Crimea backs Russia`s tough love, one year on

One year after Crimea`s annexation by Moscow from Ukraine, the Black Sea peninsula is struggling with runaway inflation and isolation from the world, but locals still root for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

AFP| Updated: Feb 26, 2015, 09:42 AM IST

Moscow: One year after Crimea`s annexation by Moscow from Ukraine, the Black Sea peninsula is struggling with runaway inflation and isolation from the world, but locals still root for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Though euphoric support has given way to simmering frustration over corruption and exorbitant prices, most locals believe that the Russian takeover of Crimea last February was for the best, branding any dissenting voices as traitors.

"I`m very happy that we`ve joined Russia, it was our dream for a long time," said Galina Tolmachyova, who works as a nurse in a health resort formerly owned by the Ukrainian defence ministry.

"There is some discontent" over delayed salaries but "the main thing is that there is no war," she said.

A total of 82 percent of Crimea residents fully support joining Russia, according to a poll released this month by respected GfK Ukraine pollster in Kiev. Only four percent oppose it.

The annexation was widely condemned by the international community and some believe it fuelled the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, unleashing a war which has killed nearly 5,800 people since April.

Moscow hailed the peninsula`s ancient shores as the cradle of Russian civilisation, promising to pour billions into its development, notably by building a bridge to the Russian mainland.

For the moment, however, Crimeans are virtually stranded after Kiev cut off transport links.

People have to cross the two-kilometre (1 1/4 miles) stretch between the Russian and Ukrainian checkpoints at the de facto border on foot in an ordeal that some said takes up to 15 hours, while the ferry service with Russia is often cancelled during winter storms.

The head of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov conceded in a recent interview to Rossiya 24 state channel that life on the peninsula is "different from the normal life of an ordinary person," listing as biggest problems prices of food and medicine and shortages of life-sustaining drugs like insulin.

State employees received bonuses last year but then their pay was cut as Russia`s own economic crisis deepened, said Igor Kazhdan, the former chief conductor of Crimea`s state-funded Philharmonic Orchestra who was recently fired in what he brands a murky overhaul by nepotistic officials.

"It`s a complete disaster," he said of what the new authorities are doing. "Enormous money is allocated for Crimea and they have their own idea of how it should be used."

Musicians at the Philharmonic receive a monthly salary of around 10,000 rubles ($160), he said. "With today`s prices and inflation, I don`t see how you can survive on that."

"It seems that Russia is not totally in charge yet," he said, adding he hopes that Putin will sack corrupt local bureaucrats.

Crimea`s government stresses that all problems are temporary, and many locals say that there would have been war had they not voted to break away from Ukraine in the wake of the Russian military seizure.

Patriotic billboards on the peninsula meanwhile proclaim readiness to withstand even "rocks from the sky" as long as Crimea is "with the motherland."

Moscow`s official line is that Crimea has always been Russian, was illegally transferred to Ukraine in the 1950s during the Soviet period, and that the people living there made their choice to join Russia without outside pressure.Heavily armed soldiers without identification entered Crimea`s government buildings in the early hours of February 27 2014. The parliament later in the day sacked the cabinet and installed Aksyonov, then the barrel-chested leader of a local Russian nationalist group with limited influence.

The former separatist commander in eastern Ukraine Igor Strelkov, who was in Crimea at the time, had said in interviews that he ordered pro-Russian militia to "round up the deputies" for the vote, and that Russian troops were the key factor in Crimea`s transfer.

Putin eventually admitted that Russian soldiers "stood behind" locals in the events preceding the March referendum.

But many young Crimeans who grew up in post-Soviet Ukraine have voted with their feet and left the province, said 22-year-old computer programmer Alexander Titov who emigrated to take a job in Denmark in late October.

"The whole situation was like a robbery," he said, regretting taking part in the "illegal" referendum even though he voted against joining Russia.

"I knew I did not want to live in a `Russian Crimea,` he said in emailed comments, calling Russia a "police state."

"Society became very aggressive and any criticism of Russia was attacked," said Titov, who considers himself Ukrainian, despite having Russian parents.

The new authorities have embraced a fevered sort of Russian patriotism, encouraging people to turn Ukraine sympathisers over to the police, said rights defender Andrei Krisko.

He said he had received calls about detentions, deportations and police raids "practically every day" since the New Year.

One person was recently arrested on extremism charges after revealing pro-Ukrainian views in a mundane argument about politics, he said.

"There is an atmosphere of fear in Crimea today," he said. "All of this weighs on people, they are scared of talking about their problems."

Crimea`s government strives to display single-minded support from an ecstatic population by gagging independent media, he said, but "the picture they see in Moscow is not what actually exists."