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Originally published Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 6:11 AM

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Under Russia, life in Crimea grows chaotic

One month after Russia’s lightning annexation of Crimea, residents of this Black Sea peninsula find themselves living not so much in a different state as in a state of perpetual confusion. Few institutions are functioning. As one man put it, “This is a mess.”


The New York Times

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SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — After Russia annexed Crimea practically overnight, the Russian bureaucrats handling passports and residence permits inhabited the building of their Ukrainian predecessors, where Roman Nikolayev now waits daily with a seemingly mundane question.

His daughter and granddaughter were newly arrived from Ukraine when they suddenly found themselves in a different country, so he wonders if they can become legal residents. But he cannot get inside to ask because he is No. 4,475 on the waiting list for passports. At most, 200 people are admitted each day from the crowd churning around the tall, rusty iron gate.

“They set up hotlines, but nobody ever answers,” said Nikolayev, 54, a trim, retired transportation manager with a short salt-and-pepper beard.

“Before we had a pretty well-organized country — life was smooth,” he said, sighing. “Then, within the space of two weeks, one country became another.” He added, “Eto bardak,” meaning “This is a mess.”

One month after the lightning annexation, residents of this Black Sea peninsula find themselves living not so much in a different state, Russia, as in a state of perpetual confusion. Declaring the change, they are finding, was far easier than actually carrying it out.

The chaotic transition comes amid evolving tensions in nearby eastern Ukraine, where the possible outcomes include a Crimea-annexation replay.

In Crimea now, few institutions function normally. Most banks are closed. So are land registration offices. Court cases have been postponed indefinitely. Food imports are haphazard. Some foreign companies, like McDonald’s, have shut down.

Other changes are more sinister. “Self-defense units,” with no obvious official mandate, swoop down at train stations and other entry points for sudden inspections. Drug addicts, political activists, gays and even Ukrainian priests — all censured by either the government or the Russian Orthodox Church — are among the most obvious groups fearing life under a far less tolerant government.

In fact, switching countries has brought disarray to virtually all aspects of life. Crimeans find themselves needing new things every day — driver’s licenses and license plates, insurance and prescriptions, passports and school curricula. The Russians who have flooded in seeking land deals and other opportunities have been equally frustrated by the logistical and bureaucratic roadblocks.

“The radical reconstruction of everything is required, so these problems are multiplying,” said Vladimir Kazarin, 66, a philology professor at Taurida National University. (The university’s name, which derives from Greek history, is scheduled to be changed.) “It will take two or three years for all this chaos to be worked out, yet we have to keep on living.”

On a deeper level, some Crimeans struggle with fundamental questions about their identity, a far more tangled process than merely changing passports.

“I cannot say to myself, ‘OK, now I will stop loving Ukraine and I will love Russia,’ ” said Natalia Ishchenko, another Taurida professor with roots in both countries. “I feel like my heart is broken in two parts. It is really difficult psychologically.”

The Crimean government dismisses any doubts or even complaints.

“Nonsense,” said Yelena Yurchenko, the minister for tourism and resorts and the daughter of a Soviet admiral who retired in Crimea. These “are small issues that can be resolved as they appear,” she said, adding, “It might result in certain tensions for the lazy people who do not want to make progress.”

Legions of Russian officials have descended on Crimea to teach the local people how to become Russian. In tourism alone, Yurchenko said, Crimea needed advice about Russian law, marketing, health care and news media.

“Can you imagine how many people need to come to work here for just that one sector?” she said in an interview, explaining why even her ministry could not help anyone find a hotel room in Simferopol. “We also have transportation, economy, construction, medicine, culture and many other things.”

Long lines snake outside the few Russian banks operating. (Some Crimeans waiting in line resorted to a Soviet-era tactic of volunteering to maintain epic lists — at one passport office the list stretched to more than 12,000 names.)

The Kremlin, which has announced plans to make Crimea a gambling mecca, set an official deadline of Jan. 1, 2015, for the transition. The initial cost allocated “to all Crimean programs” this year will be $2.85 billion, said Russian President Vladimir Putin, but given the promises the Kremlin has made for everything from infrastructure to doubling pensions, the eventual annexation bill is expected to climb far beyond that.

Prices are often quoted in both Ukrainian hryvnias and Russian rubles, but the exchange rate fluctuates constantly. Even the simplest transactions like paying taxi fares result in haggling by calculator.

Land sales, despite surging demand from Russians wanting seaside dachas, have stalled because land registration offices are closed.

Russian laws leave some groups out in the cold. Russia bans methadone to treat heroin addiction, for example. As local supplies dwindle, the daily dosage for 200 patients at the clinic here has been halved.

“It is our death,” said Alexander, 40, declining to identify himself publicly as a recovering addict. Unaware that methadone was illegal in Russia, he voted for annexation.

Crimeans are occasionally alarmed by armed men in uniforms without insignia who materialize at places like Simferopol’s train station, inspecting luggage and occasionally arresting passengers. Various people detained in protests against the referendum have not resurfaced.

When confronted, the uniformed men tell Crimeans that they are “activists from the people” who are “preserving order.”

Archbishop Kliment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, vilified by its Russian counterpart, said Russian priests with armed supporters had threatened to confiscate churches in at least two villages. His 16 priests sent their families and their most valuable icons to the Ukrainian mainland for protection, he said.

Natalia Rudenko, the founding principal of the capital’s one Ukrainian school, said city officials fired her shortly after a member of the self-defense forces visited, demanding to know why the school was still teaching Ukrainian and not flying the Russian flag. Yurchenko, the tourism minister, said the school could continue to teach Ukrainian, since the new Constitution protected the language, but it would need to add Russian classes.

It is hard to tally the many branches of government not functioning. Court cases have been frozen because judges do not know what law to apply. Essential procedures like DNA testing must now be done in Moscow instead of Kiev.

One traffic officer confessed he had no idea what law to enforce — he was being sent to school two hours a day to learn Russian traffic laws.

Lawyers, their previous education now irrelevant, plow through Russian legal textbooks wrestling with the unfamiliar terms.

“I won’t be able to compete with young lawyers who come from Russia with diplomas in Russian law,” said Olga Cherevkova, 25, who was previously pursing a Ph.D. in Ukrainian health care law.

She is weighing whether to abandon the land of her birth, of her identity.

“Maybe I should just pack my suitcase and move to Miami,” she laughed, then caught herself. “I am laughing, but it is not really a joke. I want to live in a free country. Still, for me as a lawyer, it is interesting, if a bit strange.”



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