Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘Ukraine’

One month on

One month ago today, on the 16th March 2014, there was a referendum in Crimea to decide whether it would remain part of Ukraine or ask to part of the Russian Federation. I’ve blogged extensively about the whole process of what has been happening in Sevastopol, and will continue to do so for as long as there seems to be something to say.

Today in Ukraine

As I write this, Ukraine has launched ‘anti-terrorist’ action against protestors in the Donetsk region. In the last couple of hours, Putin has warned that Ukraine is ‘on the brink of civil war‘. Some suggest that Russia have forced Ukraine’s hand by sending people into the area to incite violence and will use this as an excuse to send in their own troops. I have no idea if this is true or not, or how comparable this is to what happened in Crimea (as has been discussed), but I don’t believe the Ukrainian government is entirely blameless either. As I’ve said before, their unwillingness to accept Russian as an official language or to seek closer relationships with those in the east has inevitably alienated people. There have been attempts in the last week or so to remedy this, but I feel it’s too little, too late.

The Guardian has set out five possible scenarios for what might happen next. As with the whole process, the problem is that nobody really knows how this will all unfold. And that uncertainty is the overriding problem with life in Sevastopol now…

Travel

My worries about getting back to Sevastopol were completely unfounded. My train journey from Kiev to Sevastopol was uneventful. The only difference between the journey out and the journey in was one extra passport check: on the way out only the Ukrainian border guards checked, on the way in both Ukrainians and Russians checked, about an hour apart. No comment was made about my Ukrainian visa, and I was asked no questions at all, unlike when I flew into Simferopol at Christmas.

The train was as busy as one might expect for a mid-week one, and the BBC video about people leaving Crimea on the train did not reflect the fact that people are still travelling in both directions. The man I shared my compartment with was from Kiev, but works in Dzhankoy in Crimea. The train still seems to be a viable travel option, for now at least.

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Kiev station, Tuesday 8th April 2014

Soldiers and sailors

In the week before I went to the UK, and the week since I came back, I’ve seen more military in Sevastopol than I had done for the previous six weeks. Yesterday seven or eight military trucks drove past me, a sight which was fairly common until the start of February when they all disappeared. On Monday I saw 17 buses (helpfully numbered) drive past in convoy, all full of military personnel – I guess there must have been over 400 of them. I assume that means they’ve all come back to their bases. It feels like things are largely back to normal here in terms of military presence.

Time zones

I’m a big fan of the new GMT +4 time zone, although I was assured it’s not actually new and is what Crimea (and all of Ukraine?) used to be on until 1998. Now I’m being woken by the sun at 07:00 instead of 05:00, and it’s still light when I finish work at 20:00, and for about an hour afterwards, instead of being dark at 18:00. It seems to make a lot more sense, although whether that will be true all year round with no change for winter remains to be seen.

Post

For two weeks, no post arrived at the school. I was told that the Ukrainian postal services were no longer operating, and when I got something yesterday I don’t know who it was delivered by. I want to go to the post office, but I’ll be waiting for a while until it’s clearer whether the postal system is still functioning or not. It’s not clear what will happen to any backlog of post that might build up in the meantime.

Pensions

Another thing that Ukraine have stopped providing is support to pensioners. The money now all comes from Russia. Because the exchange rate that pensioners are paid in is different to the one on the street, they apparently get the money in roubles, then change the money into hryvnia and end up with more to spend!

Registration plates

Car art and Russian registration plate sticker - Version 2

A sticker to make your car Russian? (and some bonus Sevastopol car art – very popular here)

The picture above shows a fairly typical sight now – stickers are on sale all over the city so people can change the country on their registration plates. I estimate about 15-20% of cars in Sevastopol have some form of Russian flag on the number plate now, and over 50% of them have Russian flags in or on them somewhere, like the one on the dashboard here. A lot of the buses have small flags attached to their wing mirrors.

Documents

Queuing for Russian passports

Queuing for Russian passports

I don’t know how many different places people can go to get a Russian passport, but these people were queuing at one in the centre, and I know this is not unusual. The people on the left-hand side of the street are reading information about what they need to do to get their passport. Apparently while I was in the UK there were big queues at photo studios for people to get their new passport photos, although those seem to have disappeared now.

One teen student came to class a bit late because she’d just spent three hours in the queue to submit her documents, but was really excited because that meant she was going to get her Russian passport. The same 16-year-old has the Russian national anthem as her ring tone.

Another student has just turned 16, and a couple of weeks ago wasn’t sure what to do about getting her ID, which here is also confusingly called a passport. As far as I know you have two passports – an ID document and one for international travel, although I may be wrong! In Russia you get official ID from the age of 14, but in Ukraine it’s 16. Now she’ll definitely get Russian ID, and her grandma said they would have a special dinner and champagne to celebrate because it proved she was officially an adult. I love this idea!

Others are waiting until the rush dies down to get their new passports. Ukrainian passports will still be valid for a while, although as with everything else I have no idea how long for.

Roubles and hryvnia

I’ve seen roubles now, but they’re still not particularly common. I’ve had a couple of coins given to me as examples, but haven’t used them in transactions yet. Some of the coins have the coats of arms of cities across Russia on them, and a friend was excited that Sevastopol would soon be on the coins too.

I managed to get money out of the bank again the other day, and was given the option of having it in roubles of hryvnia, but decided on the latter as I think it’s still more useful. However, the exchange rate is going up against the pound/euro/dollar in both currencies, and I’ve exchanged some of my pay into pounds to try and protect my money a bit. I know this is the kind of thing that doesn’t help, but I need to make sure the money doesn’t all disappear.

Tablets which I currently have to buy every 25 days have gone up drastically in price, from 642UAH last time I bought them to 802UAH a few days ago. I’m lucky because I have a comfortable salary, and I don’t know how people manage who aren’t – they must have to go without, which will ultimately add more strain to the system.

The money that Russia has promised to spend on Crimea and Sevastopol is already worrying them, and could be adversely affecting the GDP. I wonder whether it will ever come through?

