Celebration time

One year after it voted to leave Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula is completely integrated with the Russian Federation and its people are making it clear that there is going to be no rethink about their future.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the formal integration of Crimea with the Russian Federation, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 18.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the formal integration of Crimea with the Russian Federation, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 18.

THE people of the Crimean peninsula have been celebrating for days the first anniversary of the referendum in which they decided overwhelmingly to rejoin the Russian Federation. On the streets of the Crimean capital, Simferopol, this correspondent witnessed hawkers selling Russian flags and portraits of the Russian President. Vladimir Putin has become a combination of “pop hero” and “cult figure” for the people of the peninsula. Some reports in the Western media still talk about unhappiness among Crimeans on the decision to leave Ukraine and in the process upset all chances of being part of the European Union (E.U.) and the Western world. Victoria Nuland, the United States Assistant Secretary of State, recently went to the extent of saying that Crimea “had become a kingdom of terror”.

Observers from over a hundred countries were present during the 2014 referendum. There was a consensus among them that the referendum was an open and transparent one. A number of credible opinion polls conducted by the American and German agencies Gallup and GfP respectively to mark the first anniversary of the reuni fication have shown that Crimeans, irrespective of their origins and language, are exceedingly happy to be a full-fledged constituent of the Russian Federation. GfP, in an opinion survey conducted in February, revealed that 82 per cent of the respondents continued to be solidly behind the decision to join the federation. Another 11 per cent voted “yes, for the most part”. Only 2 per cent said they were against the decision to leave Ukraine.

Despite the facts on the ground, some Western leaders are still calling for another referendum to be conducted under international supervision. Senior Crimean officials said that accepting such a proposal would be an implicit acknowledgment that the 2014 referendum was a flawed one. And as the opinion polls have shown, the results of a new referendum would be no different. Incomes and salaries for government workers have gone up. Pensions too have risen. Dmitry Polonsky, the Vice-Premier of Crimea, told Frontline that real incomes of the people in the peninsula had risen by 20 per cent in the last one year.

Punitive measures

Crimeans are now forced to pay a high price for exercising their democratic right of self-determination. As an autonomous republic within Ukraine, they were constitutionally entitled to determine their future. Over and above the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, Crimeans are now subjected to more punitive measures. International credit cards cannot be used in the territory. International mobile phone services remain suspended. Many Indians studying medicine in Simferopol, who are going to graduate this year, are facing a dilemma. The Medical Council of India has not recognised the change of affiliation of Crimean universities to the Russian higher education network. Students wanting to apply to other universities for post-graduate degrees are unable to do so as their academic status is in a limbo. However, Crimean officials as well as administrators of the university are confident of solving the problem within weeks. They are in contact with both the Indian embassy in Moscow and the Medical Council in India.

Ukraine has curtailed water and electricity supply to Crimea ever since it voted to join Russia. The peninsula has limited water resources and is dependent on water from the Dnieper river, which flows through Ukraine, for most of its supplies. Crimea’s economy is largely agriculture-based, and the water shortage since 2014 has impacted its rice harvest adversely. Also, there were frequent power outages because of insufficient electricity. The railway and bus services connecting Crimea to  Ukraine and beyond were discontinued by the authorities in Kiev. The only reliable travel options for Crimeans are by air or sea. Many airlines took Crimea off their itinerary because of the Western sanctions.

Despite the efforts of the West and Ukraine, the people of the peninsula have made it clear that there is going to be no rethink about their future. Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians and people belonging to other language groups, who form the mosaic of Crimean society, have resoundingly voiced their happiness with the decision to join Russia. They agree that life under the Russian Federation is far better than what they experienced under Ukrainian rule. Western governments and media are trying to stoke anti-Russian feelings among the Tatars, who constitute around 10 per cent of the population. The thrust of their criticism is that minority rights are under threat after the region seceded from Ukraine. The rights of the minorities are guaranteed under the Constitution. There are three official languages in Crimea—Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

Vladimir Putin, speaking on the first anniversary of the Crimean accession, said that “Russia and the Russian people demonstrated an amazing focus and amazing patriotism by helping the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their home shores”. On March 18, there was a huge gathering in Moscow to celebrate the Crimean reintegration anniversary. The area extending from the Red Square to the Moscow river was packed with Muscovites carrying banners saying “Russia and Crimea, together forever”. For centuries, Crimea had been part of Russia. It was for purely administrative reasons that the peninsula was made part of Ukraine in 1954. Nobody had visualised at that time that the Soviet Union would collapse less than 40 years later. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, however, is obstinate in his stance. After Putin’s speech, he reiterated that “Crimea is and will always be Ukrainian”.

