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Per Aspera Ad Crimea (A Difficult Road to Crimea from Ukraine)

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Originally published in Junge Welt (Germany) on Sept 1, 2016, translated to English for CounterPunch

For many Ukrainians, a vacation to Crimea means being subjected to intimidation by Ukrainian border control and ultra-nationalists.

Since 2014, Ukraine has blocked railroad transport to and from Crimea. The train from Kyiv stops at the last Ukrainian station before Crimea, Novoalekseyevka. It’s a poor village lost amidst the dry steppe.

Passengers are met by crowds of local drivers offering to take them to the Crimean border for three or four euros (US$3.50 to $4.50). For many poor locals, this is their only source of income.

In early 2014, following the secession vote in Crimea, residents of some Ukrainian villages near the Crimean border naively shifted border markers so their villages would be included in the new Crimea. But their trick was predictably unsuccessful and led to some repression. To prevent protests by local residents, whose sentiments towards the new, right-wing regime in Kyiv differed little from the secession sentiments in Crimea, Kyiv authorities sent nationalist paramilitary battalions to police the area.[1]

A nervous waitress at a local bar carefully asks us about our views. As soon as she realizes that we are not ultra-nationalists, she casts caution aside and explodes with harsh criticism directed at the battalions deployed in the area. “They regularly visit our bar, insult locals, provoke fights and leave without paying.”

These villages sometimes explode with spontaneous protests against the terror of the nationalist and Islamist battalions that have come to occupy their territory. The most recent protest took place in May 2016 when people from the town of Chongar protested against the Islamist battalion ‘Asker’ which had deployed in their village. [Report with photos here.]

The road to the Ukraine-Crimea border goes via several smaller checkpoints controlled by Ukrainian nationalist battalions and the ‘Asker’ battalion. The paramilitaries mounting the checkpoints act like medieval robbers along trading routes, including arbitrarily confiscating goods without any legal right. The Ukrainian and ‘Asker’ battalions operated jointly at first, but soon they got into conflict over who would keep the stolen loot.

One checkpoint is marked by Azov and Banderite flags; another one has flags of the Crimean Tatar ‘Mejlis’–a pro-Kyiv organization now banned in Crimea–as well as Turkish national flags. The Turkish flags are displayed by the ‘Asker’ battalion, which is financed by the Crimean Tatar media magnate Lenur Islyamov and which is loyal to Turkish president Erdogan. The battalion promotes Erdogan’s authoritarian policies.

Western media portrays the Mejlis as the “only” representative of Crimean Tatars, ignoring the much larger and more representative Tatar organizations which are critical of the Kyiv regime and which supported the March 2014 referendum to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian federation.

One kilometer further along is the official Ukrainian border station, situated on the narrow isthmus separating Ukraine and Crimea. A long line of tourist vehicles moves very slowly. Sometimes people wait for 8 to 10 hours to cross the border. Many prefer to cross it by foot as that takes ‘only’ some 3 to 4 hours.

The Ukrainian border guards examine luggage, confiscating food, cigarettes or cloth. They cite the 2014 order by then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk forbidding Ukrainians to take most food products or new cloth to Crimea. Cloth must be suitably worn out before it is permitted. Even a pack of sweets can be taken away from a child ‘violating’ the norms of the blockade imposed by the Kyiv government.

Ukrainian goods nevertheless find their way into Crimea, as the bans serve as pretexts to demand bribes.

Some tourists are asked by border guards to show their phones. Their phone accounts are checked for ‘anti-Ukrainian’ activity. People are only allowed to take the equivalent of 320 euros in Russian currency per person.

Despite all the barriers, tired people with their crying children still try to get into Crimea. Some have relatives there, but for most Ukrainians it remains a treasured vacation resort where they have traveled since their childhoods.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the expropriated private mansions of the rich served henceforth as vacation, medical treatment and rehabilitation centers for workers. Trade unions were in charge of organizing this. Multicultural Crimea thus became the USSR in miniature; a desired ‘tropical paradise’ for the whole country.

Thousands of Ukrainians come to Crimea daily despite intimidation and advertising efforts such as the large billboards at the border sporting the banned hammer and sickle symbol overtop of a map of Crimea and reading: ‘A Ukrainian vacationing in [Russian-]occupied Crimea is no longer a Ukrainian’.

Crimean tourism authorities report that so far in 2016, half a million Ukrainians have spent their holidays in Crimea.

Dmitriy Kolavelich is a writer in Ukraine. He can be reached at dkovalevich16@gmail.com.

Note:

[1] The Kyiv regime, its foreign backers and Western media are anxious to provide a respectable veneer to the extremist, ultra-nationalist, paramilitary battalions which arose to propel the Maidan counter-revolution and then consolidate the coup d’etat of February 21-22, 2014. Thus, they are commonly referred to as “volunteer” battalions.

The battalions expanded during the months following February 2014 as shock battalions to suppress popular opposition to the coup in the cities and regions in the east and south of Ukraine: of Kharkiv, Odessa, Crimea, Dnipetropetrovsk, and Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk). One of the reasons for their expansion was that the regular soldiers of the Ukraine armed forces frequently refused to follow order to repress or fire upon citizen protests. The people of Crimea cut short a descent into violence by voting to secede from Ukraine on March 14, 2016. The other regions were less fortunate in combatting the coup peacefully. Only in Donbass was the coup stopped, but this came at a very high price in the form of a war that has cost thousands of lives and forced the displacement of several million residents.

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