In Ukraine’s lost Crimean Peninsula, signs of Russian control increase at street level


Crimeans wait for their pensions inside a post office in Simferopol on Tuesday. The Crimean authorities began paying pensions in Russian rubles. (Artur Shvarts/EPA)

— Every day more signs that Crimea is now part of Russia are reaching down to the street level, met by varying degrees of enthusiasm and bewilderment.

This week, the ruble became an official currency in Crimea, and it is slowly starting to work its way into the marketplace. Retirees began receiving their pensions in rubles Monday.

But business is still being done almost exclusively in the Ukrainian hryvnia, which will be accepted as a co-currency until January 2016.

Several money changers and banks in Simferopol said they had run out of rubles as customers have been withdrawing hryvnias from their accounts and converting them. But one money changer operating in a cubbyhole of an office in the center of town said she had just received a replenishment of rubles and is eagerly awaiting the boon that conversion will bring.

New law enforcement groups are making themselves known, too. The Russian Investigative Committee — an agency similar to the FBI — has set up offices in Crimea, and crimes will be judged under Russian law, according to Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the committee in Moscow.

But most people have no idea how Russian and Ukrainian laws may differ and feel trapped in legal limbo, human rights activists — newly arrived from Crimea — said Wednesday in Kiev.

“There’s no law,” said Oles Kurivchak, a human rights volunteer. “People who want to sell their house and leave can’t do it. Notaries don’t have legal stamps. There are no proper documents. People don’t know what to do.”


In this photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry shows, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, third from left, looks at Russian marines as they march in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Monday. (Vadim Savitsky/AP)
Ukrainians left adrift

Crimeans who feel allegiance to Ukraine are adrift, said Konstantin Reutsky, a member of the Postup Human Rights Center. They feel abandoned by the Ukrainian government; not only the military whose troubles have been widely reported, but civilians, too.

“I’m surprised by the mood in Kiev where the Crimean issue doesn’t seem important any more,” he said Wednesday in a conversation with reporters. “Of course, it’s important for the country to elect a president and build democracy, but we didn’t just lose a territory, we lost people.”

And it’s hard for them to find out what’s going on because Crimean media is under tight control. “The local authorities of the Russian administration are not interested in objective information,” Reutsky said.

When the Russian-backed forces took over, Kurivchak said, Russian troops quickly cut communication links with official Kiev. Ukrainian military on the peninsula had to use their cellphones to try to get in touch with superiors on the mainland.

The activists are worried they might not be able to return to Crimea and are in touch with allies in Moscow about whether they might have more freedom of movement on the peninsula now that it has been annexed by Russia.

“We don’t have the right to close our eyes,” Reutsky said. “We are going to help them any way we can.”


A photo shop in Simferopol, Crimea, advertises photos for Russian passports. (Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

Many legal procedures may be unclear, but Russia quickly began issuing passports to Crimeans, and photo shops in the capital of Simferopol have put up window promotions to lure customers needing head shots for their new passports.

Slow conversion

It will take some time before most businesses accept the ruble, however. Clerks at a pharmacy, a pastry shop, a cafe, an outdoor snack stand and a supermarket all said they are not ready to accept rubles yet. A few, however, are plunging in.

A cosmetics store has already stuck two sets of price tags on its perfumes and lotions, although a clerk said nobody had come in yet trying to buy anything with rubles. Tags with prices in hryvnias are still on the backpacks and camping items at one sporting goods store, where the clerks pulled out a small calculator from behind the counter ready to convert the prices.


Vegetables in Simferopol's central market are priced in both Russian rubles and Ukrainian hryvnia. (Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

Eggs in Simferopol are priced in hyrvnias. (Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

In Simferopol’s central market, many food vendors already have double-priced their wares in rubles and hryvnias on small pieces of cardboard wedged between the vegetables and the meats, though few said they had been offered rubles yet.

“So far, all we do is write,” said a man selling small pieces of hard candy.

A woman selling cheese and dairy products said she does not anticipate any difficulties in dealing with two currencies simultaneously for the next 21 months.

“When people have money to spend,” she said, “it’s never difficult.”

Lally reported from Kiev.

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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