Under Russia, Life in Crimea Grows Chaotic

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 21, 2014 at 11:13 pm •  Published: April 21, 2014
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c.2014 New York Times News Service

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — After Russia annexed Crimea practically overnight, the Russian bureaucrats handling passports and residence permits inhabited the building of their Ukrainian predecessors, where Roman Nikolayev now waits daily with a seemingly mundane question.

His daughter and granddaughter were newly arrived from Ukraine when they suddenly found themselves in a different country, so he wonders if they can become legal residents. But he cannot get inside to ask because he is No. 4,475 on the waiting list for passports. At most, 200 people are admitted each day from the crowd churning around the tall, rusty iron gate.

“They set up hotlines, but nobody ever answers,” said Nikolayev, 54, a trim, retired transportation manager with a short salt-and-pepper beard.

“Before we had a pretty well-organized country — life was smooth,” he said, sighing. “Then, within the space of two weeks, one country became another.” He added, “Eto bardak,” using the Russian for bordello and meaning “This is a mess.”

One month after the lightning annexation, residents of this Black Sea peninsula find themselves living not so much in a different state, Russia, as in a state of perpetual confusion. Declaring the change, they are finding, was far easier than actually carrying it out.

The chaotic transition comes amid evolving tensions in nearby eastern Ukraine, where the possible outcomes include a Crimea-annexation replay.

In Crimea now, few institutions function normally. Most banks are closed. So are land registration offices. Court cases have been postponed indefinitely. Food imports are haphazard. Some foreign companies, like McDonald’s, have shut down.

Other changes are more sinister. “Self-defense units,” with no obvious official mandate, swoop down at train stations and other entry points for sudden inspections. Drug addicts, political activists, gays and even Ukrainian priests — all censured by either the government or the Russian Orthodox Church — are among the most obvious groups fearing life under a far less tolerant government.

In fact, switching countries has brought disarray to virtually all aspects of life. Crimeans find themselves needing new things every day — driver’s licenses and license plates, insurance and prescriptions, passports and school curricula. The Russians who have flooded in seeking land deals and other opportunities have been equally frustrated by the logistical and bureaucratic roadblocks.

“The radical reconstruction of everything is required, so these problems are multiplying,” said Vladimir P. Kazarin, 66, a philology professor at Taurida National University. (The university’s name, which derives from Greek history, is scheduled to be changed.) “It will take two or three years for all this chaos to be worked out, yet we have to keep on living.”

On a deeper level, some Crimeans struggle with fundamental questions about their identity, a far more tangled process than merely changing passports.

“I cannot say to myself, ‘OK, now I will stop loving Ukraine and I will love Russia,’” said Natalia Ishchenko, another Taurida professor with roots in both countries. “I feel like my heart is broken in two parts. It is really difficult psychologically.”

The Crimean government dismisses any doubts or even complaints.

“Nonsense,” said Yelena Yurchenko, the minister for tourism and resorts and the daughter of a Soviet admiral who retired in Crimea. These “are small issues that can be resolved as they appear,” she said, adding, “It might result in certain tensions for the lazy people who do not want to make progress.”

Legions of Russian officials have descended on Crimea to teach the local people how to become Russian. In tourism alone, Yurchenko said, Crimea needed advice about Russian law, marketing, health care and news media.

“Can you imagine how many people need to come to work here for just that one sector?” she said in an interview, explaining why even her ministry could not help anyone find a hotel room in Simferopol. “We also have transportation, economy, construction, medicine, culture and many other things.”

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Other changes in national identity elsewhere, like the “velvet divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, happened with more advance planning. Crimeans feel as if they went through the entire reverse process in 1991, when Ukraine left the Soviet Union, which had transferred the peninsula to Ukraine from Russia in 1954. Confused? So are they.

For Crimeans, every day overflows with uncertainty.

Food imports, for example, have dwindled in the face of murky, slapdash rules. The Crimean authorities recently banned cheese and pork from Ukraine, then announced that full Russian border controls would be put in effect Friday. Shoppers are suddenly finding favorite brands of ordinary items like yogurt unavailable.

Citing logistical problems, McDonald’s closed. Metro, a giant German supermarket chain, also shut down. Most multinational businesses want to avoid possible sanctions elsewhere for operating in Crimea.

Flight connections have been severed except to Russia. Crimea officially moved an hour ahead to Moscow time, but cellphones automatically revert to Ukrainian time.