Euphoria Fades in Crimea After a Year of Russian Rule

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea (Reuters) -
Russian and Crimean flags flutter in the wind during celebrations marking the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, in central Simferopol. (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)
Russian and Crimean flags flutter in the wind during celebrations marking the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, in central Simferopol. (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)

A year after Russia’s takeover of Crimea sparked a wave of euphoria across the Black Sea peninsula, residents are suffering growing hardship as prices rise and many fear for the future.

Russia’s flag is flying across Crimea on the anniversary of what President Vladimir Putin calls the region’s historic “return home” after Russian troops seized control of it from Ukraine and the people backed annexation in a referendum.

Since then Putin’s popularity has soared — his face looks down from banners and is emblazoned on T-shirts — and some Crimeans, such as pensioners, say they have benefited.

But foreign investors have fled, the banking sector is paralyzed and many other residents are struggling to make ends meet.

“Crimea will be a backwater of Russia. What’s good here? The prices are crazy and salaries are laughable,” grumbled 35-year-old taxi driver Nikolai, deftly negotiating potholes and rutted roads in the center of the capital, Simferopol.

Life was hard when Crimea was part of Ukraine but it is proving no easier as part of Russia, which has been hit by Western economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“Ordinary Russians lost out with the annexation of Crimea,” said Sergei, a construction goods retailer from Kiev who moved to Simferopol last year with his wife and children after protests that turned violent in the Ukrainian capital.

“Across the whole of Russia, prices are going up, there are sanctions, the ruble has devalued,” he said, closing the kitchen window to stop his neighbors overhearing.

Such discontent has not prevented the celebrations that began on Monday in Crimea, the anniversary of the referendum that showed 97 percent support for joining Russia. The days-long celebration will also include a concert in Moscow on Wednesday.

Although the European Union and the United States swiftly imposed sanctions on Moscow following its move on Crimea, Putin made clear he had no regrets in a documentary aired on Sunday.

“The ultimate goal was to give people a chance to express their opinion on how they want to live in the future,” he said of the referendum, describing the dispatch of Russian forces to Crimea as intended to prevent bloodshed and save lives.