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Tatar Leader Vows Crimea Blockade Will Continue

Crimean Tatars and other groups have been blocking road links from mainland Ukraine to Crimea since September. (file photo)
Crimean Tatars and other groups have been blocking road links from mainland Ukraine to Crimea since September. (file photo)

A leading Crimean Tatar activist has vowed that a months-long, civilian-led blockade of the annexed peninsula will continue until it is freed from Kremlin control, stressing that only concrete action can be effective.

"We showed the Tatars in Crimea, Ukrainians, and all pro-Ukrainian people that there is a genuine movement under way to free Crimea," explained Lenur Islyamov to RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service in a video interview.

Crimean Tatars have been at the forefront of an independent campaign to push for the peninsula's return to Ukrainian rule after it was seized by Russia in March 2014.

The Crimean Tatars and other groups have blocked road links from mainland Ukraine to Crimea since September and are suspected of blowing up electricity pylons in November, disrupting power supplies from Ukraine to the peninsula for weeks. The incident heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, with Russia retaliating by cutting off coal exports to Ukraine.

The blockade has also meant hardship for much of the peninsula's 2.3 million people, about 250,000 of whom are Crimean Tatars whose presence on the peninsula dates back centuries. Amid shortages of basic items, including food, some are questioning whether the strategy could backfire and make enemies of potential allies.

However, Islyamov, a former deputy prime minister of Crimea, while acknowledging the blockade "may be harsh in some ways," is insistent that it should continue.

"Crimea is the land of the Crimean Tatars. It is our land," he said. "Therefore, when we organize an economic blockade, or an energy blockade, we are completely within our rights. We are Crimean Tatars. Crimea is our land."

Far-Right Allies

Besides questions over tactics, Islyamov has also been grilled about some of the allies in his camp. Members of the ultranationalist Right Sector group, for example, have helped Tatars maintain the road blockade.

But Islyamov said sharing the same goals was more important than political leanings.

"It doesn't matter if they are ultraright, or ultraleft, it doesn't matter. They are people that feel the same way as we do. That's it. For us, they are patriots of Ukraine."

Instead of pulling back, Islyamov said in mid-December that the blockade would be extended to the sea early this year.

Crimean Tatar leader Lenur Islyamov
Crimean Tatar leader Lenur Islyamov

"We have several stages," Newsweek quoted him as saying. "At the beginning it was a product blockade and we did it. Next came the energy blockade. We did that too."

"We would like to make the occupation of our land as expensive and complicated as possible. We will squeeze out and burn out the occupiers from Crimea, because this is our land, our graves, and our history," Islyamov was quoted as saying. "They have nothing to do there, get out of there, this is our home."

Speaking to RFE/RL, Islyamov said it made absolutely no sense to cooperate in any way with the "occupier," Russia.

"If an occupier has taken over your territory, then let him supply his own housing, food, medicine and everything else," Islyamov said. "Why should we trade with a government that occupied our land, and is holding us, our relatives, kids, and other loved ones as hostages?"

In The Kremlin's Crosshairs

Russia does not have direct land access to Crimea, forcing the Kremlin to ferry supplies to the region. However, Moscow does have plans to build a bridge that is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

Islyamov's defiance and actions have put him in the crosshairs of the Kremlin, with the de facto leaders in Crimea charging him with sabotage following the blowing up of the energy pylons.

"Islyamov was one of the leaders [of the blackout]. Citizen Islyamov has now been charged with sabotage in absentia," Crimea's Prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya said in an interview with Rossia 24 television on December 21.

Islyamov, a successful businessman, has already paid dearly for his actions, with all his assets seized by the Crimean leaders in early December.

Islyamov was the owner of ATV, the sole television channel broadcasting in the Crimean Tatar language in Crimea. Independent Crimean Tatar-language media have suffered under the new authorities, with all but one such independent outlet shuttered in 2015 under a Russian law requiring them to reregister, according to Amnesty International.

Other assets stripped away were Islyamov's transport company, SimCityTrans; a bank, Just Bank; and shops selling high-tech gadgetry.

Islyamov, however, has no regrets for what he has done, and says he and other Tatar Crimean leaders, such as Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were motivated by extraordinary circumstances.

Dzhemilev, the 71-year-old veteran leader of the Crimean Tatars, now resides in Kyiv after being banned from his home in Crimea, a fate shared by fellow activist Chubarov.

"We were all peaceful people, businessmen, or teachers, or doctors," Islyamov said. "Chubarov was an archivist, the most peaceful of professions. We were forced to be what they portray us to be, not because we chose it, but because life came to a halt."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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