Banks

Queues outside the bank

Queues outside the bank

Queues are still quite normal outside banks. I think this one was caused because there were rumours that roubles had arrived there, although I’m not really sure.

Banks are not doing international transfers, and some Ukrainian banks have stopped working here completely. Large Russian banks don’t seem to want to open branches here in case they are hit by sanctions, which paves the way for smaller banks. However, the smaller banks are also having trouble making international transfers which is causing the school some problems. This is the area where uncertainty seems to be greatest: the banks don’t know if they will be there from one day to the next, making it very difficult to plan for the future. The problems with the banks also don’t help with paying taxes – it’s not clear how these transactions can be made.

Feelings

I know people who are still thinking about leaving Crimea, and I know others who were going to leave but have now decided to stay. Those who are staying are still pretty positive about the whole change to being Russian, although the uncertainty, particularly about money, can be wearing. People are moving around a lot more, and I feel safe enough to hopefully start exploring Crimea a bit more from this weekend.

On a final note, the signs below were all along one of the main streets in the centre of the city by the weekend, and today have appeared all along my street. I’ve been told they are quite rude, although Google Translate isn’t very helpful with this. No idea who’s paying for them all, but on the plus side a lot of the referendum ones seem to have disappeared, although unfortunately not the one I can see from my window. I wonder how long these ones will last for?

Sevastopol/Nato

Sevastopol/Nato

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After the referendum

I’m sitting on the train from Sevastopol to Kiev, on my way to the UK for a trip which has been planned for months.

Sevastopol to Kiev trainUntil yesterday, I wasn’t sure if I would be here. I waited to buy the ticket until the last minute, with no idea whether the trains would be running, or whether Kiev would decide to cut off this link.

Ukraine International Airlines, the national carrier, have stopped all flights between Simferopol (the capital of Crimea) and Kiev, at least until 29th April, but maybe for longer. Turkish Airlines have cancelled all Simferopol-Istanbul flights, although it’s not clear how long for, and they still appear on the departure boards. I’m hoping they restart by 6th April, when I’m due to fly back in. The only flights now are those to Moscow.

Cutting this link to Ukraine is just one of the moves which make me wonder what they and the West really want to happen in Crimea now.

The edge of Crimea

The edge of Crimea

Before the referendum, it was being denounced as illegal. Since then, various statesmen and organisations have repeated their declaration that it is not valid, including Obama, William Hague (the British Foreign Minister) and the UN. In the latter case, it’s interesting to note quite how many abstentions and votes against the motion there were: it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the Western media I’ve seen likes to make out.

Alienation and abandonment?

In the two weeks since the 2014 referendum happened I have read and heard little which makes me think that Crimea would be better off as part of Ukraine. Instead, I’ve seen a series of actions which strike me as the Kiev government repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.

During a press conference in which Ban Ki-Moon welcolmed the fact that Russian would become an official language, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting President, corrected him and told him this would not happen. Linguistic politics is an incredibly complex thing, and every country has a different solution to it. Ukrainian and Russian have very different histories, and there has been suppression of Ukrainian at various points in the past. However, the fact that so many people speak Russian in Ukraine means that it should be an official language in the country, so that those who chose to be educated in Russian-medium schools are not disadvantaged. The government are not trying to punish people for speaking Russian, but they do make life a lot harder for those who are not comfortable in Ukrainian. For example, those in Sevastopol who finished school before Ukrainian independence never studied the language at school. They were then thrust into a world where all contracts and official documents had to be in Ukrainian. Those who say that Ukrainian should be the only official language of Ukraine are clearly threatened by Russian, but I think if they allow people to use it in official situations, they might be more willing to accept Ukrainian on equal terms. The division this has created has exacerbated many of the tensions of the past month. Surely agreeing that Russian can be an official language would go at least some way to appeasing those in cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv?

To counter my own argument, I’m sharing my train compartment with a Russian-speaking family: parents and 30-something daughter. The father has a USSR-Iran tattoo on his arm, so I assume he fought in the Soviet army at some point. When they found out I’d come from Sevastopol, the first thing they asked was whether there were soldiers in the streets. I’ve seen more army trucks in the last few days, but I think that’s because they’re returning to bases. The family are travelling overnight from Melitopol in Southern Ukraine to Kiev, a 12-hour plus journey, specifically to hear Yulia Tymoshenko speak in Maidan tomorrow afternoon – Saturday 29th April 2014. They believe she will be President after the May 25th elections. This is one example of how difficult these linguistic ‘divisions’ really are: Tymoshenko is incredibly pro-Ukrainian; I have no idea what her views on language are.

Sevastopol to Kiev train

A confined space = much discussion

The way that the Ukrainian government treated their servicemen in bases in Crimea is another problem area. For days, servicemen were left to deal with a difficult situation with no direct orders from Kiev. They asked what to do, and were left hanging. When violence kicked off at a base, resulting in the death of a Ukrainian officer, little mention was made in Western media of the Russian who was killed at the same time, and possibly by the same sniper, in what seemed to be an act of deliberate provocation. They were buried in a joint funeral, which again received little coverage. Pro-Russian forces (who may or may not have been official Russian army or navy forces) stormed bases and ships and forcibly evicted many of the Ukrainian servicemen. I don’t understand why this was felt necessary, since Crimea is clearly Russian now, and a Ukrainian invasion started from their bases in Crimea was obviously never going to happen. I suspect the pro-Russians just wanted the whole thing done and dusted, which it seems to be now. However much I might disagree with it, it happened, and the Ukrainian government’s only response, as far as I can gather, was to authorise the servicemen to use weapons in self-defence.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister warned that “the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage” and claimed that “Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian servicemen and that is a war crime”. His government, he added, has now authorised the use of firearms for its forces surrounded in their bases in Crimea.

Thankfully, noone took them up on this. Kiev eventually gave orders to retreat, but this was too little, too late. This was a very difficult decision to make, and I don’t envy the people who had to make it, but blaming Ukrainian servicemen for going over to Russia after they’ve been through all this seems to lack understanding.

