Mother Russia's sweet embrace.

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One Year Later, Crimeans Prefer Russia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As European leaders engage in shuttle diplomacy to still the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, where the Russian onslaught began almost a year ago, has become all but forgotten. It isn't the subject of any talks, and the international sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula are light compared to the ones stemming from later phases of the conflict. Yet Crimea provides a key to understanding the crisis and its potential resolution: Ultimately, it's all about how the people in disputed areas see both Russia and Ukraine.

Ukrainian political scientist Taras Berezovets, a Crimea native, recently started an initiative he called Free Crimea, aided by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives and aimed at building Ukrainian soft power on the peninsula. He started by commissioning a poll of Crimean residents from the Ukrainian branch of Germany's biggest market research organization, GfK. The poll results were something of a cold shower to Berezovets.

GfK Ukraine's poll wasn't based on actual field work, which is understandable, since a Ukraine-based organization would have a tough time operating in today's Crimea, which is rife with Russian FSB secret police agents and ruled by a local government intent on keeping dissent to a minimum. Instead, it conducted a telephone poll of 800 people in Crimea.

The calls were made on Jan. 16-22 to people living in towns with a population of 20,000 or more, which probably led to the peninsula's native population, the Tatars, being underrepresented because many of them live in small villages. On the other hand, no calls were placed in Sevastopol, the most pro-Russian city in Crimea. Even with these limitations, it was the most representative independent poll taken on the peninsula since its annexation.

Eighty-two percent of those polled said they fully supported Crimea's inclusion in Russia, and another 11 percent expressed partial support. Only 4 percent spoke out against it.

Berezovets is inclined to credit Crimea's "Orwellian atmosphere" for some of that near-unanimity. He's probably right. Given the ubiquitous FSB attention and the arrest of some pro-Ukrainian activists -- the persecution of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is the cause celebre -- as "extremists," few people are likely to be brave enough to condemn the annexation on the phone, especially when the caller is a stranger. In Russia itself, polls show 85 percent support for Putin, but it's hard to calculate how much of that is motivated by caution: it's best to treat those numbers as an indication that most people are willing to acquiesce rather than to protest.

Yet answers to other, more neutral questions show Crimeans are not interested in going back to Ukraine.

Fifty-one percent reported their well-being had improved in the past year. That especially concerns retirees, who started receiving much higher Russian pensions. Being part of a wealthier state -- and, despite its recent economic woes, Russia is still far wealthier than Ukraine -- is a powerful lure, despite a drop-off in tourism revenues, the peninsula's major source of income. Berezovets' group estimates they dropped to $2.9 billion in 2014 from $5.1 billion the year before -- but that is being compensated by transfers from Moscow. In 2015, the peninsula will receive 47 billion rubles ($705 million), or 75 percent of its budget, from Russia, not counting the increased pensions. Ukraine never financed the peninsula at that level: in 2014, it planned to transfer 3.03 billion hryvnias ($378 million at the time) to Crimea.

Crimeans' year of upheaval has made them sophisticated news consumers: They have learned to reject the propaganda flying at them from all sides. Eighty percent say Ukrainian coverage of their region is all or mostly lies. While 84 percent watch Russian television from time to time, only 10 percent say they trust it. Social networks have become the most trusted source of information: 29 percent say they rely on them.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was the biggest worry for 42 percent of respondents. It's more important to them than inflation, which 40 percent of the respondents named, or the peninsula's de facto transport blockade by Ukraine, which worries 22 percent of those asked. 

Taken together, these answers suggest that a majority of Crimeans see Ukraine as a poor and unstable country where the media are hostile toward them. That's largely an accurate assessment that has nothing to do with fear or brainwashing from Moscow. All things considered, Ukraine is not at this point a welcoming alternative to Russia. As Berezovets pointed out, the Kiev government has not even passed a single legislative act to help the Ukrainian patriots who fled the peninsula after the annexation. It's true they are a smaller group, by two orders of magnitude, than those displaced by the fighting in the east -- the government puts their number at 19,941 people -- but they are still a sizable community of pro-Kiev people who were left to fend for themselves after leaving their houses and other property in what is now Russian territory.

Legal and diplomatic matters aside, people want to live in countries that they see as wealthy and safe. It's hard to imagine anyone thinking of today's Russia in these terms, but people's thinking is often relative. That's why, according to Russian data, 850,000 people from Ukraine's eastern regions have fled across the border. Fewer refugees -- 610,174 people -- chose to resettle in other parts of Ukraine. 

Kiev's claims on Crimea and the rebel-held areas are legally indisputable, and the March 2014 referendum that Russia used as justification for Crimea's annexation was a half-hearted imitation of a ballot carried out in the sights of Russian guns. Still, Ukraine has a long way to go before people in these areas actually want to be governed from Kiev. A year after what Ukrainians call their "revolution of dignity," many of them appear to believe even Moscow is preferable. Propaganda can't solve this problem: It takes money, political will and a friendly attitude toward wary, disillusioned citizens.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net