Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images
Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

Despite return ‘home’ to Russia, Crimeans ambivalent one year on

After controversial annexation by Moscow in March 2014, many peninsula residents bemoan political and economic trouble

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — From the moment she left Ukraine’s Cherkasy oblast as a child and moved with her family to Crimea, Alla Tymoshenko has been proud of her Ukrainian roots. Since Crimea’s annexation by Russia one year ago, however, she has paid a price to maintain them.

After refusing to renounce her dual nationality — as all Russian government workers must — she was forced to leave her job as a customs officer at Simferopol International Airport. Today she works as an assistant nurse at a hospital, earning less than she used to, despite general perceptions in the peninsula of an increase in average salaries under Russian rule.

“I got no sympathy for my decision. Colleagues and friends just told me I was stupid, asking what Ukraine had given me,” she said. “Your movement is already restricted when you live in Crimea, but by giving up your Ukrainian passport, you feel completely stuck.”

Tymoshenko’s story illustrates a dark side of Crimea’s return to Moscow’s rule last March. Twelve months since an internationally condemned referendum paved the way for the region’s takeover by Russia, many residents have grown impatient with the lack of change and the restrictions on travel under the new arrangement. While many in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, appeared unhappy with the new realities after a year of Russian rule, scenes a short drive away suggested a different mood altogether.

Celebrations to mark the first anniversary of the takeover began early on a recent day in Sevastopol, the famous port city and heartland of pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea. Promptly at 10 a.m., a parade began to move through the city’s streets, past the monument to the city’s founder, Catherine the Great, and through the center of town. Pensioners dominated the crowd that lined the sidewalk, waving Russian flags and greeting the passing columns with jubilant cries.

Flanked by riders of the pro-Kremlin Nochnye Volki (Night Wolves) biker group, which played pacemaker for the procession, hundreds of men in camouflage hoisted banners for various organizations, such as Sevastopol Self-Defense and Sevastopol Without Fascism. Interspersed among the ubiquitous orange and black St. George ribbon — a World War II victory symbol co-opted by Ukraine’s separatist movement — rebel fighters fresh from the front lines displayed the colors of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

Reaching the Heroic Defenders of Sevastopol monument, perched on a hill overlooking the scenic bay, the marching units divided to form a semicircle around the eternal flame at its base. Sword-bearing Cossacks and war veterans stood shoulder to shoulder with OMON riot police officers and sailors of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, as a minute’s silence commenced for Sevastopol natives who died fighting for the ongoing insurgency in Ukraine’s east. Then the speeches began.

“We will drink water from the Black Sea before we allow ourselves to return to that world of chaos and fulminating nationalism,” the first speaker bellowed. “We will endure all the sanctions they place on us. Our ancestors endured far worse. We are now under the defense of great Russia!”

‘Your movement is already restricted when you live in Crimea, but by giving up your Ukrainian passport, you feel completely stuck.’

Alla Tymoshenko

Simferopol resident

It has been a year since President Vladimir Putin gathered Russia’s leaders in the Kremlin to sign into force the peninsula’s annexation. Today “self-defense” groups that helped with the takeover have been given official uniforms and placed on the streets to maintain order as “a recognition of their contribution,” as one local government worker put it. The Berkut special police force, which fled to Crimea and eastern Ukraine after facing protesters in Kiev’s Euromaidan revolution of 2013 and 2014 is also visible on Simferopol’s streets, creating an atmosphere that leaves some locals feeling intimidated.

“Because of all those uniformed men patrolling the center, it really feels like a totalitarian state. I want to tell people they can’t be happy just because there’s no war here,” said Pavel Melnik, a freelance photographer who refused to vote in the referendum last spring.

Despite his opposition, he has acquired a Russian passport in an administrative process that gained momentum and efficiency after a chaotic start last March. Most Crimeans temporarily hold joint citizenship, and those able to travel — despite the restrictions on movement — use their Ukrainian documents to go abroad. With all international air and rail connections to the peninsula cut, however, many are stuck. The few who refuse Russian citizenship leave themselves deprived of basic legal rights to health care and employment, becoming foreigners in their own country. As a result, even the staunchest opponents of union with Moscow have filed applications.