A sign in Kiev train station, offering help with accommodation and 'life needs' to Crimeans in the city

A sign in Kiev train station, offering help with accommodation and ‘life needs’ to Crimeans in the city

There is also the rumour of a new law being drafted at the moment. I have seen nothing in Western media about it, but here is an article from RT (an English-language Russian news source) describing it, along with a statement from the UN Refugee Agency expressing concerns about the law. This is the main reason I didn’t get my train ticket until last night – it made people here worry about me going to Kiev, and saying I should travel via Moscow to be on the safe side. This is the third time I’ve travelled on this train, and the first time I’ve had my passport checked. It seems that Crimea will be declared as ‘under occupation’ and that those deemed as helping Russia to get Crimea may be liable for up to ten years in jail. I have no idea about whether the law will be passed (last I heard it had been returned for consultation with over 200 suggested amendments), or how exactly it might be enforced, but they’re going to need some pretty big sticks, and some pretty big prisons, if it’s actually true. And if such a law is passed, what do the government think it will actually achieve, apart from alienating the people of Crimea even more? Also, surely there are more important things they should be worrying about.

Money, money, money

The most noticeable change since the referendum has been financial. I have never been so aware of how the flow of money works as in the last two weeks.

Cash machines have all been empty since a couple of days after the referendum. Apparently, banks are worried about sending money here. Part of this goes back to rumours of the law mentioned above: they may not want to be seen to be ‘helping’ Russia in any way.

PrivatBank, one of the biggest banks here, appear to have pulled out of Crimea completely. Their cash machines were the first to empty out. Shops and restaurants which have card readers supplied by them are entirely reliant on their customers having cash. I’ve never seen the café next to school looking so consistently empty.

I have no idea how long businesses will be able to hold out under this pressure. I managed to get cash at the bank, but I don’t know people with PrivatBank accounts are coping.

It’s not clear what exactly will happen with Privatbank or the other banks here: whether they’ll continue as they are or be bought out or replaced by Russian banks. A couple of Russian banks were already here, but I’ve been told they operate via Kiev, so their status is also up in the air.

Prices have started to appear in roubles, although the Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH) should still be accepted until 1st January 2016. The problem is that the roubles to pay those prices don’t seem to be here yet, although officially they’ve been accepted since Monday 25th March. Things also seem a lot cheaper in roubles, and there’s a lot of confusion over the exchange rate. The official exchange rate is 3.8 roubles to 1 UAH but prices I’ve seen are normally 1 UAH to about 2.5 roubles. Again, surely that will cause economic problems down the line?

That’s not fair, Mr Putin!

Russian and Sevastopol flags flying over a local government building

Russian and Sevastopol flags flying over a local government building

As far as I’m concerned, Crimea is now Russian. I don’t believe that this was anything other than capitalising on the lack of stability in Ukraine at the end of February and the clear desire of Crimeans to be part of Russia, or that it’s in Putin’s interests to add any more territory to the Russian Federation, no matter how many reports there are in the media about where Putin might grab next. There are even rumours that he might be thinking about taking Alaska (I like this Forbes parody). But nowhere else has quite the pull of the Crimean peninsula on the Russian psyche, combined with such long-lasting connections and such an easy way to take control.

The West can’t be seen to let Russia get away with this, so they’re going through the motions of trying to decide on appropriate punishments, but can’t agree what those punishments should be. So far, sanctions have been dismissed by those targeted, and reciprocal sanctions put in place by Russia are likely to have just as little effect. The fact that Russia would be very stupid to try and take any more territory from any country, Ukraine or otherwise (unless there is a genuine threat to Russians there, instead of the trumped up ones their media has been creating), means I think it’s unlikely a next level of sanctions will be put in place. I hope I don’t regret writing that in a few weeks.

It feels like a playground fight which nobody will be able to win.

So where does this leave Crimea?

As I write this, there is an ever-increasing level of distrust between the West and Russia, which is still being reported on during Obama’s visit to Europe. Crimea has become shorthand for the West’s fears of what Putin might be capable of, fears which are being stoked across much of the media I have seen.

People I’ve spoken to here (in Sevastopol) are riding a wave of optimism caused by turning to Russia and distancing from Ukraine. Everyone is excited about what the future will hold and the benefits of being part of a ‘strong’ country.

I am proud to be from Sevastopol. We are one Russia.

“I am proud to be from Sevastopol. We are one Russia.” (apparently quite a common type of billboard around 9th May every year anyway, but these ones have appeared since the referendum)

But Ukraine and the West refuse to recognise that Crimea is part of Russia, and will continue to do so. If they do, Putin will have won.

Crimea will continue to be listed as Ukraine in anything official outside Russia, which will leave it in some kind of legal limbo. Crimeans who want to go abroad will have to get visas from embassies in Kiev, and I assume that visas obtained via Moscow will be considered invalid. This is just one among all kinds of other problems that this in-between status will cause, like where it appears on Wikipedia.

Crimea - a sculpture at the edge of the peninsula

Crimea – a sculpture at the edge of the peninsula

My main question now, and what all this scene-setting has been leading up to, is: what is the outcome which Ukraine and the West are aiming for with regard to Crimea? Crimea will never be part of Ukraine again, but how long will it take for the outside world to realise this? What price will Crimeans have to pay for their choice to be recognised? And why can I only find one article asking this in the media?

The future for Crimea

At 13:00 Crimean time, President Putin gave a speech. It was watched by many people here, and they were talking about it for the rest of the day. People gathered at Nekhimov Square to hear what he had to say:

Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Sevastopol

Nakhimov Square may not have been packed out for the broadcast of Vladimir Putin’s speech but the numbers were decent and the mood good-humoured. Small children cut arcs in the air with the Russian tricolour as their parents’ faces creased into smiles in the sunshine.

The striking thing was the relaxed mood. Security was minimal and nobody seemed bothered by the media presence now. Presumably supporters of union felt they had got their result and could breathe easy.

Afterwards families headed down to the nearby quays to photograph each other against the picturesque backdrop of the bay, tricolours in hand. The waterfront, scene of many tragic chapters in this city of sieges, is a happy place this afternoon.

