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Life Is No Beach For Crimeans Seeking Surf And Sun

No beach access here.

Enjoying a seaside view or finding a spot to spread out a beach towel in Russian-occupied Crimea is becoming trickier.

Prime coastal real estate on the Ukrainian peninsula has been snatched up since 2014, when Russia seized control of Crimea.

And those holding assets on prime beach property are not in the mood to share. They are building fences and barriers, shutting off public access not only to beaches but key roads, making getting around in some cases a headache.

Some of the barriers rise meters into the air, not only blocking access but views, with locals sarcastically likening one stretch of coastline hidden by such a barrier to a Nazi concentration camp.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, or at least that's what the Kremlin-installed leaders on Crimea promised. Singling out barriers to beach access as a legacy of Ukrainian rule, the new authorities formed coastal brigades to monitor beaches and to search for and tear down any obstacles blocking the public from the Black Sea.

Years later, the barriers not only remain, they've grown in number and size.

It's just one more hardship for the people of Crimea, already struggling as the economy gasps for air under the pressure of international sanctions. Tourism has largely dried up as Western cruise ships no longer dock at any of its ports. The peninsula has been ostracized by most of the international community, which views Russia's annexation of Crimea as illegitimate and condemns Moscow's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

'High-Security Zone'

As the swimming season begins, beachgoers are coming face to face with fresh obstructions, adding to the mounting frustrations of living in international isolation.

Locals and visitors alike are griping at Livadia beach, also the site of the Livadia Palace -- the former summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II, where Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met in February 1945 to discuss Europe's post-World War II reorganization.

One new barrier-enclosed stretch of the coast there was compared to the Buchenwald concentration camp by a member of the public Facebook group Yalta -- My Love.

"What I've seen even surpasses last year. The lattice fencing has been covered with iron sheets, so that passersby wouldn't be able to see the beach and the elite resting on it," wrote Sergei Musiichuk, who describes himself as a resident of Germany who is from Crimea. "This summer, in the heat, people will walk in a hot cage from Delfin beach to Livadia for 15 minutes, not even seeing the sea and not feeling a breeze."

It's not an isolated case. A Facebook user who describes himself as from Sudak, a city on Crimea's southern Black Sea shore, wrote about a freshly constructed barrier that is also blocking the public from a beach on the Bay of Sudak.

"Yesterday, I went with the family yesterday to say goodbye to the 'Children's' and 'Beloved' beach in Kapsel Bay near Sudak," Dmitry Demchuk wrote on April 21. "Yeah, everything is the same -- a 2-meter-long concrete wall, and about a hectare of coast along with a small sandy beach no longer available to the general public."

However, it is the new barrier along a stretch of the Yalta-Sevastopol highway between the towns of Olyva and Castropol that has raised perhaps the greatest outcry. At some 6 meters high, the wall not only denies access to the sea but completely blocks its view. Locals have dubbed the enclosed area a "high-security zone."

Political 'Nationalization'

In general, the barriers appear near coastal lands that the Russian-installed leaders of Crimea have "leased" out to businesses or others with the intent of carrying out "improvements." It is these parcels of land that are fenced off, along with adjacent beaches.

The practice predates Russia's annexation in 2014, according to Tetyana Kurmanova, a Crimean journalist who has reported extensively on the issue. "The land was, naturally, divvied up with no transparency: fictional cooperatives were created, receiving the land for exclusive construction projects, shutting off access to the sea," Kurmanova told RFE/RL. "And these were not small areas in the wild, but real 'royal' parcels. Crimeans fought it and carried out court battles against the closing of access to the beaches."

In many cases, spas have changed hands, with Russian entities or citizens taking over properties previously owned by Ukrainians. For example, the upscale Foros health resort is now controlled by the Tatarstan Federation of Trade Unions. It was reportedly previously owned by Privat Group, owned by Urkainian tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy.

Serhiy Taruta, a tycoon and former governor of Donetsk, lost his holdings in Crimea, including the Ayvazovskoye park and palace.

Andrei Sambros, a political analyst and independent journalist from Simferopol, wrote in March 2015, that the "Crimean government has used nationalization to target political enemies."

It's Who You Know

The Russian-installed leaders had promised to uphold law and order, and opening access to beaches seemed like low-hanging fruit with a big PR upside.

The coastal patrols were formed from "Crimean self-defense units," the ragtag toughs who assisted Russian forces during the seizure of Crimea in March 2014. They reportedly traveled across the peninsula checking out beaches to see if they were chained in or not. When a rusty metal fence or other barrier fell under the disc grinder, Crimea's leaders were on hand with packs of journalists, documenting it all.

While a few fences were torn down, many remained as the beach-patrol effort was soon forgotten. Now, fencing and even more formidable barriers are being constructed as those in power in Crimea lease out more and more prime beach property to those with connections.

In early April, the Russian-installed leaders in the city of Yalta leased out four parcels of public beachfront for "improvements." The agreement was signed with Sanatorium Kirov, which lists as its owner Larisa Tsareva, wife of Oleh Tsarev, a businessman from Dnipropetrovsk and former Ukrainian parliament member from the Party of Regions who was expelled from the party in April 2014 and became the "speaker" of the notional "Novorossia" parliament. A copy of the agreement was posted on a website controlled by the Yalta leadership.

The authorities also handed 9,000 square meters of coastal land in Olenivka, on the western tip of Crimea, to the firm Extreme Crimea. A copy of that agreement was posted on a website belonging to the Russian-installed leaders in Crimea.

The enterprise belongs to Konstantin Vydysh, a business partner of the family of Dmitry Polonsky, a member of the Russian-installed authority in Crimea. On the shores of Olenivka, Vydysh and Polonsky have been holding an extreme-sports festival for the last few years.

Extreme Crimea had earlier secured a 14-year "lease" for four hectares of land in the area to construct a sports-entertainment center, complete with camping, a sailing school, a dive center, and other sports facilities.

These lease agreements are not just swallowing up prime beaches but, at least in one case, byways as well.

Those in control in Crimea handed over another "lease" on 0.1 hectares of beach to a spa in Utes, which is controlled by a Moscow firm linked to the Russian bank Sberbank. In 2015, a fence went around the sanatorium as part of what local authorities claimed were antiterrorist security measures. The fence cut off a road to the beach used by locals as well as access by ambulances and other emergency services to homes, as shown by this video.

Many are now crawling under this fence to get around it -- a far cry from what Crimea's new leaders promised.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky with reporting by RFE/RL Crimea Desk correspondent Viktoria Veselova