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News Analysis: Crimean Tatars Push Kyiv's Hand On Recovering Crimea

A street in central Simferopol on November 22 after the main electricity lines to the peninsula were damaged.
A street in central Simferopol on November 22 after the main electricity lines to the peninsula were damaged.

When activists prevented authorities from repairing destroyed power lines that sent electricity from the Ukrainian mainland to Crimea -- which was annexed by Russia in 2014 -- they threw down a serious challenge to Kyiv.

The activists -- led by the Crimean Tatar community -- are increasingly disenchanted with the central government's previous policy of trying to minimize tensions along the administrative line and in southeastern Ukraine generally while confronting Moscow on the international level.

"The logic of those people who are calling for a goods blockade and an electricity blockade boils down to the idea that the key to returning Crimea is now not in the hands of the people of Crimea, but in the hands of Moscow," says Ukrainian journalist Pavel Kazarin.

"That means it is necessary to make it as costly as possible for Moscow to maintain the peninsula, to hang on to the annexed territory. This is the position of those who are enforcing the electricity blockade," Kazarin adds.

The idea, he says, is to burden the limping Russian economy as much as possible.

Power Takedown

The destruction of electricity pylons by unidentified attackers and the blocking of roads to prevent goods from entering Crimea represent a significant ramping-up of local tensions and a direct confrontation to Moscow. Previously, the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has largely followed a strategy of trying to minimize direct tension between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine with the hope that Kyiv's successful Eurointegration policies and other reforms would entice locals to want to return to Ukraine.

Pursuant to this line of thinking, Kyiv negotiated a deal to provide Russian electricity to the peninsula and declared the region a free-trade zone, meaning that Ukrainian providers could effectively trade duty-free with Russia. Crimean Tatar activists say the policy also prompted Kyiv to downplay human-rights violations on the peninsula and the disappearances of Crimean Tatars that they say are carried out by local, Russia-backed security organs.

'They Want To Scare Us': Crimeans React To Blackout
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WATCH: 'They Want To Scare Us': Crimeans React To Blackout

But Crimean Tatar activists and others allied with them say that policy has not produced any results, has merely cemented Russia's de facto hold over the region, and has given Russia the time needed to undermine Ukraine's leverage by building infrastructure across the Kerch Strait.

"The [Ukrainian] government's inaction -- let us put it this way -- was the catalyst that made the leaders of the Crimean Tatar nation and its activists act," said Ukrainian Crimean Tatar Nation Rights Defense Committee coordinator Synaver Kadyrov on Ukrainian television on November 23. "You know, we cannot be indifferent to the situation of our [Crimean Tatar] compatriots in Crimea."

Poroshenko's government made a partial concession to the activists on November 23 by ordering a "temporary" halt to goods shipments to Crimea. The activists, however, have blocked the roads to the peninsula for more than a month now, so the cabinet's move does not change the situation on the ground. At the same time, the political allies of the protesters say the move is too little and does not reflect a change in strategy.

"Trade with occupiers must stop," says Verkhovna Rada Deputy Ihor Lutsenko, of the opposition Batkivshchina (Fatherland) bloc. "As far as I understand, there is an agreement that the free-trade regime that allows this trade will be suspended by a decision of the cabinet. But this is actually a step backward -- a law is a much more stable mechanism for regulating our relations with Crimea."

Fraught With Danger

If there is "proper" legislation on this matter, Lutsenko says, "we won't need any blockades or constant tensions."

But the loss of initiative is fraught with danger for Poroshenko and Ukraine's central government.

"Any government must exercise a monopoly over violence," journalist Kazarin says. "[Former President Viktor] Yanukovych didn't lose the moment the first protester threw a Molotov cocktail [during the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests], but at the moment when someone threw a Molotov cocktail and knew there would be no consequences. Now in Kherson Oblast [on the administrative line with Crimea] there is an open conflict over who has the power -- the activists or the government."

"[The government] must take up the initiative, and it must determine its own strategy on Crimea in order to survive, in order to keep the activists from replacing the government -- that is the first thing that official Kyiv demands," he concludes.

The consequences of adopting a harder line on Crimea and endorsing the energy blockade could be severe for Kyiv. Moscow has already said it will cut gas supplies to energy-dependent Ukraine -- purportedly for failure to make necessary prepayments -- and that it is considering further measures, including suspending deliveries of coal.

Meanwhile, the activists on the ground show no sign of backing down. Crimea Tatar leader and Verkhovna Rada Deputy Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is Poroshenko's special representative on Crimean Tatar questions, said on November 24 that there will be no new agreement on providing electricity to Crimea without the direct participation of Crimean Tatar representatives.

"Representatives of the Mejlis [the Crimean Tatar executive body] will take part in working out a new agreement, if there is one, of course," Dzhemilev said.

Lenur Islyamov, who is coordinating the blockade of Crimea for the Crimean Tatar community is also defiant and warns Kyiv of the political and public-relations costs of trying to break the blockade by force.

"We are not going anywhere," Islyamov told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on November 24. "Everyone should know we will stand here to the death. We are not going anywhere until electricity is cut off from Crimea [for good]. There has been no Crimean Tatar blood spilled here, in Ukraine, since the annexation there. If this happens, it will be a signal for Crimean Tatars everywhere."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondents Dmytro Barkar and Khamza Karmanoglu and RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva

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