Afterwards, Putin signed a treaty with the Crimean President Sergey Aksyonov and the mayor of Sevastopol Alexei Chaliy to make Crimea and Sevastopol part of Russia. Sevastopol has a special status, and is officially separate from the rest of Crimea.

More reactions

The general mood of the people around me has been jubilant, with lots of people telling me how happy they are that Crimea will now be part of Russia. There are a lot of smiles, and the mood seems to be much lighter than it was before the referendum.

As I said yesterday, I don’t agree with the way this has happened, but I do think that the results are what the majority of people here truly want, even taking into account the number of people who abstained from the referendum. I don’t believe Crimea can ever truly be part of Ukraine again, no matter whether the international community recognises it as part of Russia or not. From now on, I will assume Crimea is Russian.

What Putin said

Echoing many people here, Putin stated that “In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.” (all quotes from the speech taken from here).

He mentioned the courage, bearing and dignity of Crimeans, and I would extend this to the Ukranian soldiers and sailors who have faced a very difficult situation and remained calm.

“He denied Russia was interested in annexing more territory.” I believe this is true. Crimea has a special status in history which means that it has always been much more Russian than other areas. It is a clear-cut area geographically, and relatively easy for Russia to take control of. Regardless of however much other areas might want to be part of Russia, it will be nowhere near as easy as it was to get Crimea.

He also said: “We have to decide for ourselves, are we to protect our national interest or just carry on giving them away forever?” This seems to be the crux of the matter…

And Ukraine?

The words and actions of Ukraine have really not helped the situation. There were people here who would originally have voted for autonomy within Ukraine, but the perceived weakness of the Ukrainian government and the West, and the ‘strength’ of the Russian government, as embodied by Putin’s statement above, have swayed them towards Russia.

The current government in Kiev has done very little to address the concerns of the pro-Russian factions.

Max Seddon, BuzzFeed tweets to the BBC: The failure to reach out to Russian-speaking Ukraine has created a huge vacuum for Russian propaganda. It spreads like wildfire in Crimea.

This is one attempt they made today, which I feel is too little, too late.

On Tuesday, Mr Yatsenyuk said that “for the sake of preserving Ukraine’s unity and sovereignty”, Kiev was prepared to grant “the broadest range of powers” to Ukraine’s other mainly Russian-speaking regions in the south and east, which have seen pro-Moscow protests in recent weeks.
In a pre-recorded address on Ukraine’s 5 Kanal TV – delivered in Russian – Mr Yatsenyuk said the reforms would give cities the right to run their own police forces and make decisions about education and culture.

From the BBC

Throughout the process, the Ukrainian government has declared the referendum to be illegal and illegitimate, but they haven’t provided an acceptable alternative. I think this was a major stumbling block. If I were Crimean, I would want to be able to choose my destiny now rather than wait for some indeterminate future fate.

I’ve heard people ask what Ukraine has done for Crimea, which I can’t comment on as I don’t know the history. People here talk about all the potential benefits of joining Russia, some of which I will try to discuss below, along with what I perceive to be the drawbacks or the obstacles which will have to be surmounted.

Europe and sanctions

The initial protests in Kiev were sparked after President Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement creating closer ties between the EU and Ukraine. It’s clear that Europe didn’t really think through how Russia would react to this agreement.

As officials now admit, the drafting of the association agreement withUkraine – which was the trigger for the current crisis – was largely left to technocrats.

[…] Perhaps careless of Russia’s history, it involved pulling Ukraine into the European orbit. As one official observed “we never had a substantial debate over where we think Ukraine belongs?”

He went on to bemoan that there was no big debate as to how Russia would react to all this.

From the BBC

They could probably not have anticipated that this would open the door for Crimea to rejoin Russia. Now, along with the US and other parts of the international community, they are fighting a losing battle of putting sanctions in place to try and reverse a fait accompli. The individual sanctions put in place already don’t seem to have phased the Russians at all. Perhaps if the sanctions get worse, it may affect Crimea itself, particularly with regard to the economy. If Russia starts losing money, it will be less willing to invest in Crimea.

Precedents

The events in Crimea have caused other areas to request the right to become part of Russia, chief among them the Trans-Dniester region between Moldova and Ukraine. The citizens of Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine, have also requested a referendum, amid much violence by pro-Russian protestors. I don’t think it will be anywhere near as easy for either of these places to join Russia, since they are both geographically isolated from it (and yes, I know about the Kaliningrad Oblast).

I also don’t think Russia will send troops into either of these areas. The only thing that might change that is if Ukraine cannot find a way to stop the violence in Donetsk and pacify the people there themselves. I think the situation there is much more volatile than it ever has been in Sevastopol.

Of course, there is also the risk that all of this jubilation will be short-lived, and that Moscow will not follow through on its promises. The hopes of the people of Sevastopol and Crimea could be dashed, especially if the corruption those in Ukraine were hoping to escape by getting rid of Yanukovych remains endemic in the region. The New York Times has compared the situation here to what happened when South Assetia first became independent from Georgia.

The economy

In my opinion, this is the area where joining Russia will have the biggest effect, and I think there will be many economic problems here caused by the change over. The Russian Federation will need to invest a lot of money in Crimea, and this may not sit well with other parts of the country. They also may not be able to put their money where their mouth is, and corruption is very much part of life both here and in Russia, so there is no guarantee money will actually get to where it needs to be.

Within a couple of weeks, the Russian ruble will be the official currency of Crimea, with a transition period where the Ukrainian hryvnia will still be accepted.

People are clearly unsure about money they have in Ukrainian banks. I saw long queues at a Privat Bank cash machine today, with about 25-30 people waiting to get their money out. Other Privat Bank cash machines weren’t working at all. This seems to be the main bank people are worried about.

Some people believe that they will earn more as part of Russia than they can in Ukraine.

“In Russia I can earn over three times what I do in Ukraine,” said Svetlana Dzubenko, a Crimean employee on Ukraine’s rail network in her 20s.

“My pay now is 3,000 hryvnias ($300) a month, but in Russia I would earn 45,000 roubles, or about 12,000 hryvnias… I have nothing left once I’ve paid for housing, heating and food. What if I want to save up? What if I get sick?”

