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Russia

Crimea's rocky path to Russia

As Russian President Vladimir Putin holds meetings in Crimea, reality is setting in for the peninsula's remaining inhabitants. They expect Russia to spend the money needed to improve their standard of living.

The sun shines down on the city center of Sevastopol where people stand outside banks, office buildings and mobile phone shops, most of which have run out of SIM cards. People are buying prepaid phones to avoid paying expensive roaming charges as Ukrainian service providers suspend service in Crimea.

Problems like these hamper people's daily lives in the "new" Crimea, where five months after Russia annexed the peninsula, much of life seems improvised and provisional. On the city's roads, traffic signs announce destinations in Ukrainian while vehicle owners have put stickers of the Russian flag over the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag on their license plates.

Hardly an ATM machine in the city still works and anyone needing cash can expect to wait in long lines at the bank. Ukrainian banks have closed but Russian replacements, fearing Western sanctions, have barely opened. People who put their savings in Ukrainian banks are currently fighting with a Russian fund established to compensate depositors who saw their money confiscated. The fund pays out in rubles, of course, and not more than the equivalent of about 14,500 euros ($19,400) per account.

A shuttered Ukrainian bank in Sevastopol
Photo: Jurij Terechow / DW

Ukrainian banks in Sevastopol have closed

"It's like the lottery," Ihor Savchenko told DW of his communication with the fund's administration. "The fund is not reliable - some applications are not processed while others are."

Russian tourists arrive

Meanwhile, tourists - though not as many as before the Crimea crisis - stroll along the banks of the Black Sea. While Ukrainians avoid the region, Russians are eager to get an up-close look at their country's legendary Black Sea Fleet, which has been stationed in Sevastopol since the times of the czars.

These Russian tourists say making Crimea a part of Ukraine was a historic mistake on the part of the Soviet Union. That's made annexation souvenirs especially popular this summer: T-shirts with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin or pictures of the infamous "green men" - the soldiers in green uniforms bearing no national insignia who first occupied Crimea in the spring.

Ihor Savchenko
Photo: Jurij Terechow / DW

Savchenko said he will keep his Ukrainian citizenship

Savchenko shook his head at the newfound excitement for all things Russian. He will stay Ukrainian and keep his Ukrainian passport, he said, adding that such a step will likely make him a foreigner in his own homeland and that Russian officials will have to approve his residence permit. "I am a Ukrainian!" he said.

The 24-year-old said he fears that trading his Ukrainian passport for a Russian one could get him ejected from the joint research project. "At my university, I'm working on a research project with a university in Vienna. As far as I know, the European Union has not recognized that Crimea is a part of Russia."

Players without an association

At the edge of the city, two youth soccer teams practice on a dried-out pitch. The 14 and 15-year-olds dream of going pro - the Sevastopol team played in Ukraine's top league. But the Russian annexation put another hurdle on the path to making their dreams reality.

"Our professional team doesn't exist anymore," said Yaroslav Zaitsev, one of the boys practicing. "They are trying to put together a new one, which we, of course, are all afraid of."

Russian officials prohibited the Sevastopol team from playing in the Ukrainian league and the Ukrainian association won't let the team leave to participate in the Russian league. Seeing a bleak future, the professional players have moved to Ukraine to play for other teams.

Vera Taranova
Photo: Jurij Terechow / DW

Vera Taranova, left, said she was glad for the free health benefits from Russia

But others in Crimea, like Vera Taranova, are happy to be a part of Russia. Leaving a line smiling, the pensioner waves an envelope bearing the Russian coat of arms, a two-headed eagle. The envelope holds her new Russian health insurance card, which is mandatory for everyone in Russia and paid for by Russian taxes. "No one in Ukraine was ever concerned about our health," she said.

That, however, isn't entirely true. Ukraine's health insurance system was in place before the Russian invasion, in which the insured had to pay premiums directly. "Now the Russian state is taking care of us and everything is free again," Taranova said. "Like in the Soviet Union."

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