This is part of a series of posts I’ve been writing about the situation in Sevastopol/Crimea, where I currently live. I’m hoping to show what life is really like here.
Just over two months since the Crimean referendum of 16th March 2014, and Sevastopol is rapidly becoming a fully-fledged part of the Russian Federation, in some cases much more rapidly than originally expected.
On Tuesday 13th May, a week ago, in the traditional word-of-mouth way in which most news about the transition seems to be spread, I heard from two different people that the rouble would be the only currency accepted here from June 1st, 2014. This is a bit faster than originally planned – it wasn’t supposed to happen until January 1st, 2016! I haven’t seen any official announcement of this in English news sources, but having just done my first proper Google search in Russian (ever!), it was apparently announced by the speaker of the lower house of the Russian Duma (parliament) on May 12th. Gazeta.ua reports that there are now about 300 branches of Russian banks in Crimea, and that there are enough roubles in circulation to make the change.
However, the bus drivers obviously don’t think it will be a smooth transition, as they have stated today that June 1st will also mark a change in paying for public transport: rather than paying as you get off, you’ll have to pay before you get on. This is because they don’t think everyone knows about the switch to the rouble, and they don’t think there are enough coins in circulation yet. I’ve only seen two coins so far, so I suspect they might be right!
There have been no Ukrainian banks here since 7th May, which again I found out the next day when I was asked if I knew they’d closed. Luckily, I’d taken all of my money out of my account a few days before, but I know others who hadn’t, and now have to work out how to get their money back.
I got my first pay in roubles a week ago, although I haven’t used them to pay for anything yet. I’ve nearly used up all of my hryvnia, and a lot of people are reluctant to take them. Everyone’s trying to get rid of them, particularly small notes and coins. I’ve seen a few people paying in roubles, but not many.
Prices have been displayed in both currencies for a few weeks now, and I’ve finally got the hang of which prices are in roubles and which in hryvnia. I got the bill in a restaurant a few weeks ago and was shocked at the price, then realised it was roubles, not hryvnia – as you can see, the exchange rate is about 3RUR to 1UAH, although this varies slightly in each place you go to.
Even when you think you know the exchange rate, prices are unpredictable. This is partly because of uncertainty, partly because some places are taking advantage of the changeover to up their prices, and partly because there are sometimes supply issues. When I went to the hairdresser today, I paid in hryvnia, then asked her how much my cut would cost in roubles next time. She replied that it depends on the prices in the shops. Some places don’t bother putting prices at all, although they’re not consistent. These are from the same supermarket as the label above:
Some places have told me that they only take roubles, but when you argue, they always accept hryvnia. They have no choice at the moment.
The financial uncertainty has meant that some shops have closed, which obviously doesn’t help because it leaves more people without money. Another problem is that some supplies seem not to be getting through. It’s not a question of shortages (yet?), but there are gaps on the shelves.
My local supermarket closed off about 1/10 of it’s floor area within a couple of weeks after the referendum, and their shelves were looking emptier and emptier. Something seems to have got through now though, as they were restocking when I went a couple of days ago. The local pharmacy has resorted to putting (what I think are) prescription medicines on their display shelves, in place of the normal tissues and cough sweets.
Card machines are still conspicuous by their absence, although some cash machines are apparently working again. A lot of them were switched off a month or so ago, and haven’t been on since. To get around the potentially thorny issue of distributing Russian currency on what many still believe is Ukrainian soil, Sberbank have come up with the ingenious solution of putting 20 cash machines onto a ferry. The ferry counts as Russian soil, so no international laws will be broken.
The non-financial side…
Post seems to be trickling through. This is a postcard from South Africa which arrived a week ago, having been sent on 24th March. I don’t know if it would have taken that long normally, but 7 weeks seems like quite a long time.
I went to the main post office, as I’m not sure if the small ones are working or not. The displays are mostly bare, where there used to be lots of different stamps, cards and other things you could buy, but I managed to send a parcel, covered with about 20 Russian stamps. I don’t know if/when it will ever arrive!
People are continuing to apply for their Russian passports (or ‘internal’ ID – they use the same word for both here). One student told me his company arranged for someone from the passport office to come in for a couple of days so none of them would have to queue. I bet a lot of people here wished that would happen for them too – at one point people were queueing for over three hours for passports.
The Victory Day/9th May celebrations went off without a hitch, and talking to students since I’ve discovered that they weren’t much different to normal – there’s always a party atmosphere, it’s always a big thing, and it’s always very bombastic. The only difference this year was that it was pretty much a Russian-only affair. In the past, I was told, veterans and others have attended from Poland and the UK, among others, having fought with the Soviets in the Second World War.
While waiting for the parade to start, an older woman started talking to my companions about why she was happy to see the Russian military in the parade. She described how her son had gone from being a Ukrainian soldier to a Russian one. In the Ukrainian army he had almost nothing supplied to him, just a uniform. He had had to buy pretty much everything else himself. At the weekends, he would eat at friends’ houses because the food they were given really wasn’t great. When he and his colleagues went to work for the Russian army, they took all of their equipment, and were amazed to discover that they didn’t need any of it – it was all supplied. When they went into the canteen on the first day, there were tablecloths on the tables, and a good range of food. He didn’t regret changing allegiances.
Another area in flux is the educational system. I was told about problems with the Sevastopol Banking Institute. The Institute was set up about five years ago in a beautiful new building funded by the National Bank of Ukraine, with the aim of training “highly qualified specialists for Banking and Finance system of Ukraine”. With the changeover to Russia, I was originally under the impression that it would be taken over by the Central Bank of Russia, although understandably this was a contentious issue considering where the funding had come from. Late last week, a group from the local council replaced the director of the institute, as he was said to be blocking this move. Teachers and students were asked to leave for the day. Nobody knows how they will finish their studies, or how degrees will be awarded. Yesterday students asked Putin to help resolve the situation at the Institute.
My teenage students are particularly worried about education now, as they don’t know where they will go to study, or how much they will be handicapped by having had a largely Ukrainian education if they choose to go to Russian universities, where they will have to take the same entrance exams as those who have been through the Russian system.
That’s how the situation looks after two months – some things are resolving themselves, other things are being added to the mix. It’s an interesting time to live through, and life is certainly never boring!