In a Crimean village, the people shrug

If you're trying to make a living in the Crimean Mountains, it doesn't matter if Ukraine or Russia is in charge

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.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is at the heart of the intersection that makes up the downtown of Luchyste, a village in the Crimean Mountain Range.

“It’s not a lot,” one of them said, “but it adds something.”

The women refused to give their names and said they were completely disinterested in politics and the attention of the international media that has descended on the peninsula. “Why are you so interested now?'' one of them asked. "Why didn’t you come here before?”

Of the political turmoil that has embroiled Ukraine, Russia, and the autonomous Crimean peninsula, her companion was just as dismissive.

“We continue to live and work as we have while they divide the spoils,” she said. "It’s not like any of them are going to come here and help me feed my cow.”

That same attitude of indifference over the fate of their autonomous republic seemed to permeate the small villages that dot the Crimean Mountains, a popular hiking destination that runs parallel to the southeast coast of the Black Sea. While people had varying opinions on the continued incursion of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil, no one seemed to think the politicians would do anything to make any difference in their lives. Instead, the local people were sure that no matter what was decided in Kiev and Moscow, their needs would continue to be ignored.

“Life is life, nothing changes,” said Oleg Mikhailivich, a security guard who has been on disability for years.

 “We can only pray for the best,'' he said as he burned trash in his yard next to Luchyste’s central square. "What’s left to do?” he asked.

Crimea the battleground

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.

A map shows the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the port city of Sevastopol and then the village of Luchyste. An inset shows the location of the Crimean penisula to Ukraine.
Alex Newman for Al Jazeera America

Gregorovich's family business takes customers on rides through the mountain ranges and nearby waterfalls. He has spent three years embroiled in local bureaucracy trying to get electricity to the farm, which he said would cost him the equivalent of nearly $6,000.

“Here you have to do everything yourself,'' he said. "Everyone wants a bribe to do anything.”

Gregorovich said every so often some official comes by for a shakedown. Otherwise, they’ll slap him with some kind of violation. At least, since he has no electricity, he can send the fire department packing when they come around for a kickback, he joked.

“What we need is a good government that will work for the people and not just stuff their own pockets, but for now that’s not happening," Gregorovich said. "I don’t want to go into politics, whatever they are doing, I don’t care — protesting, fighting, etc. — I just want to feed my kids."

The economic condition of the country makes the situation seem all the more hopeless. Ukraine as a whole posted zero economic growth in 2013 according to the World Bank, which does not break down data for the autonomous Crimean peninsula. According to a 2012 review by the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade of the Crimean government, the peninsula’s gross domestic product was estimated at $4.3 billion, while GDP per capital of the 2 million residents was $5,400 per year.

'We live and let live'

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.

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