MOSCOW – Despite the pebble beaches and cliff-hanging castles that made Crimea famous as a Soviet resort hub, the Black Sea peninsula has long been a corruption-riddled backwater in economic terms. The Kremlin, which decided to take the region from Ukraine after its residents voted in a referendum to join Russia, has begun calculating exactly what it will cost to support Crimea’s shambolic economy — which one Russian minister described as “no better than Palestine.”
Here’s a look at what Crimea needs most and the economic challenges Russia faces in absorbing it:
In the rapid run-up to the referendum in Crimea, voters were bombarded with the message that the grass was a lot greener on the Russian side.
President Vladimir Putin may have fanned such sentiment during Ukraine’s anti-government demonstrations that preceded the Russian invasion of Crimea. He sympathized with protesters, casting them as fed up with an economy mismanaged by “one group of crooks” after another. And he extolled the comparative success of the Russian economy — firing off figures about pensions and wages in both countries to argue that people were better off in Russia.
On Monday, one day after the referendum, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov wrote on his official Twitter account that Moscow had provided 15 billion rubles ($400 million) in aid to the region, which he said had doubled the Crimean budget overnight.
“This is a platform ideal for taking risks … and for realizing economic miracles,” said Russia’s business ombudsman Boris Titov.
“NO BETTER THAN PALESTINE”
But as the Russian dream of acquiring Crimea becomes a reality, Moscow is trying to calculate the price tag of bringing in a region that — in the words of Russian Regional Development Minister Igor Slyunyayev — has an economy that “looks no better than Palestine.”
As part of Ukraine, about 40 per cent of Crimea’s annual budget of roughly $500 million was propped up by subsidies from Kyiv. Russia would be expected to at least match — and probably far exceed — the Ukrainian annual contribution to raise living standards in its new territory.
Living standards in Crimea are drastically different from Russia. The GDP per capita in Russia, home to more than a hundred of billionaires, is about $14,000. In Crimea, it’s about $5,000.
Demographics are one major hurdle. More than 500,000 people — about a quarter of the population — are pensioners. Pensions in Russia are about double what they are in Ukraine, and former Russian tax minister Alexander Pochinok estimated that paying pensions in Crimea alone would cost 70 billion rubles ($1.9 billion) per year.
Many Crimean residents make their living through tourism, although much of that money is kept off official ledgers and therefore difficult to tax. About 70 per cent of tourists in recent years have been Ukrainians, in large part because the peninsula’s only road and railroad links are to mainland Ukraine. The industry is likely to be hard hit as many Ukrainian travellers stay away this summer, although Russian authorities have pledged to reduce the cost of air travel to the peninsula to bolster travel to the region.
DEPENDENCE ON UKRAINE
Crimea is highly dependent on Ukraine for energy and water, most of which is supplied across the thin strip of land that connects the peninsula to the mainland. About 80 per cent of the region’s electricity is supplied across the isthmus. The governor of Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, which is separated from Crimea by a stretch of water called the Kerch Strait, pledged to provide electricity to the peninsula by building an underwater supply system. Other officials have said Crimea may need to build its own electricity plant — a project that could come with a price tag of nearly $1.7 billion, analysts say.
Russia has promised to bolster infrastructure in the region. Moscow and Kyiv have been talking about building a bridge over the Kerch Strait for more than a decade, but the project has repeatedly stalled. In recent weeks, Russian officials have eagerly revived the project, which is estimated to take years and cost at least 50 billion rubles ($1.4 billion). They also are now discussing building a railroad and underwater tunnel across the strait.
Even as the Crimean government has threatened to nationalize Ukrainian government property, Kyiv has promised not to turn off the taps to energy and water.
“(The Kyiv government) is eager to be seen as reasonable and moderate through all this; they don’t want to give the Russians an excuse for further intervention,” said Timothy Ash, an analyst at Standard Bank. “The danger of being obstinate might be that Russians would decide to intervene around Crimea to secure water and utility supplies.”
SMALL CHANGE FOR RUSSIA
Even if all of these projects add up to billions of dollars, it may still be small change to the Russian government.
“For Russia’s budget this is not a big deal,” said Nataliya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank. “Even if you spend $5 billion or $10 billion, this is not money that dramatically changes things.”
Russia had a total of over $170 billion stashed in two rainy day funds as of late February. It tapped into this money to try to shore up the regime of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia last month.
Orlova argued that Crimea’s annexation could in fact turn out to be positive for Russia’s economy in the short term, because investment could spur a consumption boom in Crimea.
But Crimea has long been known as an organized crime hub, and the Kyiv government’s longstanding reluctance to meddle in the autonomous region has meant that a culture of corruption has been tacitly allowed to flourish in the region since the Soviet collapse.