From Reuters

This view seems particularly prevalent among pensioners, who state that the Russian pension will be higher than the Ukrainian one. Here’s one man in Yalta. I’ve read other mentions of this, but can’t find them now.

One of the children I taught today was very happy that Crimea had ‘gone home’ to Russia. He said his mum was too, but his dad is not so sure because his business, selling technology like mobile phones, is mainly with Ukraine. It is the small- to medium-sized businesses like these which I think will suffer most from the transition. They do most of their trading with Ukraine and will now have to build up new reputations and new trading partners within Russia, as I think it’s unlikely their Ukrainian partners will want to continue working with them, given the current relations between the two countries.

The Tatars and the Ukrainians

One of the main arguments against Crimea becoming part of Russia has been the status of both the Tatars and pro-Ukrainians living in the region. In his speech this afternoon, Putin had this to say about the Tatar community, which I think is very positive:

The Russian leader adds that most of the other groups are also oriented towards Russia. He mentions that Crimean Tatars were unjustly repressed in the past. He says measures should be taken to finish rehabilitation of the Tatars who returned to Crimea from internal exile.

From Putin’s speech this afternoon, as reported by the BBC

Fears of potential ethnic cleansing, at least from the official Russian side, seem to be unjustified, and in fact, Putin is stating that he wants to help the Tatars.

Bakhchiseray

Bakhchiseray is one of the areas with a large Tatar population.

Some Ukrainian soldiers have been given the option of joining the Russian army, or being allowed to uproot their lives and leave for Ukraine. I don’t know if Russia will make a deal for Ukraine to lease bases in Crimea, but I doubt either side would find it possible to reach an agreement on this, as Ukraine still considers Crimea to be theirs. I also doubt they could find the money to pay for such a lease.

I don’t think it would be in Russia’s interests to persecute the Tatars or the pro-Ukrainians in any way. They already have enough to worry about on the international scene, and they and many of the citizens of Crimea have managed to get what they wanted without violence. It would be pointless to change that now.

However, there is always the risk of stupid people, not controlled by any form of government or military, who take action into their own hands. It is still unclear what exactly happened to one Tatar man who was killed during the last two weeks. As I write this, reports are also coming in of a Ukrainian base near Simferopol being attacked by pro-Russian forces, with reported fatalities, although it is not clear how many or which side they are from:

18:15 GMT: John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, Simferopol

It is clear that the attack on the military base in this city was not directly carried out by Russian soldiers but by armed men sympathetic to Russia.

Rule of law

The roadblocks set up by pro-Russian forces outside cities like Sevastopol, and on the border between Crimea and Ukraine, will have to disappear at some point. It is these people who worry me, far more than the soldiers. They have taken the law into their own hands, and it is not clear exactly who is running them, and where exactly they think their authority is from. Nobody seems to have any control over them, and a lot of them have guns.

One of my colleagues was searched on his way back from Yalta. I have no idea what exactly they were expecting to find, or how their ‘protection’ helps the city in any way. This is one of the reasons why I have postponed my exploration of Crimea and stayed in Sevastopol, despite the beautiful weather of the last couple of weekends.

Other claims of violence and disappearances also need to be verified, investigated, and if proved true, the perpetrators need to be punished.

The legal system

Another transition will be that from Ukrainian law to Russian law. Russia has said that those practising here will be allowed to continue without having to retrain, although there will obviously be a period while they learn how to operate within Russian law.

Two of my students who are related to notaries said their relatives are worried about their jobs, as there is not as much notarising required under the Russian legal system as there is under the Ukrainian one. There is also, apparently, a quota of notaries in each area which is much lower than the current number of notaries in Sevastopol. Despite this, one of them still voted to join Russia. I’m not sure about the other one.

My main concern here is what it means for my legal status in Crimea. I have a Ukrainian work visa and residency permit. I don’t know what I will have to do to make sure I am legally allowed to continue working here now, which is a particular concern since I’ll be going to the UK for a week at the start of April. I’ll be coming back in via Simferopol, in the centre of Crimea, so I’m just hoping they let me back in. There is one major benefit for me and my school here (if the information I found can be believed) – a Russian work visa is only about £35, compared to the £900 my Ukrainian visa cost me.

My Ukrainian residency permit

My Ukrainian residency permit

Education

One of my students is choosing her university for next year. She really wants to study in Kiev as she loves the city, but her mum is now trying to persuade her to study in Russia. There are rumours that students from Crimea will not have to take entrance exams for Russian universities if they plan to start their courses in September.

The recognition of Ukrainian degrees in Russia, and Russian degrees in other countries, particularly Europe and the US, is a major dilemma. I can’t imagine having to factor this kind of choice into my university decisions – it was hard enough choosing a course and a city as it was!

Those training to teach Ukrainian language and literature will now probably have to move to mainland Ukraine to get a job.

There is also the question of what will happen to the Ukrainian schools in Crimea. Will they be allowed to continue to operate, or will they be changed to Russian schools?

What will happen to the curriculum in all schools? Will they have to change it completely? If they do, that means buying a lot of new resources, textbooks, etc., all of which will cost money, as well as causing the inevitable problems with teachers being less familiar with new subject matter.

Utilities, supplies and transport

At present, most of Crimea’s gas, electricity and water comes through the northern tip of the peninsula, where Crimea meets Ukraine. If Ukraine chooses to close off these links, there will be major problems here. It will take a long time and a lot of money for Russia to create the infrastructure to send these things through Kerch, in the east of the peninsula, or to create the means for Crimea to generate the electricity and water it needs by itself.

The transport system is in a similar state. There is a train line from Sevastopol to Kiev, and onwards to Moscow, running through the northern tip of the peninsula. What will happen if Ukraine decides to cut off this connection? There is a ferry from Kerch to Russia, and there are plans to build a bridge linking the two.

Flights from Simferopol airport currently go to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow. I don’t expect the Moscow flights will stop, but I think there’s a possibility that the ones to Kiev might be stopped by the Ukrainian government, and the ones to Istanbul might be stopped because the Turkish government supports the Tatars.

