Hundreds of Crimean Tatars blockaded roads between mainland Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula on Sunday in protest against Russia’s annexation of their homeland and Ukrainian businessmen who are breaching the international embargo placed on the peninsula’s Russian authorities.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry confirmed that the activists had set up roadblocks on two main highways leading into Crimea from Ukraine, noting the trucks were being stopped at the nearby towns of Chongar, Chaplinka and Kalanchak.
Supported by a number of members of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector, Crimean Tatars used concrete blocks to partially close roads in order to prevent the delivery of goods into the region.
— Ian Bateson (@ianbateson) September 20, 2015
Speaking to reporters, Crimean Tatar Mejlis (Assembly) head Refat Chubarov said the protesters’ aim was to "end the occupation of Crimea and to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
"Some lively discussions are taking place with drivers. But not a single wagon is going to get by. Some drivers are waiting wondering what to do. Some are already turning back," Chubarov was quoted saying by Russian media.
The blockade reportedly caused a long queue of lorries to build up, as a number of activists pitched tents, indicating they intend to maintain the blockade indefinitely.
— Tetiana Bezruk (@Bezruck) September 20, 2015
Crimean Tatars, an ethnic Turkic community indigenous to Crimea estimated to be around 300,000 strong, have mostly been opposed Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 following a local referendum.
The referendum, which was boycotted by the majority of Crimean Tatars, was condemned by the international community as being illegitimate, especially as it was held after the peninsula came under the occupation of armed militants in unmarked green uniforms.
The militants, often referred to in Western media as “little green men,” were believed to be Russian soldiers, but Russia on the other hand claims they were local militiamen.
Prior to the referendum, the largely ethnic Russian-dominated autonomous Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine after the country’s former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled violent anti-government protests in Kiev, organised by the pro-EU opposition.
Despite Crimea coming under international embargoes and economic sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation, some businessmen have seen the annexation as an opportunity to sell cheaper Ukrainian goods to Russian consumers.
Mustafa Jemilev, the former Mejlis head, last week slammed those exporting to Russia by means of Crimea, saying that they were contradicting the Ukrainian government’s policy.
— Evgen Vorobiov (@vorobyov) September 20, 2015
Since coming under Russian control, rights abuses against the Crimean Tatars in Crimea have come under the spotlight, having forced some 15,000 Crimean Tatars to flee the peninsula.
Both Chubarov and Jemilev were barred from entering Crimea for five years after they were accused by the Russian authorities of disrupting peace in the peninsula. The Mejlis was also shut down by Crimea’s chief prosecutor.
Crimean Tatars who have refused to adopt Russian citizenship and instead opted to keep their Ukrainian nationality have also become foreigners in their homeland.
Crimean Tatars were forcibly exiled in their entirety from their homeland by Soviet Russian leader Josef Stalin in 1944 to various parts of central Asia and the Caucasus. A large community of Crimean Tatars also settled in Turkey to escape persecution at the hands of the Soviets.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Crimean Tatars began returning to the peninsula in droves.