LUCHYSTE, Ukraine—The main square of Luchyste, a village in the Crimean peninsula’s southeast, isn’t much to look at. Squat ramshackle houses with chain link fences line the narrow roads that lead to the intersection that makes up the downtown. On one side, the town’s small Ukrainian Orthodox Church stands opposite the only grocery, which advertises “Wine” and “Vodka” in bright orange letters against a blue backdrop. A few men loitered outside the market at midday on Monday, swigging from beer bottles.
Under a shoddy metal bus shelter, two women sat on benches hawking milk, in used water bottles, and eggs from animals they raise themselves. They said they come every day to make some money to supplement their pensions.
Crimea has been a geopolitical battlefield for centuries — snatched by Russia from the Ottoman Empire, occupied by Nazi troops, returned to the Soviet fold, and ultimately given to Ukraine in 1954. So it comes as little surprise that the ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the interior have learned to expect little from the lofty political rhetoric espoused from whichever capital lays claim to them at the time.
“The situation is absurd. How much more can they divide among themselves?” said Victor Gregorovich, 42, who runs a horse farm in the Lazurne village. “It’s all the same mafia.”
Mafia is a reasonable way to explain it. Residents of the former Soviet Union have grown accustomed to endemic corruption in politics and security services. Ukraine ranked 144 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013 — making it the most corrupt country in Europe. Russia ranked only slightly higher, at 127 out of 177 nations.
Much has been made of Ukraine’s collusion of politics and oligarchs, and the roots of the protests in Kiev stemmed from frustration with blatant corruption. But for the local population here, change in Kiev seems unlikely to be the answer. “We just try and try, and they just suffocate us,” Gregorovich said of any authority.
Part of the customer base for Gregorovich’s horse tours are tourists who come from Ukraine and Russia. The peninsula’s dramatic mountain vistas and pristine waters make it an appealing destination. Tourism brought in 10 percent of the peninsula’s GDP, according to the 2012 Economic Ministry report, but with what’s happening, residents who count on those tourist dollars aren’t sure they’re coming. “I don’t know what will happen. If they don’t come this season, we’ll starve,” Gregorovich said.
A few miles away, closer to the beaches along the Black Sea coast, Sergey Dmitrivich, continued construction of the small inn he is building for tourists on his family land. “I’m not interested,” the ex-sailor said when asked about the political fate of Crimea, “We live and let live.”
Dmitrivich said he was hoping the building, which has been under construction for three years, will be open in time for the summer season. “Maybe by then the situation will stabilize — there’s still time,” he said hopefully.
On the hill below Dmitrivich’s inn, a barren wine farm twisted down the slope. According to the government investment portal, Crimea produces around 120,000 tons of grapes every year, but land for farming grapes has slowly been eroded to make way for tourists.
“How else will we live if not tourism?” Dmitrivich asked. The radio blaring from the construction site was set to music, not news. “We’ve heard enough,” he said.