Third Time’s a Charm
Three years after annexation Crimea is beyond the point of no return
You’d have to be outside Russia to miss the March 18 celebrations — or their patriotic message. Practically every Russian region is planning festivities around the three-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Some have a local flavor; Yakutia, for example, is organizing deer races. Murmansk has chosen clarity over subtlety, with a flashmob titled “Crimea — Russia, forever!” and free balloons in Russia’s tricolor.
Three years after Crimea was incorporated into Russia, its consequences have yet to unravel. Ukraine is still mired in conflict, tensions between Kiev and Moscow are as high as ever, and Western sanctions are still in place — despite hopes that a Trump presidency would usher in a softening of policy.
The tale of what Crimea has meant domestically differs depending on who you ask. By all accounts, the annexation has been an economic flop. In 2017, the republic will receive roughly 98 billion rubles from the federal budget. That puts it almost on par with some of Russia’s most costly regions like Chechnya and Ingushetia. Huge infrastructural investments such as an upgraded airport and the Kerch bridge to the Russian mainland have yet to yield results. If Crimea has survived, it is only thanks to a heavy infusion of government money.
On the peninsula, locals say, a realization has sunk in that the change in rule has not cured the ill of rampant local corruption. “People believed in the fairytale that someone would come along and life would be good,” says a 28-year-old resident of coastal town Yalta, who asked to remain anonymous. “But those running the place are still the same as they were under Ukraine. They are filling their pockets.”
Western sanctions mean more daily inconveniences. Until the completion of the Kerch bridge (predicted for next year), the peninsula is still partly reliant on Ukraine. The power shortages that engulfed Crimea in the winter of 2015, sporadically return. Mastercard and Visa are still inoperative. Russian replacements are mostly symbolic; its Mir payment system, for example, can only be used inside Russia.
Then there are continued reports of human rights violations. Crimean Tatars still complain of persecution by Russian authorities. A journalist for RFERL, Mykola Semena, is facing separatism charges for an article he wrote in 2015. Since last year, the FSB has also been on the hunt for “Ukrainian saboteurs” on the peninsula. Several detainees say they were tortured.
Among ordinary residents, however, the animosity of the early days has mostly faded. “My sister in Ukraine used to call me a separatist, but now she’s become less categorical,” says the Yalta resident, who herself opposed the annexation. “People understand that it’s just politics, and that actually we’re one people.”
The reality is that Crimeans have little choice but adapt — there is no appetite for a policy reversal, says Alexei Levinson of the Levada Center pollster. “The annexation has cured the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union and made Russia a superpower again,” he says. With the annexation seen as a heroic feat second only to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, Russians are willing to bear the economic and political cost, he says. “Crimea is in a league of its own. Putin would never be forgiven if he surrendered.”
Not that that is a likely scenario. Crimea catapulted Putin’s ratings to an all-time high that still endures. Presidential elections next year, which will likely (and fittingly) be held on March 18, will show whether the “Crimean consensus” can survive yet another year.
For Russians, the “return” of Crimea is second only to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.