Crimea becomes more Russian by the hour

The United States and European nations announced sanctions against Russian officials over Crimea's vote to break away from Ukraine. The Post's Douglas Jehl, Scott Wilson, and Anne Gearan explain the implications. (Jonathan Elker, Jeff Simon and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

Crimea set about transforming itself into a corner of Russia on Monday in ways profound and mundane, formally petitioning to join the Russian Federation, and deciding to adopt the ruble as its official currency and advance the clocks by two hours to be on Moscow time.

Acting on the same day that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin signed an order recognizing Crimea as an independent state, Crimean authorities passed a flurry of laws to scrap Ukrainian influence and pave the way for annexation to Russia.

Legislators in the renamed parliament, the State Council of the Republic of Crimea, nullified Ukrainian laws and nationalized all Ukrainian state property. On March 30, Crimea will switch time zones. And starting April 1, pensions will be paid in rubles, though the Ukrainian hryvnia will not be phased out until January 2016.

Coming just one day after a referendum in which almost 97 percent of voters supported breaking away from Ukraine, the rapid-fire changes left some Crimeans uneasy about what will happen next.

“All those people were out there waving flags in the streets last night, but the rest of us are just waiting — for what, we don’t know,” said Dimitry Kozimov, a cafe manager in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, who is worried because his supplies of fresh meat from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, have stopped. He has more questions than answers. Will his liquor license cost more? Can he still commute between his home in Ukraine and his job in a new Russian territory? Will he be taxed twice? “The only thing I’m sure of is that this is going to be a very difficult time for us.”

The whirlwind of activity by lawmakers failed to quell a pervasive sense of limbo — among Ukrainian troops stationed at Crimean bases and the region’s minority Muslim Tatar population. As the complicated unwinding began, many wondered whether they fit in.

At a Ukrainian military base in Belbek, outside Sevastopol, troops said they would fight to the last man if ordered by their commanders in Kiev. But they may be offered a choice: to stay and serve in a reconfigured force under Russian control or head back to what’s left of Ukraine.

“Something is going to happen. But we don’t know what,” said a soldier at the base, where Russians control the airstrip and Ukrainians run the rest of the facility.

Nearby, at base A2991, relations are warmer. Russian and Ukrainian troops swap food and hot water, and Russian soldiers stationed across the road charge cellphones from an extension cord run over to them by the Ukrainians.

“This is friendship between Slavic people,” shouted a soldier plugging in his phone to the makeshift power supply. He gave his name as Pavel and said he is from central Russia.

Dmitri Kozackovich, the Ukrainian deputy commander at the base, shrugged.

“They’ve been camping out there for three weeks,” he said of the Russians.

Crimea’s Russian backed referendum to split from Ukraine may have passed, but major issues remain. Many military bases on the peninsula are still manned by Ukrainian servicemen and fear continues to grow in Kiev that Russia will push its military on to the mainland.

At another base in the area, A2355, marooned officers said there is no sign of promised reinforcements and hinted at a sense of abandonment.

“Don’t forget we exist,” said a major who gave only his first name, Yuri.

Among the more anxious groups are the 300,000 Crimean Tatars, many of whose leaders boycotted the referendum and challenged its honesty.

“There is just no way these figures are right,” said Mustafa Abliazov, a member of the ­Simferopol council for Crimean Tatars. “It was clear they decided way ahead of time that everything would be falsified. For
Tatars, this is a big threat. We are an unarmed and law-abiding people, but how can we tolerate something like this?”

Simferopol streets that had been filled with celebratory throngs Sunday night after the vote were quiet Monday. Some Crimeans pondered their next steps.

“Some of my friends have already left. I’m going to wait and watch events and gather my courage,” said Dennis Matzola, 26, who had protested against the referendum and said he had found leaflets with his name and photograph pasted on neighborhood walls, telling people to report him as a traitor.

Yet many Crimeans remained jubilant at the referendum’s result.

In downtown Sevastopol, small groups huddled against an icy wind and shouted the name of Putin and sang the Russian national anthem — or at least what they knew of it.

Valentina Slavchenko, 58, said she woke up Monday at 6 a.m. in a joyous mood. She works at a hospital, where all the official paperwork and all the medication labels are written in Ukrainian, which she does not speak. She said she spent years doing her job with the help of a Russian-Ukrainian dictionary and translation pages on the Internet.

“We are all so happy now,” she said. “They should have made Ukraine a country with two official languages. If they had shown us more respect, we could have lived in Ukraine. Now I’m sure they regret it.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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