The Current

Russian Regrets? Crimeans disenchanted 2 years after annexation

Two years ago in a referendum, Ukrainian-controlled Crimea voted to be annexed to Russia. Two years on, Mother Russia is anything but nurturing as Ukrainian nationals and a Tatar minority leave out of fear and Western sanctions squeeze those who remain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill in March 2014 to annex the Crimean peninsula but Ukraine and most of the international community do not recognize its annexation. (Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

As the second anniversary approaches of Crimea's annexation by Russia, new reports from Crimea suggest the honeymoon may be over, and that that so-called "brightest page in history" may have seriously dimmed.

People take part in celebrations for the first anniversary of the Crimean treaty signing in Sevastopol, March 18, 2015. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Ninety-five per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia in a hastily-arranged 2014 referendum.Canada was among the many nations that declared that vote illegitimate, but it was clear that many Crimeans welcomed their return to Russia. 

Though since that's happened, all has not been well. Crimea is increasingly isolated internationally, and coping with heavy western sanctions. It has been in a state of emergency since last November, when important powerlines were sabotaged by suspected anti-Russian activists. Energy shortages are rampant. The economy is in shambles. There are reports of human rights abuses. And the prospects for returning to Ukraine, as some would hope, are vanishing. 

Dmitry Porfirov left Crimea late last year and now lives in Lviv, Ukraine. Originally from Simferopol, he was against the annexation in 2014 and didn't vote in the referendum. By the end of last year, he felt his life was just too unstable under Russian rule and left his homeland to provide a better life for his two daughters.

Inside Crimea, ethnic Tatars are one of the groups most fiercely opposed to Russian annexation. Tatars have a troubled history with Russia. The Soviets deported them from Crimea in the 1940s, sending them to central Asia. They only returned in the 1990s. And since Moscow has reclaimed Crimea, ethnic Tatars report being persecuted. 

Ridvan Bari Urcosta, a Tatar and political scientist who left Crimea a few months after the Russia took control in 2014, shared his experience as a Tatar before and after the referendum vote.

Crimean Tatars and local residents light candles during a memorial ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea, in Kiev, May 17, 2014. (Konstantin Grishin/Reuters)

We called the Russian embassy for a response to the issues we just heard about the Tartars in Crimea, as well as those Dmitry Porfirov talk about. The ambassador was not available, but they sent a statement.

With regards to human rights abuses against Tatars, the embassy says:

"These allegations are totally baseless and are coming from a small group of people aligning themselves with Ukrainian nationalists.They are not supported by the overwhelming majority of the Tatar community who welcome the positive changes that have happened after Crimea reunited with Russia... [These] include recognizing the Tatar language as one Crimea's official languages."

With regard to the recent sabotage of powerlines into Crimea, the statement says:

"This provocation failed because Russia managed to provide electricity and other energy and food supplies for the mainland."

Prior to its annexation two years ago, tourism was one Crimea's biggest earners. While there are signs that it could be slowly returning, the region seems destined to remain in this state for some time to come. Sanctions remain in place, even as, last week at the Davos Summit, Ukraine's finance minister said her country would make a new diplomatic push to take back Crimea.    

Journalist Dimiter Kenarov has been covering Crimea over the past two years. He says Crimea's isolation needs to end as the situation is increasingly getting worse, and the region is becoming what he refers to as a "perfect breeding ground for large-scale corruption, profiteering and human rights violations."

This segment was produced by The Current's Catherine Kalbfleisch.