Politics & Policy

Remember Crimea? The Grim Reality of Russian Rule

Propaganda posters in Sevastopol. (Alexander Aksakov/Getty)
A year after it left Ukraine for Russia, the region is suffering.

What ever happened to Crimea? In the year since the peninsula voted to leave Ukraine and become the Russian Federation’s newest holding, Western attention has shifted away from it toward eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists continue to wage an insurgency against Kyiv.

But the case of Crimea is worth a second look, because in the past year, conditions there have deteriorated significantly. As such, the region’s fate offers a telling glimpse into the harsh reality behind Russian rule.

Crimea’s drift is unexpected, insofar as the Kremlin promised to reward the region handsomely for its pro-Russian trajectory. Indeed, the Russian government has worked hard to integrate Crimea into the rest of the country. It has launched an action plan to develop the peninsula and improve living conditions via investments in everything from water supply to power lines to new roads.

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But these plans have become a casualty of the wider Ukraine crisis. Russian aggression has prompted several rounds of Western sanctions to date. Cumulatively, these measures — coupled with the low price of world oil — have had a pronounced impact on the country’s economy. As a result, there simply isn’t enough money to go around, leading Moscow to reallocate funds from its own infrastructural needs just to keep Crimea afloat.

In other words, to sustain its Crimea project, Russia is now depriving the rest of the country. Telltale signs of this constriction are everywhere. Moscow has frozen the pension savings of Russian citizens this year. Its Ministry of Finance has suggested limits on the number of civil servants as a cost-cutting measure. Public employees are required to forfeit a certain percentage of their salaries in order to fund development in Crimea. President Putin has even announced a reduction in his own salary and those of his Cabinet members in a symbolic measure of belt-tightening.

#related#But despite all this, Crimea itself isn’t doing particularly well. The region now has the second-highest inflation rate in the world, behind Venezuela. Consumer prices are fluctuating wildly and late last year clocked in at 42.5 percent higher than in 2013. Prices on certain foodstuffs — such as meat, eggs, fruit, and flour — increased by more than 60 percent during the same period. Even tourism, Crimea’s biggest source of revenue, has taken a big hit, decreasing by 50 percent last summer. 

The contrast is striking. When it was a Ukrainian province, Crimea fared comparatively well, with Kyiv supplying it with electricity and food, and tourists visiting in droves. 

Crimea’s adverse conditions aren’t simply limited to economics, however. The region’s inhabitants have faced systematic discrimination since becoming Russian citizens. 

In particular, Crimea’s Tatar Muslim minority is suffering levels of persecution not seen since the Soviet era. This pressure includes “disappearances, sadistic murders . . . attacks on media, and arrests on trumped-up charges,” according to one informed observer. So pervasive has this discrimination been that, back in February, the United Nations took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars.

Political opponents of the Kremlin, too, have found themselves in the official crosshairs. To date, several Crimean lawmakers have been arrested and even exiled because of their opposition to and condemnation of Russia’s takeover of Crimea. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has equated Russia’s conduct in its newest holding to a “reign of terror” designed to both subjugate and pacify the region’s population.

Crimea’s plight should serve as a cautionary tale. Today, outposts of pro-Russian sentiments (such as Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, and Transdniester in Moldova) appear to be actively contemplating a “Crimean scenario” in which they declare independence and then seek the Kremlin’s protection. But the experience of Crimea to date suggests strongly that what awaits them if and when they do are not greener pastures but a grim future. 

— Leona Amosah is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. 

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