Georgy Muradov, permanent representative of the  Crimean Republic to the Russian Presidency, speaking in his office in Moscow, said it was important to know what transpired before the referendum took place. He said the nationalists who seized power in Kiev had a game plan for all Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. He said that one of the first acts of “the junta in Kiev” was to dissolve the Crimean Parliament and deploy 20,000 Ukrainian Special Forces in the region along with right-wing paramilitary groups. “The authorities in Crimea understood that they would not be able to withstand such a force. Russian soldiers deployed in their bases in Crimea only helped neutralise this force so that the referendum could be held peacefully,” said Muradov. He stressed that the referendum was necessary. “Otherwise, we would have met the fate of other East European countries,” he said

The Crimean Republic’s Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, told Frontline in Simferopol that the peninsula was now completely integrated with the Russian Federation. The government had to single-handedly furnish personalised data about the two million residents of the peninsula so that the grant of Russian citizenship could be expedited. The government in Kiev had refused to pass on relevant data to the Crimean authorities. All the citizens of Crimea, he said, were now “full-fledged Russian citizens eligible for all the benefits enjoyed by their compatriots. The Prime Minister said Ukraine had placed many hurdles after Crimea broke away. Besides stopping water and electricity supply, bank accounts and pensions of Crimeans were frozen. “Eight trillion roubles is blocked in Ukrainian banks,” he said. Because of the denial of its just share of water, Crimea had to reorient its agricultural policies. Water-intensive crops, such as rice, had to be replaced by other crops.

The Prime Minister also said that the region was neglected when it was governed by Ukraine. Corruption had become rampant and that prevented investors from coming to the autonomous republic. The potential of the tourism sector, which played an important role in the economy of Crimea, was not exploited. According to Polonsky, oligarchs, close to the ruling cliques in Kiev, were more interested in acquiring prime seaside properties rather than focussing on development projects. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimean peninsula was a prime tourist destination.

“Crimea is now open for investment,” said Aksyonov. Despite the threat of sanctions, businessmen from Asian countries and Italy, Spain, Turkey and other European countries are flocking to Crimea to explore the possibilities of investment. The Crimean government has offered many concessions for investment by introducing a special tax regime. Taxes in the peninsular region are much lower than in the rest of Russia. Land acquisition has been made easy. Ministers have been put in charge of each investment. Senior officials say that enterprising businessmen have realised that there are big profits to be made by investing in Crimea. “Some businessmen do not want their investments to be publicised. We respect that,” said Aksyonov.

Aksyonov had accompanied Putin during his last official visit to India. The Western media played up his presence in Putin’s official delegation. “I made it a point not to draw too much attention to myself when I was in New Delhi. The political situation in the Crimea should not affect Russia-India relations. Western mass media were watching me carefully,” he said with a wink.

Aksyonov blamed the Western media for distorting the facts about Crimea. He said Western media representatives should come to the region and see things for themselves. He said the former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was in Crimea during the first anniversary celebrations to have a first-hand experience of the situation. Hatoyama told the media that the referendum “was constitutional and expressed the will of the Crimean people”. He said the people of Japan were not aware of the real situation in Crimea. Aksyonov was especially dismissive of the reports relating to the Tatar population. He said stories about the discrimination of the Muslim minority community were untrue. “Crimean Tatars are present in all the Ministries and in all the sectors. Our relations with the Tatars are cordial and positive.” The Prime Minister said when Crimea was under Ukraine there were attempts to radicalise the Tatars by encouraging fundamentalist elements. “Tatars practise peaceful Islam. Islamist fundamentalists were a threat when Ukraine was in control,” he said.

Aksyonov said the efforts of his government were focussed on making the region self-sufficient in energy and water resources. Blessed with bountiful sunshine, Crimea has invested considerably in the development of solar energy. The government is also investing in the construction of a canal, which would be the longest in Europe when completed. The canal water will be used to feed households and for agricultural purposes. In order to bring down its dependence on Ukraine, the government plans to invest in desalination plants. Russia plans to lay underwater cables by 2018. Crimea will then have a dependable source of energy.

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