RUSSIA’S annexation of Crimea has resulted in startling disruption to everyday life, with banks running out of money, prices soaring, and even problems with water supplies.
As President Vladimir Putin flew into the peninsula for the first time since Russia wrested control of Crimea in March for a Victory Day appearance, the huge task of assimilating a region almost the size of Belgium with two million people was becoming more and more apparent.
In the run-up to the Victory Day celebrations, disgruntled crowds have been standing in line outside banks up and down Crimea. At one Sberbank Russia branch this week a sign on the door announced that all the bank’s branches had been closed.
“What should we do?” one elderly woman asked.
“What should we do? Let’s break down the door, take out the cash machine, open it up and see what’s inside,” a man named Oleg said with a slightly ominous chuckle.
“And split it up between everyone!” yelled a third man.
The sign on the door promised that the bank would continue work next week “in a new format” and that “all obligations to clients will be met in full”, but it wasn’t clear by whom.
“Guys, they fired us. We don’t know anything either,” said a bank employee who was peppered with questions by locals after he opened the door to let a woman out.
Bank closures have been one of many inconveniences and unsolved issues here following the Russian annexation. Prices for groceries have also risen, and water flowing from Ukraine to the arid peninsula has been drastically reduced.
But many residents are still prepared to give Russia the benefit of the doubt.
Nikolai Novinsky, a surgeon who fought in World War II, said that besides his pension, many of his other benefits had been disrupted. His bank closed and he will have to travel to Kiev to get his savings.
“The transition period is a little bit difficult. Everything is hung up,” he said. “I think things will change for the better” as part of Russia, he added.
The currency situation was always going to be tricky, as Crimea migrated away from using the Ukrainian hryvnia and adopted the Russian rouble.
On Tuesday, the National Bank of Ukraine declared it illegal for any Ukrainian banks to continue operating in Crimea, compounding the problem.
Measures have been taken to compensate the clients of four Ukrainian banks which Russia’s national bank ordered to close on April 21, including PrivatBank, where many of Crimea’s 2.4m residents receive their pensions and salaries. On Thursday, a new Protection Fund for Crimean Depositors had begun operating out of Privatbank offices in Simferopol, taking applications to compensate account-holders for deposits of up to 700,000 roubles.
Nina, a PrivatBank client who was applying for compensation at the fund, said the bank closures were a “Ukrainian problem” that was now being solved by Russia.
Account-holders with Sberbank Russia and other banks do not know what will happen to their savings, and the scarcity of functioning banks and cash machines has resulted in huge lines.
“I think these are just temporary difficulties. I trust Russia more than I trust Kiev,” said the elderly woman at Sberbank Russia, who declined to give her name but said she had been born in Russia and lived in Crimea for more than 50 years.
Sberbank Russia’s closure came without warning, or Oleg would have withdrawn as much of his deposits as possible, he said.
“We’re satisfied,” he said about the decision to join Russia. “But if they return our money we will be even more satisfied. We’re happy we got away from Kiev, but this suffering isn’t good. People depend on money all the same.”
People stood for hours outside the downtown branch of Chernomorsky Bank for Development and Reconstruction waiting to pay taxes, utility fees and conduct basic transactions which were previously done online or at various banks and government offices.
An accountant who identified herself as Yevgeniya was number 75 on a list of 127 people at one cashier’s window, waiting to make a payment for window repairs in her office. She admitted Crimea’s situation was “uncomfortable” but said she had voted to join Russia because the “standard of living is higher there”.
Russia has promised 55bn roubles from the federal budget to cover Crimea’s budget deficit and has made numerous additional allocations, such as 7bn roubles to subsidise transport links with the Russian mainland.
Pensioners around the city said they had received a 25 per cent increase in their payments last month and had been promised that pensions would double. But at the same time, prices for food have shot up.
Food prices are likely to go up further due to problems with local agriculture and with deliveries from Russia and Ukraine.
“Pensions will double, but food prices will double as well, so it won’t make a difference,” said Ildmy, a Crimean Tatar pensioner, who declined to provide his last name. “Soviet times have come back, so of course people will say they are satisfied.”
Asked to elaborate, he answered with a saying: “My tongue is my enemy.”
—By arrangement with the Guardian