Paradise Lost

Hard Times in New Crimea

Crimea reuters
A mural in the Crimean city of Sebastopol.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The annexation of Crimea soured relations between the West and Russia, leading to sanctions and sparking a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Crimea’s 2.3 million residents voted on March 16, 2014, to separate from Ukraine and rejoin Russia.
    • Inflation in Crimea has been running at 38 percent since annexation.
    • Crimean Tatars, previously persecuted under Stalin, are being discriminated against once again.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Two men in dark sweaters stack shiny green bottles, each marked with a handwritten white number. Here in basement vaults along the Black Sea coast of the Crimean peninsula, the sparkling wine is maturing and each bottle is turned by hand daily. It is a fine wine, almost like authentic champagne, and just as costly.

Count Lev Golisyn founded the wine cellars in 1878, almost a hundred years after Count Potemkin annexed the peninsula for his beloved ruler, Catherine the Great. The winery was named “New World” – first in Russian, and then after the transfer of Crimea in 1954 by Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, in Ukrainian.

Today the winery once again bears its old Russian name: “Novyi Svet.” Its history mirrors the turmoil across the disputed region.

It was a year ago today – on March 16, 2014 – that Crimea’s 2.3 million residents voted to separate from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Two days after the referendum, President Vladimir Putin officially annexed Crimea.

For Russia, the peninsula is “as holy as the Temple Mount is to followers of Judaism or Islam,” he said. It is also the strategic base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

A few days after annexation, the Crimean winery brought out a special edition. Labels proclaimed the contents as “Russian champagne” and included the inscription: “Crimea and Russia, we are together.”

“Nothing could happen without the support of the local population which is why this was not an act of aggression, but a real democratic act.”

Sergei Aksyonov,, Crimean prime minister

A bit of new nationalism cannot hurt the “New World” wine. After all, from now on, it will be dependent on the Russian market. As a result of sanctions following the territory’s annexation, Crimean products are no longer allowed into the West.

Today even time ticks differently in Crimea. The region is on Moscow time again, and under Mr. Putin’s law. On a Yalta beach promenade, T-shirts boast the Russian president’s powerful image. One shirt shows Mr. Putin knocking down U.S. President Barack Obama with a kick to the neck.

“These are not selling so well anymore,” said Tatyana, the T-shirt kiosk owner.

The plunging ruble, which replaced the Ukrainian currency, doesn’t go as far these days, she explained. “But up to now, everyone has been for annexation by Russia.”

Anything less might be seen as unpatriotic. And that can be dangerous.

Crimean Tatars, the Turkish ethnic natives, are in most danger. They were deported by Stalin in 1944, but returned in the 1980s during the Gorbachev era of glasnost and perestroika. Now they are being persecuted and harassed again.

“Because we were the ones who opposed the annexation the most,” said a dismissed lawmaker, who did not want to give his name out of fear for his safety. “Criticism is dismissed here as Islamic extremism,” he said.

“The freedom we enjoyed as part of Ukraine is gone,” said a Crimean Tatar newspaper editor. The newspaper’s editing rooms have been searched several times and items confiscated, he said. His apartment was stormed by uniformed men and wrecked.

Crimea DPA
A pro-Russian rally on March 16, 2014, the day Crimea voted for annexation. Source: DPA

 

Crimean Tatar activists have mostly fled to Kiev or disappeared without a trace, the editor said.

“They are now threatening us with a new deportation, if we do not resign ourselves to being a part of Russia,” he said.

Sergei Aksyonov, the Crimean prime minister, has been in charge since the Russian annexation on March 18, 2014.

Speaking to the BBC this weekend, Mr. Aksyonov said that Crimea would never again be part of Ukraine and denied that Russia had forcibly taken the peninsula.

“I can tell you that no-one took anything,” he said. “That was the choice of the Crimeans. Nothing could happen without the support of the local population which is why this was not an act of aggression, but a real democratic act.”

The prime minister has alleged criminal gang ties and is on the sanction lists of the European Union, United States and Canada, meaning he can’t travel there and his assets are frozen.

Under Mr. Aksyonov’s rule, “no one knows anymore what will happen tomorrow,” said investigative reporter Sergei Mokrishin, in the Crimean city of Simferopol.  There is “real terror, when people are being taken away, when armed men control the streets, when journalists are beaten up.”

Mr. Mokrishin said he has since got himself a Russian passport because “I have to live here.”

“The West should demand that Russia gives people without Russian citizenship the right to work,” said Bohdan Yaremenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat, whose group, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, campaigns from Kiev for a return of the Crimea.

Mr. Yaremenko wants Ukraine to stop the delivery of foodstuffs to Crimea and to use “intelligent sanctions” such as preventing Russian pilots who fly into Crimea from being allowed to land at European airports.

“They are now threatening us with a new deportation, if we do not resign ourselves to being a part of Russia.”

Crimean Tartar, newspaper editor

Frustration is certainly growing among everyday people in Crimea, where food prices have risen about 50 percent since last year. Provisions mostly come on overloaded ferries, which have to travel from southern Russia to the Crimean port of Kerch. Food sometimes becomes scarce, and recently there was no bread for days.

Plans to build a bridge between Crimea and Russia across the Strait of Kerch have been put on ice for now due to the enormous costs involved.

As a result, there is growing fear in Ukraine that pro-Russian separatists could turn their attention to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, in order to secure access to the peninsula.

Mr. Putin says he wants to spend almost €10 billion on rebuilding Crimea through 2020. Above all, tourism will be used to attract investors. There are plans to make the peninsula a special economic zone with casinos and gambling.

But in the first season since annexation, tourism was shaky at best. Western companies like McDonald’s, Visa and MasterCard have left Crimea. Now only cash is accepted and the burgers come from local grills.

“If half as many tourists were here as before, then that would be a lot,” said a food-kiosk owner along the beach in Yalta.

Meanwhile, many companies suddenly have new Russian owners. Often the new legal situation has enabled others to simply seize property and businesses from their rightful owners.

Even in Soviet times, Crimea was a paradise for mafia gangs. Now, the residents hope for a new era of Russian-imposed order.

Crimean Tartars and Ukrainians keep a low profile. Ethnic Russians, who form the majority, have praised the move to double pensions and public sector wages. At the same time their complaints about inflation, which has increased by 38 percent in the past year, are growing louder.

There are many who doubt that Crimea can be turned into the new Florida or Las Vegas of Russia – a future paradise for retirees and tourists.

“To let Crimea really bloom is much too expensive for Russia,” said Mr. Yaremenko. “Putin will only push people out of Crimea – and turn Sebastopol into a giant Russian military base.”

 

Mathias Brüggmann is head of the foreign affairs desk at Handelsblatt. To contact him: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!