SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA —
A year after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, its people are adjusting to new citizenship, new political conditions, and new economic realities.
Russian navy and special forces blockaded and stormed Crimea's Ukrainian bases a year ago, giving the troops inside a choice: join us or leave.
With a powerless government in Kyiv, most of his fellow servicemen chose Russia's military, said former Ukrainian officer Alexander, who does not want to use his last name because of the sensitivity of switching sides, but voices no regrets as he considers Russia his motherland.
“The most difficult thing was that my father is left in Ukraine. I knew that I would not be permitted to go there,” Alexander said. But his father can still visit Crimea, and it helps that as a Russian military officer, Alexander makes more money now than he did wearing a Ukrainian uniform.
Thirty-three-year-old Andrei refused to give up his Ukrainian citizenship.
But he lives with his younger brother, another former Ukrainian military officer who chose the Russian side to provide for his two children.
“It affected our relationship,” Andrei said. “It became more tense in some moments. Sometimes we have some things left unsaid; sometimes we just keep silent. And, I’m personally annoyed by some things, especially when he wears his Russian uniform.”
Climate of fear
Members of Crimea's Tatar minority community have been the most outspoken opponents of Russia's moves to annex Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula, and now they are afraid. A year later, Tatars say there is a climate of fear because activists and their relatives have been intimidated, abducted, and even killed
Rifat Ametov buried his brother Reshat the same day Russia signed the law to annex Crimea.
Reshat, a Tatar critic of Russia's moves on Crimea, was abducted, tortured, and murdered. No one has been held responsible and authorities, Ametov said, have stopped investigating.
“We have video materials. And, some clues where those people [the killers] came from. Nevertheless, they say these people are unknown, that they cannot find them. How can you trust such authorities?” asked Ametov.
Abdureshit Dzhepparov said his son Islyam was a good athlete and student but, unlike himself, was no activist and had no interest in politics.
The 19-year-old was abducted in September. Along with his 23-year-old cousin, he was shoved into a car by men in black uniforms, according to witnesses. Neither has been seen since, and no one has been arrested for their kidnapping.
Dzhepparov thinks Russia's security services were involved. The reason -- he said -- is his work as a former deputy in the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, a representative body that addressed the community's concerns.
He believes the kidnapping “was prepared for a long time. They prepared it thoroughly. It was not the work of two or three men."
Since Russia took over Crimea, authorities have banned some Tatar leaders and pressured the Mejlis out of its offices, making it hard to operate, said activist Zair Smedlya.
“Over the past year, we saw murders, kidnappings of activists, searching of madrassas and mosques, even the houses of the activists, and illegal arrests and detentions. All this is being done to Crimean Tatars, like the rest of the population, to instill fear,” said Smedlya.
Russian and Crimean authorities have denied any official abuses and maintain that life under Russian rule is better for Crimean Tatars.
The change of sovereignty hurt the economy, in part because of international sanctions imposed on Russia because of the annexation and Moscow’s role in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Western sanctions have left Crimea a cash-only economy. Automatic teller machines don’t work, credit cards aren’t accepted, the banking system is limited. There are restrictions on foreign tour groups and investment.
Crimea has long been a popular vacation destination for both Ukrainians and Russians. But since last year, fewer Ukrainians visit. Tourist numbers have dropped by half.
Tour owner Alexander Yurchenko raised prices to maintain his income but complains of strict border controls and bureaucracy.
“Like the Chinese say to their enemies, ‘we wish you live in times of change.’ Any changes when a person is already 45, 50, or 60 years old and he’s been doing the same thing for the last 15 years, when he’s got everything organized, especially the tax-paying and all the problems connected with this issue -- then everything changes again -- that brings a lot of negative reactions,” Yurchenko said.
On the other hand, Russia's declining economy means fewer Russians can afford to travel abroad, so more visit Crimea.
This year, occupancy rates have recovered, said Anastasia Fedoseeva, the managing director of the Yard Hotel.
“The main problem was finding new partners and contacts because the old tour operators [in Ukraine] cannot work with us anymore. Also, we had problems with this bank system while it was being adjusted,” she said.
But, she said, “I think in the coming season we will not have any problems like that.”
Other companies are adapting, too.
Oleg Krinitsyn is searching for Russian suppliers for his cheese shops, since shipments from mainland Ukraine now take weeks instead of just a few days.
“We’re not planning to develop our business further any time soon because we don’t know how things will shape up or which way the political winds will blow,” Krinitsyn said. “But, in any case, everything should be in order someday. And, only after we’ll make conclusions whether to stay here and develop further or close the business and leave [Crimea].”
Many people in Crimea are watching to see what will come next.
Andrei, who kept his Ukrainian citizenship, said his family and his employer urge him to switch to a Russian passport so he is completely legal and has access to social services.
Although he thinks Russia isn’t likely to give up the peninsula any time soon, Andrei doesn’t plan to switch passports, and he doesn’t plan to leave Crimea, as long as he can keep his job.
“I’m following the news, and I can see what’s happening in Kyiv. They have enough to deal with without Crimea right now. In any case, the hope exists and I have friends I stay in touch with who also have great hopes that Crimea will return back” to Ukraine, he said.