Tourism

Tourism is one of the pillars of the Crimean economy:

Last year, Crimea welcomed nearly 6m visitors, and, according to one estimate, earned as much as $1.5bn from them. A collapse in revenue could endanger the livelihoods of thousands of people employed in the tourist trade.

From the Financial Times

However, since the unrest started in Kiev, well before it arrived in Crimea, cancellations started being made. Now there have been almost 100% cancellations in Sevastopol, according to one of my students in the tourist industry. This summer will probably be very quiet, and there will be a knock-on effect for the Crimean economy, as without the money the tourists bring, there will be a huge hole in the finances here.

The little things

As well as all of these major areas, there are lots of little things which are going to change in life here over the next few months, or maybe even longer.

Underlining the confidence authorities have in the outcome of the referendum, cinemas will begin dubbing Western films in Russian rather than Ukrainian. [This will help me, as I’ve been studying Russian!]

From Reuters

Here are a few others:

  • From the 30th March, we will be on Moscow time (GMT +4), rather than Kiev time (GMT +2). I think we should actually be on GMT +3, but I won’t complain about the few extra hours of daylight in the evening, and not being woken up so early by the sun in the morning!
  • Website addresses will have to be changed to reflect the change of country. Many people here in Sevastopol already have .ru email addresses. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been given a single .ua one, about from the one of my school.
  • The country code for phone numbers will also have to change.
  • Cars will have to be reregistered to have Russian number plates, rather than Ukrainian ones.
  • There is also the question of passports: will people have to change to Russian ones, or will they be able to continue using their Ukrainian ones until they expire? Will there now be a lot of Ukrainian ‘expats’ who choose to stay in Crimea on Ukrainian passports?

I’m sure there are many more changes which will happen, and other ones occur to me all the time. They are certainly interesting times to be living in. Although I could have had no idea about all of this before I came to Sevastopol and was worried about it for a while, I now think it is fascinating to be here and experience this from the inside.

A disclaimer

I’m an English teacher, not an analyst or politician, and until a few weeks ago I had no real interest in politics, and no knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian politics at all. Everything I’ve written in these blog posts has been my own views, shaped by what I have seen and heard in the press and from the people around me.

If I seem to be treating some things more lightly than they perhaps deserve, it is because I and the people I live among will have to deal with all of these changes. There are enough serious issues in this transition that I have to find the silver linings. Having said that, I do not regret my decision to stay in Sevastopol, and I hope to be here for a good while yet.

If you want to read a more professional analysis, The Washington Post has a very good analysis of how things could change, including many of the areas I’ve touched on in the this post.

Reading through my posts shows how my views have changed over time. It is impossible to know what will happen next, but these are undeniably important times for Crimea, for Ukraine, for Russia, and for the world. I only hope that none of the issues raised here will lead to war.

Reactions to the Crimean referendum

Unsurprisingly, the Crimean referendum resulted in a landslide victory for those wishing to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

The incredibly high turnout reflects the fact that this wasn’t just a vote for another politician who probably isn’t going to make any real difference. Instead, it is a vote for the future of the region, and it will have real effects on the people here. I’m still thinking about those, so will write about them later. Instead, here are some of the reactions I heard today.

Some question the legitimacy of the figures quoted after the referendum, citing particularly the fact that many Tatars and pro-Ukrainians abstained and this will have skewed the numbers. This was one of the issues I mentioned in a previous post. What is, however, true is that most people here who voted chose the option they wanted. Nobody I’ve spoken to today felt pressured to choose one way or the other, and all but one of them (of about 10) chose Russia, which I’ve just realised reflects the ‘official’ figures.

The pro-Russians

Long live the Russian fleet!

‘Long live the Russian fleet!’ has been on this building at the mouth of the bay for a few years now

Eugene emails: Hello, I live in Sevastopol, Crimea. I want to assure the citizens of Europe that the holding of a referendum in Crimea 16.03.2014 was absolutely transparent and honest. It may seem that all intimidated in the Crimea, but it is not so! Crimeans long dreamed reunited with their homeland – Russia!
Elena, Sevastopol, emails: Nobody tried to take my vote. Most of the people I know, friends and family, gave their voice with a full heart and were very happy to be able to vote… In my city, most of the people that were born here or live here feel like they are Russian. We live like Russians, we think and talk in Russian… When my friends from all over the EU ask me where I am from, I’ll answer that I am from Sevastopol and that I’m Russian. Everybody is waiting to see what Russia will do now.
From the BBC live feed of events today

In the first class I taught today, one of my older students (a woman in her 60s) came in with a huge smile on her face. In Russian, she asked the two younger students (in their 20s) ‘Happy?’ She told me that this was a decision for the future, and that young people might not understand, but she hoped it would help her children and grandchildren.

Another person told me she and all her friends voted for Russia because it was the right thing to do. She said they had made a free choice in the vote.

The BBC interviewed a lawyer in Simferopol yesterday who reflects the views of some of my students, and slightly surprisingly for me, falls into the younger age bracket. One of my youngest students, too young to vote, posted on social media in Russian that she was pleased with the results too.

The pro-Ukrainian

Long live the Ukrainian fleet!

The Ukrainian fleet responded in kind: ‘Long live the Ukrainian fleet!’

One student said she had voted for Ukraine, but her mum, who may have trouble finding work in Russian Crimea, still voted to leave Ukraine. My student seemed to have taken the result well though – I don’t think she expected anything else.

On a side note, the Sevastopol office of Yulia Tymoschenko’s very pro-Ukrainian ‘Batkivshchyna’ (Fatherland) party, which used to be in the offices on the floor under our school, have disappeared over the weekend.

The not-so-sures

A couple of people were non-committal about the results, and weren’t really sure whether it was a good thing or not that Crimea has voted to become part of Russia. I don’t know if they voted or not. They are waiting to see what will happen next.

The celebrations

There were big crowds celebrating in Sevastopol yesterday, which I saw on the webcam but didn’t take a screenshot of. The BBC showed celebrations in Simferopol, which seemed to be even more ecstatic. At 8pm tonight there was a fireworks display in the centre of Sevastopol to celebrate the results of the referendum.

