March 18, 2020, marked six years from the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. This year, the so-called “reunification” was celebrated without mass gatherings but still in the presence of President Vladimir Putin himself, despite the pandemic. The celebration had particular symbolic value for Putin who had announced his intention to remain in power until 2036 pending approval in a nationwide referendum (currently postponed due to COVID-19).
When compared to other Russian regions, Crimea seems to be among the least affected, with only 294 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 19 May, even though Russia’s official case counts have been put in doubt, domestically and internationally. For the sake of comparison, according to the same official data, Kaluga – an oblast with half of Crimea’s population – has over 2,600 cases.
Yet the pandemic has brought to the fore the complex and ambivalent nature of Crimea as a Russian region that most of the international community considers illegally annexed and thus still part of Ukraine. Last March, at the G20 Summit, Putin suggested a moratorium on international sanctions in order to facilitate the fight against COVID-19 – a proposal that was largely disregarded. The sanctions regime has certainly had a negative impact on Russia’s pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries, despite its long-standing import substitution policy.
Within Crimea itself, the pandemic brought to light inconsistencies as to the status and mobility rules for Ukrainians resident in the territory of Crimea. Kiev considers the peninsula to be “temporarily occupied” Ukrainian territory and a specially established Ministry for the Reintegration of Occupied Territories manages relations with Ukrainian residents there. Three checkpoints connect Crimea with the rest of Ukraine and the movement of people through those checkpoints had been constant before the pandemic, with more than 1.5 million people crossing in both directions every year. Ukrainian citizens resident in Crimea can go to Ukraine for work or errands, access Ukrainian medical care, apply to Ukrainian universities, and obtain biometric passports to travel abroad.
In mid-March, Ukraine imposed limitations on allowing exit for Ukrainian citizens who are permanent residents in Crimea and entry for Ukrainian citizens who are permanent residents in Ukraine. In addition, Ukrainian citizens are allowed to cross the border on “humanitarian grounds”, which include reuniting with one’s family or travel to get medical care. However, it is not clear how the border guards interpret these provisions on the ground. As of 30 April, the mobility between Crimea and Ukraine decreased by approximately 50% in both directions, according to official Ukrainian data.
Since 17 March, residents of Crimea are required to self-isolate and those arriving from outside the peninsula, including from Ukraine, to stay in quarantine for 14 days. Crimean authorities established draconian fines for those not self-isolating and have massively deployed Cossacks for patrolling and enforcing these provisions. As of 1 May, everyone arriving in Crimea is to be placed “under observation” in “dedicated facilities” for 14 days, whereas homeowners can self-isolate in their own homes. Against this background, there is growing acrimony in the local population that sees these measures as a way to legalise the arrivals of rich tourists and homeowners from Moscow and St Petersburg who want to spend the quarantine period in their summer homes or at seaside resorts. While Crimea’s air traffic has fallen by an estimated three-quarters and rail traffic five-fold during the pandemic, there has been a peak in arrivals by car via the Kerch Bridge.
The crisis poses specific challenges to the Russian military based on the peninsula. While three military construction sites are under lockdown after more than thirty construction workers tested positive in late April, there is no data on the spread of the virus among the military contingent. The city of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is headquartered, is quarantined with extremely strict entry and exit rules to avoid the dire consequences of a possible spread of the infection. Two QR-code passes, one issued by the Crimean authorities and one by the city of Sevastopol, are needed to get in, while everyone who enters from outside of Crimea is forcibly put under observation in a dedicated facility for 14 days at his/her own cost. At the same time, the military draft in Crimea went on despite of the lockdown.
The pandemic is likely to exacerbate Crimea’s dependence on Moscow. The Crimean economy, named the fastest growing economy in Russia just a few months ago, will suffer from the likely reduction of subsidies from Moscow as well as from the loss of tourism revenue. Following the annexation, Crimea became heavily dependent on subsidies from the federal budget: more than $13 billion in Russian funds have been allocated to or will be spent on Crimea between 2015 and 2022. A big question mark looms over Moscow’s ability to sustain the subsidies at this level under the circumstances. Tourism, Crimea’s primary source of independent revenue, is also likely to drop considerably and Russian officials do not expect to see pre-coronavirus levels of tourism before January 2021.
As in other Russian regions, in Crimea crisis management of the pandemic has been largely put on the shoulders of the regional administration. Yet the Crimean situation stands out for a number of reasons. The devolution of responsibility for the crisis from the center sits uneasily with the region’s heavy dependence on federal support. Moreover, because of the military bases it is de facto under a dual regime of civilian and military administrations that work in relative isolation from each other. On the societal level, conflicting allegiances of its population and latent tensions are likely to come to the fore as the crisis deepens and scapegoating spreads. The same goes for the deep-seated mistrust of the “outsider” elites who have traditionally been seen by Crimean residents as coming in to exploit without giving back to the local communities.