SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA - As New Year's Eve approaches, the central square of Crimea's largest city is festooned with bright festive decorations, including a soaring artificial tree that flashes and winks. But areas just a few steps away are sunk in darkness, the street lamps turned off because of an electricity shortage.
Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea are slowly recovering from a blackout that hit the Russia-annexed peninsula in late November when unidentified attackers blew up pylons of the lines from mainland Ukraine that supplied nearly all its electricity. The blackout underscored how dependent Crimea remained on Ukraine even after Russia claimed control of the region in March 2014 following a referendum sparked by the political chaos in Ukraine, where the Russia-friendly president fled amid massive protests.
For about two weeks after the pylon bombing, the peninsula's 2 million people were almost entirely without power, and critical establishments such as hospitals relied on their own emergency generators. Conditions eased somewhat after Ukraine restored one of the power lines and after the first of several underwater electricity cables from Russia went into service. That so-called "energy bridge" had been under development before the blackout.
While Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatars who oppose Russian annexation vengefully cheered the blackout, most of Crimea's people appear to see it as confirmation they did the right thing by voting to split off from Ukraine.
Businessman Artyom Kryuchkov said he and his wife had to buy an electric generator and stand in lines to get petrol. But the hardships did not make him or his family want to go back to Ukraine.
"The two-week long black-out brought us closer to each other," Kryuchkov said.
"By punishing Crimeans, Ukrainian officials have lost Crimea and played right into Putin's hands," Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said in a recent article. "By pursuing revenge against the regime they have hurt ordinary people instead. This will only make the regime stronger, and the besieged fortress will become even more besieged."
Crimea faces an array of problems, including a severe decline in tourism, a key piece of its economy. Crimea's tourism minister, Sergei Strelbitsky, bragged in October that some 4 million people had come to the region's beaches and mountains in 2015 — but that's far below the 5.7 to 6 million recorded in the two years preceding the annexation.
Many residents complain that the region is poorly run.
"The main negative thing is the work of local authorities: heaps of garbage around, bad roads and the inability or unwillingness [of officials] to tackle the issues," Kryuchkov said.
While local schools and hospitals have received expensive equipment and funds for refurbishment from Russia in recent months, Moscow's investment in Crimea is not evident when driving on Crimea's potholed roads or walking by crumbling building facades.
In December, Crimean Governor Sergei Aksyonov complained that Moscow had not sent "a single kopeck" from the billions it had promised. Aksyonov accused the government of seeking too much control over how the peninsula spends the money. Russian state news agencies in turn quoted an unnamed government source saying that Moscow has sent 2 billion rubles ($28 million) to Crimea, but that local authorities simply don't know what to do with it.
Foreign investors fled after the peninsula was slapped with Western economic sanctions, casting doubt on the region's future. Major Russian companies including cell phone operators, oil firms and banks closed their branches in
Crimea fearing the backlash of Western sanctions, leaving the region's banking and telecommunications to obscure private-owned firms.
These days, even ardent supporters of the annexation like former Sevastopol mayor Alexei Chaly admit that federal incentives to restart the economy, such as a plan to establish a free economic zone in Sevastopol, have failed.
"Sea, warm climate, a free economic zone — that's an advantage," Chaly, speaker of the Sevastopol parliament, said in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency last week. "But the disadvantages are the collapsed infrastructure and an unpredictable government."
But Kryuchkov and his wife, who both work in tourism, are somewhat optimistic.
"The prices are going up, we see lots of problems with getting new documents, the banks are still few in number," Olga Kryuchkova said. "But for people who went through the 1990s it's nothing. We've seen worse times."