I spent July back in Sevastopol after nearly a year away. So what changes have there been? And do people still believe they made the right choice at the referendum and they are better off in Russia?
The most striking change for me was how busy the city is now. There are a lot more people and traffic jams are much more common. At least half of the number plates are Russian, and they come from a wide variety of regions. When I first arrived in Sevastopol I think the population was about 500,000. On this trip, I was told that it’s grown to about one million, although nobody is really sure. A lot of the difference in numbers is due to refugees from Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine. It was also the peak of the holiday season when I was there. Flights from Simferopol airport are constantly booked up, with people arriving from all over Russia, plus other former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. This means it’s now very difficult to find accommodation in the city and the price of rent has risen considerably.
The rest of the changes I found out about were less obvious.
There now seems to be some recognition in the outside world that Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, although not yet that it is part of Russia. When I visited Skyscanner to book a flight, Crimea was listed as a separate place in the country list. I found it interesting that it was listed in Roman characters on the Ukrainian list, rather than in Cyrillic, and wonder what prompted that decision.
Sanctions have not had as much of an effect on commerce as I expected, as you can still buy many ‘Western’ products, like Mars bars, Bonaqua water, Laughing Cow and mascarpone. However, the majority of these are actually produced in former Soviet states, which is why they have slipped through the net.
They have affected my friends in other ways though. Those who have opted for a Russian international passport* can no longer get a Shengen visa, meaning they cannot easily travel to or work in Europe. The only way to get around this is if the address your passport is registered to is outside Crimea, for example in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. It used to be possible to get Shengen visas without leaving Crimea, but this is no longer possible.
Even if you have a Ukrainian international passport, you still need to have a Russian local passport to meet the requirements of daily life in Crimea as far as I know. If you cross the land border from Crimea to Ukraine and the Ukrainian border guards find that you have a Russian passport, they can fine you heavily (about £500 if I remember rightly), remove the passport and destroy it. This means that most people now travel via mainland Russia rather than crossing the land border (though it is still used). That adds another layer of complication for those with Ukrainian passports, since they require a Russian entry visa to come back into Crimea. This is only valid for 90 days. I’m not really sure what happens if they overstay that period.
While we’re on this topic, the only area in which people said it was better being in Ukraine was the bureaucracy. Although it was long-winded, Russian systems tend to be even more complicated. There is also the added problem that Crimean officials are still trying to get their heads around the Russian systems, and don’t always know how they are expected to do things in their new country.
One positive change I noticed was that money seems to be flowing more freely than when I left in August last year. At that time, one or two cash machines were starting to work, but it was still largely a cash economy. From what I could tell, most cash machines seem to be functioning normally now, and card machines in shops are also back in use. There is now a Russian 10 rouble coin featuring Sevastopol, and another featuring the Swallow’s Nest in Yalta.
Having said that, not all of the money from the Russian government is making it to where it should. One person told me that Sevastopol was given $5 million to repair the roads in the city centre ready for the 9th May Victory Day celebrations, but there was no evidence of any repair when I was there in July. Apparently the money ‘disappeared’.
Overall, everyone I asked said that they still believe they made the right decision in the referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. However, some of the optimism has worn off a little, as their high expectations have not been met. While there have been some improvements in their lives, there is still a long way to go before life becomes free and easy again.
*In Russian, the word ‘passport’ is used to describe both the local/national identity document and the one used to travel internationally, hence the distinction here.