My opinions

I don’t remember if I’ve said this before, but I strongly believe that people here should have a right to choose, but the way that the Crimean Parliament has gone about it is completely wrong. There has been no considered debate, a large proportion of the Crimean population have been cut out of the argument completely and propaganda has been used to confuse people (not saying that it has changed their minds, but it doesn’t allow clear thinking).

I also wonder who Sergey Aksyonov is and what right he has to have voted in as the Prime Minister of Crimea. This is the one vote I’m aware of which really could be said to have been at the barrel of a gun.

Despite all that, I think that people here do want to be part of Russia. There is now no doubt in my mind that this is what the majority of people in Sevastopol, and across Crimea want. The phrases ‘A dream come true’ and ‘We’re going home’ have been used repeatedly in videos I’ve watched of people talking about their choices. Even if everyone voted who could have done, the referendum would probably still have gone in favour of Russia, although it would have been much less of a landslide.

I don’t believe there is really anything short of military action which anyone can now take to make Crimea part of Ukraine again, and I don’t think the world is willing to do that. Nobody wants a war. That’s not to say that there should be no repercussions for that way that this situation has unfolded, but that those repercussions should be against the people who have pushed the whole process, rather than the normal people in the street who have exercised their rights to vote.

So now it remains to be seen whether the ultimate consequences of holding this referendum will be the positive ones many people here expect, and just how long the fallout period will last.

The eve of the referendum

I went for a walk in the local park today.

Walk in the park Walk in the park

I saw this in the distance.

Ship sailing pastIt joined its friend.

Military shipsI don’t know where they’re from, but I’d be surprised if they’re not Russian. They’re outside the entrance to Sevastopol harbour. They join this ship, which has been inside the harbour for at least a week now, maybe even two or three. (My sense of time is completely gone, since everything is moving so fast here.)

Ship in the mouth of Sevastopol bayI also (unintentionally, on the bus) went past two Russian naval bases in a part of the city I haven’t visited before. The sailors near the entrance seemed to be relaxed, no different to how I’d seen sailors in other bases before this all started.

While in the same part of the city we went into a café, which turned out to be one of the polling stations for tomorrow. People periodically came in and went through this door to collect their polling cards.

Get your polling cards hereTomorrow, they will weave their way past the café tables, take their polling cards into these booths and cast their votes.

Polling booths

The BBC shows how another polling station has been set up in Simferopol. On a random note, I notice that the curtains are in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. I wonder how deliberate that is, and whether anyone has even noticed!

Talking about flags, there were considerably more of them on display today, and they were all Russian. People were carrying them, had them tied to bags, they were hanging from shops and flats, and I even saw a pram with one. The flags were in all of the parts of the city I visited or travelled through today.

When I was in the centre yesterday, I saw a cavalcade of cars flying Russian flags beeping their horns loudly. There were enough to completely surround this roundabout. (No, it’s not a real police car.)

Cars flying Russian flags Cars flying Russian flags

They went past my flat today.

About half an hour later a lot of bikers went past, who I assume were the Night Wolves.

While I was writing this, a referendum van went past with a loudspeaker I can’t understand, but which was clearly sharing pro-Russian messages. This is the third or fourth time I’ve heard the van in the last few days.

This evening, when my bus went past Nekhimov, the main square where people gather here, I noticed a stage has appeared (I don’t know when) and people were beginning to gather. I’ve just taken this screenshot from the live webcam of the square.

Webcam screenshotThere are a lot of Russian flags in the crowd, and from what I could see in the brief glimpse I got, there was a large banner hanging at the back of the stage with the Russian flag and Россия written on it.

The first part of this BBC video is all filmed in Sevastopol, including the first man interviewed. I’m not sure if the woman who follows him was in Sevastopol too. The BBC have also been going to other parts of Crimea to interview people there, for example in Saky (I echo this man’s reservations about the lack of background knowledge about the Crimean Prime Minister) and Novo-Ozyorne. I’m pleased  that they are trying to give a voice to those who support autonomy too, because they seem to have been completely shut out here.

Since yesterday, a lot of the buses have been carrying poster versions of this billboard:

Home, to Russia

16 March. Home, to Russia. (The text on the right is the two referendum questions, with a tick in the ‘Russia’ box)

The bus I went into town on today accompanied said poster with two more sheets of A4 with four or five sets of statistics/graphs comparing Russia and Ukraine. From what I could understand they were all connected to the economy, and one of them was definitely about the financial reserves of the two countries. I think another one was about petrol prices. With my beginner-level Russian, I’m pretty sure they were trying to show that Crimea would be better off financially in Russia.

Those who are organising the propaganda campaign are certainly leaving little to chance.

Debunking a few myths

There are lots of myths floating around about the current situation in Ukraine, and particularly in Crimea. Here are a few I’ve been asked about which I’d like to debunk.

Is the internet still working there? I heard it had been cut off.

Erm, yes. Hence the barrage of blogposts. Apologies to those who really aren’t interested, but I promise I’ll get back to teaching stuff at some point in the future when I run out of things to say about this.

Are the mobile phone networks jammed?

Nope. All working fine as far as I know.

Are there restrictions on cash withdrawals?

The BBC reported that there are rumours of restrictions on withdrawals to 300UAH (about $20), but today I managed to take 1000UAH out of my Ukrainian account with no problem at all.

Having said that, I’ve seen a queue at a cash machine belonging to PrivatBank. This evening, the card readers weren’t working in the supermarket I normally go to, and I think they’re supplied by PrivatBank too, but that could have been a glitch in the system. There’s nothing on the PrivatBank website about any restrictions, as far as I can work out with Google Translate.

Isn’t it dangerous being in Sevastopol right now?

Only if you have no common sense. It’s no more dangerous than anywhere else. I avoid large groups of people, and don’t go out by myself at night, but that’s pretty similar to when I’m abroad anywhere else in the world. Nothing’s really changed that.

My life is the same as it was before, except that now every conversation ends up being about the referendum and what will happen on/after Sunday. Here are a few more webcams showing the city (the middle one is very close to my school).

