Crimea to vote on Sunday whether to join Russia

Sevastopol - Activists cite IMF data, pledge better wages, pensions.

Sevastopol - Outside the squat Soviet-era building that houses Sevastopol’s authorities, pro-Russian activists have covered the wall with a blizzard of flyers aimed at persuading residents of Crimea to vote to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia on Sunday. Patriotic extracts from the Russian national anthem jostle for space with emotional condemnations of the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, the capital, highlighting what many ethnic Russians here say are its fascist tendencies. But look carefully and you’ll find more practical appeals for people’s votes. One, entitled “Ten demands from the International Monetary Fund that will put Ukraine on its knees”, says the IMF will cause Ukrainian living standards, already lower than Russia’s, to plummet. Next to it, another sheet of A4, entitled “Our home is Russia”, reprints what it says is glowing praise from the IMF of Russia’s key economic indicators, telling voters how much higher average wages and pensions in Russia are than in Ukraine.

As Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities seek to ensure what they say will be a landslide victory for those who want this strategic peninsula to become part of Russia, they are making a simple pitch for voters: Your standard of living will rocket if you become part of Russia. Not all of the information being given to voters is accurate. The “Our Home is Russia” flyer tells voters Russia is the fifth largest economy in the world. It is in fact the eighth. But the gap between the two countries’ economies is nonetheless yawning. Ukraine’s economy, according to the IMF, is only the world’s 54th biggest, and with a size of $176 billion is dwarfed by Russia’s, which is over $2 trillion.

Caught up in a frenzy of patriotism fuelled and sustained by Russian state media, many ethnic Russians here in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and Crimea’s most Russian city, don’t need much persuading how to vote. Fifty eight percent of Crimean residents are ethnic Russians. But the promise of higher living standards, a pledge aimed more at winning over ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, who together make up 36 percent of the population, is cementing ethnic Russian convictions and, for many, is the clincher. “Even though Crimea has been part of Ukraine all these years, Russia is the one that has invested so much money here. So much that it’s even hard to list it all. Ukraine has done nothing,” said Nikolai, a 35-year-old merchant seaman, who declined to give his surname. “In Russia, wages and pensions are much higher even though the prices for goods are about the same as here. With Russia our standard of living will be higher, much higher”. In one of the most militarised areas in the world where the landscape is scarred by dozens of Soviet-era bases operated by the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, the question of servicemen’s wages is also an important one. As Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities try to persuade encircled Ukrainian forces to surrender their arms, renounce their oath, and switch sides, the promise of salaries more than double the Ukrainian military wage is on offer. A campaign flyer pasted on a crumbling wall in the town of Bakchisaray, a place with a large Tatar population, says joining Russia means “pensions, wages and social help at Russia’s level” as well as infrastructure investment. The alternative, to stay with Ukraine, means “lower pensions and salaries and the removal of welfare benefits,” it says, combined with “higher gas and electricity bills” and “our land being sold off to oligarchs and foreigners”. “Make your choice. Don’t be slaves,” it concludes.

Nationalist pro-Kremlin Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky reinforced that message on a visit last month. “You will always have Russian gas. You will always have millions of Russian tourists!,” he told a crowd. The crowd roared back: “Thank You!” Zhirinovsky promised Russia would give “any amount of money” to help Crimea and south and eastern Ukraine if needed, and would ensure no-one went cold. Trundling towards Crimea on a train from Kiev, Svetlana Dzubenko, an employee on Ukraine’s rail network in her 20s, says the attraction of earning Russian-level wages is a powerful one. “In Russia I can earn over three times what I do in Ukraine,” she said. “My pay now is 3,000 hryvnias a month, but in Russia I would earn 45,000 roubles, or about 12,000 hryvnias doing the same thing. Right now I have nothing left once I’ve paid for housing, heating and food. What if I want to save up? What if I get sick?” As the United States and the European Union weigh economic sanctions against Russia to punish it for what they view as its illegal military intervention in Crimea and its support for a referendum they regard as illegitimate, people here recognise their living standards might get worse before they get better. Despite the lure of what they think will be a better life as part of Russia, they say they are ready to soak up some economic pain too. “For a Russian person the economy is not priority number one,” said Julia, an ethnic Russian housewife. “We’ve been through a lot before and we won’t betray our motherland so we can buy 100 different sorts of sausage like people in the European Union”.

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