Zera Emirsuin is one of them. In 1990 she was one of the thousands of Crimean Tatars who moved to the peninsula decades after their families were deported under Joseph Stalin’s forced relocation policy. Leaving her university in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent to resettle with her family in Crimea’s rural north, she eventually completed her studies in Simferopol and stayed in the city to work.

“There was a building frenzy. Tatars were settling everywhere. I still remember the faces of my grandmother and others like her, who were back in Crimea for the first time since their 20s,” she said.

In Ukraine, the mass repatriation met with a campaign of discrimination against the Tatars, and much of the land they now occupy was seized in the face of broad opposition from the public. Over the past decade, tensions had been easing, and the Ukrainian government began allocating funds to assist their return.

In late 2013, around the time protests in Kiev broke out, Emirsuin began working as a presenter on ATR, the local Crimean Tatar TV channel. Since Moscow’s assumption of control in Crimea, the network has been struggling to survive. Half its employees have left, she said, and local authorities have refused to renew its broadcasting license until alleged flaws in its documentation are resolved.

“The FSB [Russian security services] searched our office on Jan. 26, taking servers containing footage of last year’s protests,” she said, referring to clashes between Tatars and pro-Russian demonstrators in Simferopol last February. “The local government has vetoed the license renewal, giving us till April 1 to prove our documents are in order.”

ATR’s troubles are occurring against the backdrop of a broader campaign to reshape Crimea’s media landscape, with reports of similar raids last week by security officials on the homes of investigative journalists in Simferopol.

A huge Crimean Tatar flag at a demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2015, marking one year since the beginning of Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Things are difficult on the business front too. While pensions and wages for public sector jobs have risen since Crimea’s transition to the ruble, Russia’s currency, inflation has raised the cost of living and made vacations and family outings prohibitively expensive. Those reliant on tourism for their income have been particularly hard hit after an estimated 35 percent drop in visitors last season, and, with almost all outside transport links frozen, 2015 is unlikely to see a major turnaround.

Lida Goncharova expects this season to be even worse. In her case, continuing under present conditions has proved impossible. Over the past decade, she has run a business with her parents and three brothers making small figures out of Inkerman stone, a white limestone-like material found in the peninsula. Each year the Goncharovs spend six months in Sudak, a resort town on Crimea’s southern coast, selling souvenirs they spent the other six months making by hand.

“We would have people coming year after year, telling us they collect our figures and wanted to see what was new. One day’s work in the summer used to cover a week of living [expenses] in the winter. Thanks to this business, we have a house, a car and a good quality of life,” she said.

The Goncharovs pay in advance at the end of each season to reserve two stalls for the next year, some $8,000 in total. Sales had already dipped in 2013, when Ukraine’s slide into recession led to a sharp drop in visitors from the mainland and a 40 percent drop in profits from 2012. And 2014 was much more of a disaster.

“Last summer we sold a fourth as much as in 2013, a bad year in its own right. Some days we failed to [sell] a single item. I can’t begin to describe how that felt, after all the hard work we had put in,” she said.

Despite the pressures of the prolonged transition period, some remain upbeat. For many here, annexation by Russia overturned 60 years of historical injustice, marking a return home more than half a century after Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev transferred the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954. The consequences of what was at the time a purely administrative decision became apparent only after the USSR’s collapse.

For 56-year-old Valentina Shevtsova, receiving her pension a year earlier than expected because of Russia’s lower retirement age is a bonus, as is the ease of visiting her daughter in Moscow. Being part of Russia after years of separation is reason to celebrate.

“We always talked about being Russian, but we never believed we’d return home,” she said. “Although we haven’t seen much of the change Putin promised, we believe him. We know things can’t change within [just] a year.” 

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