The conflict over Crimea has been seen by the press as a struggle between Putin’s imperial ambitions and Western influence in the post-Soviet space — a fight between democracy and authoritarianism. This image makes for a fascinating, though scary, show that is grandiose enough for the characters like Zbigniew Brzezinski, John McCain, and Russia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky to play starring roles. With such political heroes at the forefront, it is easy to overlook the people with the most at stake — the 2 million inhabitants of Crimea whose state affiliation has suddenly become a matter of the highest geopolitical importance.
Such unprecedented international attention must feel very surprising for Crimeans since nobody seemed to care or even know much about them just a couple of month ago. Vladimir Putin had zero intention of protecting his “compatriots” in Crimea from being robbed by the corrupt Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, while European Union officials restricted its citizens’ contact with Crimeans by means of a restrictive visa regime. Even Crimeans’ own national government in Kiev didn’t trust many of them – like the 350,000 inhabitants of Sevastopol – to elect their local administration. Now, everyone seems to care, though this attention is not likely to bring much good to the Crimean population.
No matter who wins in the geopolitical struggle, the Crimean people have already lost. The Soviet-style results of the bizarre Crimean referendum — where people were presented with a choice of becoming a part of Russian Federation immediately or proclaiming independence first and joining Russia later — can only mean that the peninsula has great turmoil in its future. Being one of the poorest regions of Ukraine with little more than $2,000 GDP per capita, Crimeans seem to be doomed to become more misery. For one, Crimea’s predominantly government-owned infrastructure is strongly integrated with mainland Ukraine. Stuck in the limbo between Ukraine and Russian states, Crimeans are almost certain to face energy and water shortages, and state-controlled transportation roots are likely to be blocked for months at least.
To make matters worse, the peninsula’s economy is highly dependent on tourism. With an average salary of merely merely $280 per month, Crimeans will undoubtedly experience a drop in income this year as visitors are scared away by the ongoing crisis. In previous years, 70 percent of Crimean tourists have been Ukrainian citizens, and travel to Crimea from the mainland is dangerous nowadays.
Even Russians will probably choose to stay away. No matter what the Kremlin’s pro-war propaganda may tell them, most people find it hard to enjoy the beach alongside war-ready military forces. Thus, they are unlikely to fill the tourism revenue gap. On top of that, economic activity in almost every other sector is likely to be severely distorted, if not paralyzed, due to uncertainty in ownership and the legal regime, trade distortion, and marauding.
Regardless if Crimea remains in Ukraine or successfully accedes to Russia, Crimea won’t have much of its economy left after this crisis. With little business activity surviving, its population will emerge almost completely dependent on state subsidies. The situation will cement structural conditions, killing hopes for sustainable economic development and prosperity on the peninsula for the years to come.
Maria Semykoz is a Young Voices Advocate working as a management consultant for an American company in Berlin. A native of Ukraine, Maria’s commentary on the country’s crisis has appeared in Forbes, The Daily Caller, and National Review.