Crimeans enter 2016 struggling, but optimistic

2015-12-28 17:39
(Alexander Polegenko, AP)

(Alexander Polegenko, AP)

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Sevastopol - 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 and 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 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.

Cheered the blackout

For about two weeks after the pylon bombing, the peninsula's two 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.

"By punishing Crimeans, Ukrainian officials have lost Crimea and played right into Putin's hands," Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre 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 about four 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.

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.

Economic sanctions

Crimean governor Sergei Aksyonov complained earlier this month hat 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 had sent about $28m 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.

Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine  |  crimea  |  sanctions

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