge, soon that’ll be up and running, just in time for New Year’s,” he said.
Yakovlev said he was lucky to have electricity at home, though others have been harder hit – some with only a couple of hours a day.
“I know some people who live further out from the city center were forced to huddle around little impromptu fires,” he said.
Although Ukrainian activists allowed repairs to one of the four power lines that were damaged and power has been partially restored, Russian-installed Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov has vowed that the peninsula will never rely on Ukrainian power supplies again.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian deputy and Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov on Dec. 10 said the blockade’s organizers were willing to stop electricity supplies again if Russia did not recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine and stop persecuting Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.
While Chubarov promised to make maintaining Crimea “very expensive” for Russia, ordinary residents on the peninsula complain that the blockade has cost them dearly as well – and that the organizers were bargaining with people’s lives.
“Ukraine sees us as its citizens, and Russia sees us as its citizens, but neither one of them sees us as human beings,” Olga Skripnik of the Almenda rights group quoted one Crimean resident as telling her.
The resident asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Aseyev pointed out some unpleasant parallels between the blockade and events that shook Crimea in 2014.
The method and format used by those manning the blockade, Aseyev said, “are highly reminiscent” of what happened in Crimea in February-April 2014.
At that time, people calling themselves “Crimean self-defense forces” blocked entrances and exits from Crimea as well. And they also searched vehicles, confiscated property and deprived people of their rights and abused them, all the while holding weapons in their hands and hiding their identities. There is practically no difference in terms of their methods,” Aseyev told the Kyiv Post.
Skripnik was equally weary of characterizing the blockade as a civilian initiative, saying in an interview with Ukrainian media in early December that comparisons should not be drawn between the blockade and the EuroMaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power.
“Maidan was a manifestation of the public will, the will of the people. This is not,” she said, adding that the initiators were “responding to human rights violations with more human rights violations.”
“The initiators of this were Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, two lawmakers, and Lenur Islyamov, who up until recently was an entrepreneur with ties to Moscow,” Skripnik said.
According to Skripnik and Aseyev, it would be wrong to portray the blockade as a grassroots initiative and ignore the fact that most ordinary Crimeans had no say.
“The organizers are pursuing some goal that is known only to them. But they are masking their true aims under the rhetoric of protecting human rights and caring for the Crimean Tatars and all Crimeans,” Aseyev said.
In an interview with Kyiv Post on Nov. 25 Dzhemilev defended the blockade.
“Tatars in Crimea are ready to suffer for some time to allow the pressure to take effect,” the Tatar leader said.
Aseyev denies that this is the case.
“This is purely malicious manipulation of the public for the achievement of their own personal desires,” he says.
Despite the human rights activists’ criticism of the blockade, Islyamov hailed the measure as a success in a blog post on the news website Obozrevatel.ua on Dec. 9. Saying the action would now be moving into the next phase – to parliament – Islaymov said that “the government has heard us.”
But the same cannot be said for many ordinary people in Crimea.
Yakovlev, when asked how he felt about the blockade organizers’ recent decision to let power lines be fixed and their threats to renew the campaign, said simply: “I’ve stopped paying attention to them.”