Moscow and most Russian regions saw a series of huge rallies at the end of January and early February, in which protesters demanded the immediate release of Russian dissident and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Remarkably, on January 23, a crowd of several hundred pro-Navalny demonstrators even gathered in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol (illegally annexed, along with the peninsula, from Ukraine in 2014) (Spektr, January 23). Since the start of the Russian occupation, Sevastopol City and Crimea have persistently figured, along with Chechnya, among the top three federal regions in terms of local public confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin (RBC, January 25). But some Western experts, in particular former State Department analyst Paul Goble, suggest that ongoing problems in Crimea are approaching the level of an economic and humanitarian catastrophe that will inevitably lead to a weakening of Moscow’s position in this geographically detached region (Krymr.com, January 4).
One of Crimea’s biggest problems is an insufficient supply of fresh water, a crisis that has been worsening over the past few years (see EDM, February 26, May 21, August 12, 2020). At the beginning of 2020, Russian social activist and founder of the group Clean Shores–Crimea, Vladimir Garnachuk, declared that, because of the geographic characteristics of the region and the predatory policies of the Russian authorities, the freshwater problem in Crimea is becoming effectively insolvable. As of January 2020, the local Belogorskiy reservoir had dropped to below 15 percent capacity, while the flow of water from the Mizhgornoye reservoir, upon which Russian authorities were counting, had stopped entirely (Krymr.com, January 10, 2020).
Since the onset of winter, the situation has only worsened. In December 2020, rationing was introduced in Simferopol, Yevpatoriya and Yalta. According to the local water utility, the amount of fresh water in the reservoirs feeding the Yalta resort region reached a historic low—less than 10 percent (Znak.com, December 17, 2020). The occupying Russian authorities have tried several targeted programs to ensure Crimea’s water supply, with the allocation of about 8 billion rubles ($110 million) since 2014. Plans have included building and reconstructing reservoirs as well as repairs to other infrastructure (Cntd.ru, August 14, 2015). But as noted by experts, not a single fresh water supply program had been entirely fulfilled by the end of 2020 (Krymr.com, January 26, 2021).
Another significant problem is corruption, including the forced nationalization of local companies—something local residents consider state-sanctioned corporate theft (Secretmag.ru, March 15, 2015). One result of this nationalization has been the “distribution” of sanatoriums (combination health-and-wellness and vacation spas) to individuals in the Prosecutor’s Office, Federal Security Service (FSB), Investigative Committee and other law enforcement bodies (Krymr.com, January 26, 2021).
Despite such blatant corruption schemes, the Russian authorities are investing huge amounts into the development of Crimean infrastructure (see EDM, December 8, 2020), frequently with little regard to environmental consequences. Even according to official Russian ecological ratings, occupied Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol City rank 67th and 78th, respectively, out of the country’s 85 federal regions. The most pressing regional problems, besides the water supply, are air pollution, contamination of reservoirs in northern Crimea, as well as the accumulation of garbage (RIA Novosti, December 24, 2020).
New construction additionally results in the seizures of agrarian lands or private plots for new infrastructure with minimal or sometimes no compensation. This affects primarily land plots that were bestowed on Crimeans by the Ukrainian government before the annexation (Krymr.com, October 21, 2019). As a result, many residents thus deprived of their property are leaving the peninsula, which, in the opinion of human rights activists, is part of a targeted government policy to replace the local population with migrants from mainland Russia.
In the words of Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev, along with Crimea’s indigenous population, entrepreneurs and opposition-minded people, workers in key industries are being ousted from the peninsula, including managers, doctors and education specialists, likely to lead to crises in those sectors, especially healthcare (Krymr.com, June 21, 2017). The severe shortage of doctors was already evident even before the COVID-19 pandemic, when the deficit of medical personnel in the region was 1,500 (Octagon.Media, October 16, 2020), leading to complaints about local healthcare services (Krymr.com, September 24, 2019).
Despite these problems and the growth of popular socio-economic discontent, the latest wave of opposition protests still occurred at a lower level inside Crimea compared to most other Russian regions. Crimean journalists suggest several reasons for this. First, Alexei Navalny’s organization is poorly developed on the peninsula. Second, most Crimean opposition groups have a historically pro-Ukrainian character, and therefore they are much less involved in the internal Russian protest agenda. Relatedly, pro-Ukrainian groups and the national Crimean Tatar movement are the main targets of repression by the Russian security services, making their activities on the peninsula especially difficult. Finally, another peculiarity of Crimea is the relatively high level of regional residents’ personal loyalty to Putin, despite strong dissatisfaction with the actions of the local (occupying) authorities. As a result, protest activities, when they occur, are concentrated at the local level. For example, throughout 2020, rallies in Crimea focused on water shortages, the suspension of housing subsidies, labor contracts, economic red tape, and minority (Crimean Tatar) rights (Krymr.com, January 5, 2020).
Another means the Kremlin ensures loyalty in Crimea is through the active work of law enforcement. This includes not only the repression of Crimean Tatars but also strengthened monitoring of social activism. In recent years, the FSB presence in Crimea has grown, as evidenced by the constructions of new official buildings and residences for the arriving security officials (Flot2017.com, August 10, 2020).
The tracking of student activism in Crimea has become tougher than in other Russian regions. In particular, teachers in a number of Simferopol schools demanded that parents report every two hours that their child is under adult supervision (Crimeahrg.org, January 22, 2021). At the same time, in Crimea—as throughout Russia—the authorities run a well-functioning system of children’s organizations of a militaristic nature (see EDM, January 6). And Michael Talan, a United States–based IT specialist, asserts that the government has installed a system of total surveillance over the Crimean population, which utilizes facial recognition software that analyzes footage captured by a dense network of outdoor video cameras. Today, apart from Crimea, Russia deploys similar technology only in Moscow (Krymr.com, April 8, 2020).
All of these measures will surely continue to restrain popular discontent for some time. However, sooner or later, that artificially pent up anger may finally spill into Crimean streets. And when it does, it could be directed not only against the local authorities but against the federal center, as well.