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Under Russia, Life in Crimea Grows Chaotic

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The line outside the government office in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, where new Russian passports were being processed. Credit James Hill for The New York TimesThe line outside the government office in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, where new Russian passports were being processed. Credit:nytimes.comAfter 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, reports.

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 Mr. 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,” using the Russian for bordello and 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 curriculums. 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 P. 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, ‘O.K., 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, Ms. 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, the Crimean capital. “We also have transportation, economy, construction, medicine, culture and many other things.”

Other changes in national identity elsewhere, like the “velvet divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, happened with more advance planning. Crimeans feel as if they went through the entire reverse process in 1991, when Ukraine left the Soviet Union, which had transferred the peninsula to Ukraine from Russia in 1954. Confused? So are they.

For Crimeans, every day overflows with uncertainty.

Food imports, for example, have dwindled in the face of murky, slapdash rules. The Crimean authorities recently banned cheese and pork from Ukraine, then announced that full Russian border controls would be put in effect on Friday. Shoppers are suddenly finding favorite brands of ordinary items like yogurt unavailable.

Citing logistical problems, McDonald’s closed. Metro, a giant German supermarket chain, also shut down. Most multinational businesses want to avoid possible sanctions elsewhere for operating in Crimea.

Flight connections have been severed except to Russia. Crimea officially moved an hour ahead to Moscow time, but cellphones automatically revert to Ukrainian time.

In Dzhankoy, about 55 miles north of this capital city, Edward A. Fyodorov, 37, has been selling ice cream since he was 9 years old. Those sales eventually led to a fleet of 20 refrigerated trucks. He used to import all manner of food from Ukraine, including frozen buns and salad fixings for McDonald’s, plus various goods for Metro supermarkets and 300 smaller grocery stores.

Business is off 90 percent, he said. Five to seven truckloads a day have diminished to about one a week. He has been looking for Russian suppliers, but products cost about 70 percent more and transportation issues are thorny.

Crimea lacks a land border with Russia, about 350 miles away through Ukraine. The lone ferry crosses to Crimea from an obscure corner of the Caucasus. An expensive bridge promised by the Kremlin is years away.

“It is impossible to make any plans or forecasts,” said Mr. Fyodorov, voicing an almost universal lament. Even if he found work, he said, closed banks make payments impossible.

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.) President Vladimir V. Putin announced Thursday that he hoped to have Russian banks functioning normally in Crimea within a month.

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, Mr. Putin said, but given the promises the Kremlin has made regarding infrastructure and doubled pensions, among other things, 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.


Maxim and Irina Nefeld, a young Moscow couple, had dreamed about living near the sea for so long that they were on Crimea’s southern coast seeking land on March 18, the day Mr. Putin announced the annexation.

They found a pine-covered lot, a third of an acre with a sea view, for $60,000. They agreed to buy it, but could not complete the deal without the land office, or find a bank to transfer the money.

The next day the owner asked for $70,000. Mr. Nefeld went back to Moscow to get it in cash. When he returned on April 10, the landowner demanded $100,000.

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 a month ago 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. Ms. 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 the 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 said, laughing, 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.”

April 23 2014, 09:34

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