Third Time’s a Charm

Three years af­ter an­nex­a­tion Crimea is be­yond the point of no re­turn

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK - By Eva Har­tog e.har­tog@ime­

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.

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