A spring afternoon in Sevastopol

I took this in the centre of Sevastopol at about 5pm today

What about the soldiers? Don’t you feel under threat?

Nope again. I’ve seen less soldiers since they ‘invaded’ than I did in the run up to it. That could of course mean the Russian ones are all busy barricading Ukrainian soldiers in their bases instead of hanging around Sevastopol, but I don’t really know.

And Kiev?

My students here were very surprised when I said I was going to Kiev. Since I’ve come back, their first question is normally ‘What was it like there?’ and they are surprised when I say it was fine. Even Maidan was calm when I was there.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned…

The prices are starting to creep up here. I first noticed it with the buses, which went up by 50 kopecks (0.5 UAH) per journey on the 5th March. That may seem like a tiny amount when it’s exchanged, but here it’s quite a rise, increasing prices from 2UAH to 2.50UAH on the cheapest buses. Food prices are rising too, and the medicine that I buy every 25 days has also increased by about 30UAH (up to 657UAH). I’m lucky that I’m on a good salary, but many people were already struggling and this will just make it worse.

Exchange rates are also higher here. According to xe.com, the rate was just over 15UAH to £1 yesterday, but when my friend changed money for me it was 18UAH.

I don’t know if this is only in Sevastopol/Crimea, or if it’s also happening across other parts of Ukraine.

Any more for any more?

Crimean referendum billboards

They’re everywhere. Every set of billboards between my flat and the school I work at has at least one of them. And I can see one from my bedroom window:

Fascism or Russia

On the 16th March we choose, …or…

Thankfully it doesn’t fill my window anywhere near this much. It’s the one I dislike the most, although it’s a close-run thing.

I took all of the following photos during a 20-minute walk from my flat.

This one started appearing in a couple of places about three weeks ago, but there are more of them now. As far as I know, the painting is from the ‘Defence of Sevastopol‘ during the Second World War. The photo on the right shows red and black flags, which are considered fascist by many here.

Defend Sevastopol

‘Defend Sevastopol’

Do not be afraid

Referendum – 16th March. Do not be afraid. Change for the better.

Spring

16 March – referendum. Spring. Sevastopol – Russia.

Home, to Russia

16 March. Home, to Russia. (The text on the right is the two referendum questions, with a tick in the ‘Russia’ box)

There are four billboards about the referendum in this photo, although you might have to look closely to spot them all:

Four referendum billboards

There are also the two billboards I’ve already shared:

'Stop fascism' billboard

‘Stop fascism’, ‘Everyone go to the referendum’, ‘Pravy Sektor’ (crossed out)

16 March billboard

The least militaristic of the billboards here: ’16th March: We choose our future!’ (although the colours are still those of Russia…)

There is another one which I haven’t managed to get a photo of yet, but the BBC have, showing marching feet and the slogan ‘Vote in the referendum to stop fascism’.

(Update: I photographed it a couple of days later. Here it is.)

Fascism will not pass!

Fascism will not pass! Everyone to the referendum.

The same BBC article describes the range of ways in which Crimeans are being urged to vote for Russia. My students have commented on the fact that there are now no (or only one – it depends who you talk to) Ukrainian language TV stations being broadcast in Sevastopol.

The large TV screen in the photo below shows video advertising accompanied by music. It’s just around the corner from my flat. When I walked past there was a series of slogans like ‘Our history’, ‘Our heroes’, ‘Our city’, all accompanied by pictures, with the phrase ‘Все на референдум’, loosely translated as ‘Everyone to the referendum’, at the end.

TV screen

And then there’s the graffiti:

Crimea - Russia

Crimea – Russia

As I said yesterday, there is no pro-Ukrainian advertising at all. The Moscow Times had this to say:

In a distorted local propaganda campaign, the referendum is often presented to Crimeans as a choice between securing peace, prosperity and security as a Russian protectorate, or being subject to discrimination and violence under a “fascist Ukraine.”

So it seems pretty much a given that this time in four days I’ll be living in Russia. Bridget Kendall, from the BBC, shows how the map of Ukraine has changed over time, and it looks like it’ll change again soon.

Moscow is apparently already sending humanitarian aid to the city of Sevastopol, although their definition of humanitarian aid differs somewhat from what I always thought it was. Hospital supplies, fair enough, but computer equipment for schools and bonuses for war veterans sound slightly suspicious to me.

On a side note, I’ve noticed that the range of flags which used to adorn bus drivers’ dashboards have largely disappeared. A month or so ago, you could see Russian, Ukrainian, Black Sea Fleet, Sevastopol, and Mercedes Benz (!) flags in various combinations, including the Russian and Ukrainian flag side by side on the same dashboard. I can only remember seeing a couple of Sevastopol banners (230 years of the city) in the past three weeks, although I’ve noticed more Russian flags appearing in cars instead.

The BBC’s Christian Fraser interviewed some Crimeans (in Simferopol I think) about their views of the future. The generation gap is visible again. He also talked about what Ukraine has threatened to do, in terms of cutting off food and fuel supplies. As we were saying today at school, that’s hardly likely to encourage people to vote to stay part of Ukraine.

The Moscow Times has also talked about how the residents of Crimea see the future. I’ll leave you with the final two lines, which are particularly telling:

While the situation in Crimea is often represented in clear-cut, unequivocal terms, people living on the peninsula seem to be more perplexed than anything else.

“Many people are in favor of Russia, many are against it, but most do not even understand what is going on,” Meshkov said.

Update: 19th March 2014

Today I went to Yalta, and saw three more referendum billboards which we didn’t have in Sevastopol/I missed – the ones I shared before are still all over Sevastopol, although they’re gradually starting to disappear.

16 March - historic chance!

16 March – historic chance!
Literally: ‘Error will not forgive any ancestors or descendants’
‘A mistake will not be forgiven by (y)our ancestors or descendants’
The ribbon is the St. George Ribbon

Together with Russia! 16 March - refendum

Together with Russia! 16 March – refendum

16.03.2014

16.03.2014 – everyone to the referendum

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