Crimeans begin to consider the real benefits and costs of joining Russia

People clustered around official-looking posters in the Crimean capital Thursday, pointing excitedly and taking notes. The signs compared public salaries, pensions, health benefits and fuel costs in Ukraine and Russia.

In each case, life in Russia looked better.

“My pension is miserable, but soon I’ll be getting almost twice as much,” said Yuri Khotchiv, 79, a retired engineer who receives about $210 a month from Ukraine’s government. He said he plans to vote to join Russia in Sunday’s referendum — partly out of patriotic sentiment and partly because of promises such as those on the posters.

As the vote approaches, Moscow and pro-Russian leaders in Crimea have dangled a variety of carrots in front of Crimean residents, depicting Russia as a stable, paternalistic state with more jobs, higher wages, lower taxes, better health insurance, easier university exams and far more generous payments to the critical demographic of military and civilian retirees.

In the port city of Sevastopol, a newspaper Thursday featured an interview with city council head Dmitri Belik, who ticked off a number of benefits Ukrainians will receive if they become Russians. Soldiers and sailors will automatically get higher pensions, retirement ages will be lowered by five years, and government workers will keep their jobs with higher pay. There will be a three-month tax holiday and fully covered child care.

All sides perform military drills ahead of Sunday’s referendum to join Russia. (Reuters)

“Think about your families,” Belik said. “Do you want to live in a prosperous country or be poor in a country governed by traitors and thugs?”

Meanwhile, the bureaucratic complexities and less pleasant implications of switching nationality overnight have remained harder to pin down. Many government offices are barely functioning, and queries about concerns ranging from banking rules to compulsive military service — which Russia requires and Ukraine does not — have mostly met with uncertain or evasive shrugs.

One area clouded in confusion is the difference between legal procedures and policies in the two countries. Sergey Zayetz, a lawyer in Sevastopol, said he knows little about Russian law and is unnerved by what lies ahead.

“It’s like a gypsy reading tea leaves,” he said. “The only question I’ve been able to get an answer to is that we can still practice.”

Zayetz said property sales have ground to a halt in Crimea because the government in Kiev has stopped registering sales. More troubling, he said, is that criminal suspects in Russia have fewer rights. They are often detained for long periods while awaiting arraignment, and confessions are often ruled admissible even if coerced.

In Simferopol, business owners said they had little idea of the rules or costs for obtaining Russian licenses, how to deal with Ukrainian customers who would suddenly become foreign clients, or what would become of their bank accounts.

“Workers want higher salaries so they may be happy to change, but owners have other worries,” said Ana Khrykava, who operates two companies in Crimea. “In Russia, a lot of the rules for doing business are not written, and they change all the time. People think there is more stability there, but in some ways it would be more unstable.”

Exchange rates and bank account security are also subjects of public anxiety. In Simferopol, lines at ATMs, at currency shops and in bank lobbies have gotten longer every day this week. Some customers said they were trying to verify that their accounts were safe, some were trying to withdraw as much cash as possible and still others were buying dollars.

“We no longer have confidence in the hryvnia, and we don’t yet know about the ruble,” said a man who had just purchased $300 in greenbacks, referring to the Ukrainian and Russian currencies. He said that he was trying to buy a used car and that the dealer insisted on being paid in dollars.

In Sevastopol, the city government of Moscow runs a commercial and cultural center, whose director, Kirill Somov, said Russian and Crimean authorities
have begun making tentative transition plans. For example, he said that Crimean students would
be allowed to enroll in Russian
universities for a year without
taking entrance exams and that Ukrainian-focused history tests would be replaced with Russian history books. He predicted that retirees would be particularly happy, adding, “I expect pensioners in Crimea to vote 100 percent for Russia.”He also said Crimean business owners would soon get over their nervousness, noting that one beer distributor, worried that he would no longer be able to buy beer from Kiev, had been contacted by Russian breweries.

But the Moscow representative acknowledged that other Crimean groups, such as draft-age young men, might not feel as enthusiastic. He said that ethnic Russians could obtain Russian passports easily and that other Crimeans would be allowed to keep their Ukrainian passports — although in that case they would not be allowed to vote.

Somov said other changes could be arduous and protracted, including months-long utility cuts, especially if relations between Russia and Ukraine remain hostile. “A lot of things are unclear, let’s be honest,” he said. “But it will all be solved somehow.”

Asked about the hardships they might encounter during a transition, several ethnic Russians in Simferopol said nothing would matter except being reunited with their homeland. “We are so euphoric that everything else seems minor,” said Victor Grigorovich, 75, a retired government worker.

But Khrykava, 33, said Crimeans who imagine a perfect life under Russia are “dreaming of the old Soviet Union, where the state provides you with everything. We younger people think in a more independent way. We don’t want the state to give us everything. We want to take responsibility, to take risks, and to be free.”

Morello reported from Sevastopol.

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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.
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