Crimean voters' rosy view of Russia blinds them to a different reality

Neighbour not the land of milk and honey some are painting it as ahead of referendum tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 9:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 1:59am

People clustered around official-looking posters in the Crimean capital, pointing excitedly and taking notes. The signs compared public salaries, pensions, health benefits and fuel costs in Ukraine and Russia.

In each case, life in Russia looked better.

"My pension is miserable, but soon I'll be getting almost twice as much," said Yuri Khotchiv, 79, a retired engineer who receives US$210 a month from Ukraine's government. He said he planned to vote to join Russia in tomorrow's referendum - partly out of patriotic sentiment and partly because of promises such as those on the posters.

Watch:Crimean family divided over vote on closer Russian ties

Moscow and pro-Russian leaders in Crimea have dangled a variety of carrots in front of Crimean residents, depicting Russia as a stable, paternalistic state with more jobs, higher wages, lower taxes, better health insurance, easier university exams and far more generous payments to the critical demographic of military and civilian retirees.

In the port city of Sevastopol, a newspaper featured an interview with city council head Dmitri Belik, who ticked off several benefits Ukrainians would receive if they became Russians. Soldiers and sailors would automatically get higher pensions, retirement ages would be lowered by five years, and government workers would keep their jobs with higher pay. There would be a three-month tax holiday and child care.

"Think about your families," Belik said. "Do you want to live in a prosperous country or be poor in a country governed by traitors and thugs?"

Yesterday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would "respect the will of the Crimean people".

He was speaking after more than three hours of talks in London with US Secretary of State John Kerry, at which they failed to find any common ground on solving the crisis over Ukraine.

In a telephone conversation with UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, President Vladimir Putin also rejected Western accusations that referendum in Crimea region would be illegal, making clear the vote would go ahead as planned tomorrow.

In the run-up to the vote, the bureaucratic complexities and less pleasant implications of switching nationality have remained harder to pin down. Many government offices are barely functioning, and queries about concerns ranging from banking rules to compulsive military service - which Russia requires and Ukraine does not - have mostly met with uncertain or evasive shrugs.

Exchange rates and bank account security are also subjects of public anxiety. In Simferopol, lines at ATMs and at currency shops have got longer. Some customers said they were trying to verify that their accounts were safe, some were trying to withdraw as much cash as possible. Others were buying US dollars.

Asked about the hardships they might encounter during a transition, several ethnic Russians said nothing would matter except being reunited with their homeland. "We are so euphoric that everything else seems minor," said Victor Grigorovich, 75, a retired government worker.

But Khrykava, 33, said Crimeans who imagined a perfect life under Russia were "dreaming of the old Soviet Union, where the state provides you with everything. We younger people think in a more independent way. We don't want the state to give us everything. We want to take responsibility, to take risks, and to be free."