SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE — When Crimea’s two million people wake up Monday after likely having voted in Sunday’s snap referendum to break with Ukraine in favor of joining the Russian Federation they will quickly feel the impact in their pockets from the secession and will endure months of economic disorder, say analysts.
“It is going to be a long and painful process and the chaos is going to hit and cost ordinary people hard,” says Yevhen Panchenko, a professor at Crimea’s Economics Institute, a branch of the Kyiv headquartered National University.
A lack of planning for how the region will manage the split with Ukraine – how Ukrainian state property will be handled, whether Ukraine will be compensated on assets losses or when existing private-sector business contracts have to be re-written to comply with Russian law – will compound the turmoil, he says.
No plan for the future
Russian and Crimean officials have discussed none of the economic or legal repercussions of breaking with Ukraine apparently. On March 14 at a press conference in Simferopol, Crimea’s newly installed Russian separatist Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, said that all the technical details will be examined by working groups meeting in Moscow following today’s vote on a break-up.
An overwhelming majority of Crimeans is likely to back secession in a referendum called after Russian forces invaded the diamond-shaped peninsula. The Ukrainian government and Western powers say the plebiscite is illegal and is being held in an atmosphere of intimidation with an invasion force present and bands of uniformed Russian separatists patrolling the streets.
Ukrainian television channels have been blocked in the run-up to the vote and replaced with Russian channels. And rights groups say so-called “self-defense units” and paramilitary forces in Crimea have been abducting and harassing activists and journalists. “Crimean authorities are allowing illegal and unidentified armed units to run the show in the peninsula, and to commit crimes that go uninvestigated and unpunished, as if there is a legal vacuum,” says Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch.
The first thing Crimeans are likely to see happen economically after the referendum is an abrupt replacement of the Ukrainian hryvnia as their official currency with the Russian Ruble.
According to Aksyonov, the currency switch could be introduced within days. Again he has been short on the mechanics of the process and hasn’t indicated whether there will be an official rate of exchange or whether the hryvnia will remain a legal tender for a few months to ease the switch.
The lack of planning for Crimea’s split with Ukraine stands in marked contrast with the detailed arrangements put in place for the 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia, say analysts.
State property in limbo
The question of what will happen with Ukrainian state property is worrying the director of Crimea’s Economics Institute, Victor Reutov, who says he has no idea who will own his higher education establishment in the coming days – Ukraine or Russia. Many of the institute’s 3000 students came from other parts of Ukraine.
“There are two ways this could go,” he says. “We were, we are and will be part of Kyiv National University and nothing will happen to us and nobody will cut us apart from the National University or we will be told we now belong to Russia.”
He adds, though, ruefully: “But there is an old Russian proverb: the bear is still alive but his body has already been divided up.”
As far as Yuriy Meshkov is concerned all of the bear should be Russia’s. Meshkov, who was President of Crimea between 1994 and 1995 and has been a longtime advocate of Russia annexing Crimea, says, “Everything in Crimea belongs to Russia, all the buildings and everything that Ukraine claims will be nationalized.”
And that includes all of Ukraine’s 19 warships currently being blockaded by the Russian navy in their ports in the Black Sea and all Ukrainian military equipment housed in dozens of bases in the peninsula.
Ukraine controls Crimea power and water
Such a move could prompt Ukraine to unleash an economic war on Crimea – it has some leverage. Most of Crimea’s electricity, water and food are supplied from the Ukrainian mainland through a narrow corridor connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine. There is no land connection with Russia and the energy challenge was one of the main reasons then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred ownership of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
Eighty percent of Crimea’s water and 90 percent of its electricity comes from Ukraine. In an economic war Ukraine could cut off electricity and water. But to do so would no doubt trigger Russia to cut gas supplies to Ukraine. Russia has already raised the price of the gas it sells to Ukraine.
Speaking at the March 14 press conference Aksyonov hinted that some deals could be reached with Ukraine over Ukrainian state property. “It depends on how Ukraine behaves after the referendum,” he said. “Maybe we will pay some compensation, maybe we will pay some over time and maybe we won’t pay.”
Reparations could be costly for Moscow
Any compensation offered would add to the bill Russia will have to pay for Crimea. The peninsula is not economically self-sufficient and since 1991 has received more in subsidies from Kyiv than it pays in taxes. Its two main industries are tourism and agriculture but the former will likely be hit by the annexation with Russian visa requirements deterring Western tourists.
Russia has already committed a billion dollars for the next year for Crimea but some economists estimate annual costs for Moscow will be closer to $3 billion a year. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already promised a 4.5 kilometer bridge will be built when Crimea is annexed to link the peninsula with Russia – that alone will cost half-a-billion dollars.
In the run-up to today’s referendum separatist leaders highlighted the fact that Russian state pensions are higher than Ukrainian ones – that was about the only economic detail offered in the days leading up to the vote.
* an earlier version of this report mistakenly referred to Nikita Khrushchev as president; VOA regrets the error.