When I left Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin had already annexed Crimea, but the border guards at Simferopol airport were refusing to accept it. Three of them were squeezed into a glass box made for two, stubbornly stamping the word “Ukraine” on our passports as we passed by.
We were flying from Simferopol to Moscow on Aeroflot, meaning this was now technically a domestic flight, and border guards weren’t required. But they were sticking to their orders. As far as they were concerned we were leaving Ukraine, and our passports should show it. “We are military people, and we are not allowed to discuss such issues," the senior officer, a man with short brown hair and the Ukrainian crest on his epaulettes, told me. "However, if we are here that means we have orders to be here.” He didn’t exactly sound happy about it.
That was on Wednesday, and events have moved so fast that those border guards are probably no longer there. The Duty Free shop may well be gone, too, since you only get tax-free shopping if you are flying between countries, something that the woman working there told me that she was gloomily aware of. All the formalities have been completed: Russia has taken Crimea, and Putin is moving fast to cement his hold on the place.
This is the second time Putin’s Russia has decided to unilaterally re-draw the map of Europe. In 2008, he recognized the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after Russia’s short war in Georgia. I was in Abkhazia when that happened, and the celebration was every bit as euphoric there as there were in Simferopol's Lenin Square when Crimeans voted to join Russia. Abkhazians have a lot of weapons, and streams of tracer bullets poured into the night sky, then rained down and rattled on the rooftops.
Abkhazia and Crimea have a lot in common. They are both temperate and hilly, with long stretches of the Black Sea coast. They were once the Soviet Union’s prime resorts. While Mikhail Gorbachev favored Crimea, Nikita Khrushchev vacationed in Abkhazia, including when he planned the Berlin Wall. Leon Trotsky convalesced in Abkhazia too, and gave a speech after Lenin’s death from the balcony of the Ritsa Hotel in central Sukhumi. The Soviet Union's most favored workers strolled along Sukhumi’s promenades, and bared their pallid, northern bodies beside the warm waters of the Black Sea. This all ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the local Abkhaz rose up against the Georgian government.
A short and nasty war ended with total Georgian defeat, and with the expulsion of most of the ethnic Georgian half of the population. The destruction of Abkhazia during that 1992-94 war, the destitution caused by losing half of its population, and the degradation caused by 15 years of neglect stopped it looking like an elite resort, or much like a resort at all. By 2008, when Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence, it looked threadbare. Instead of the Moscow elite coming to relax, bargain-hunters from southern Russia slopped through the trash on its beaches. The locals left for Russia to seek work, or sat at home and lived off those who did. Independence, the revellers of 2008 had hoped—just as Simferopol's celebrants do today—would bring not just security but also prosperity.
It didn’t, and the euphoria of 2008 has turned very sour.
In the run-up to the Crimean referendum, my friend Anaid Gogoryan, a journalist for Radio Liberty in Sukhumi, asked ordinary Abkhazians if they would like Abkhazia to stop being independent, to give up what their fathers had fought for. Overwhelmingly, her respondents said that they would, so she put together a report and posted it on the internet. She was met with fury, as Abkhazians attacked her for a lack of patriotism, for undermining the country, for serving foreign interests, when all she had done was report ordinary Abkhazians’ opinions.
She asked the radio station to delete the article to halt the abuse. It was replaced with an article defending her, by her friend Akhra Smyr. All she had done, he said, was reflect popular discontent with what independence had delivered. It wasn’t her fault that ordinary Abkhazians would give up independence in return for a better life.
“People who say they want to join Russia don’t really want to join Russia, they just want Russian standards of life, which are higher than in Abkhazia. They want salaries like in Russia, and healthcare like in Russia, law and order and calm,” her colleague Akhra Smyr wrote in a blog post for the radio station. “It’s not their fault that their idea of the crowning glory of civilisation is Russia and not Switzerland or, say, Luxembourg. They haven’t seen Switzerland or Luxembourg, just Russia.”
Independence has done nothing much for Abkhazia. Houses are still ruined, jobs are still scarce, roads are still pot-holed. The only noticeable change is the increased number of men driving around in very expensive black cars, an indicator that at least one sector of the economy is doing well.
The last time I was in Abkhazia, in December, I was hovering outside a café to hook onto its wi-fi when the widow curtain pulled back and a man in his early 20s, a bottle of French champagne sitting before him, snarled at me, “Fuck off or I’ll shoot you.”
The trouble is that Abkhazia isn’t properly independent. It is only recognized by Russia, and a handful of other countries Russia has bribed into joining in, meaning it can’t benefit from all the things independence could bring—trade, security, tourism, and so on.
Crimeans who supported becoming a part of Russia often told me it was for financial reasons. Russia would pay higher pensions, higher salaries. Crimea would have everything it had before—the tourists, the business, the international links—plus all those lovely roubles. The trouble is that that won’t happen. Crimea won’t be properly a part of Russia unless the rest of the world accepts Russia’s annexation, and there is no imminent prospect of that happening.
Crimea will be isolated. Its residents will no longer be able to travel easily to mainland Ukraine or Turkey, or to receive visitors from there. A poster for Turkish Airlines beside the road to the airport in Simferopol announced that, from April, there would be two flights a day from Istanbul. Soon that poster will be as tattered and forlorn as the one saying “Happy Ukrainian Independence Day,” and there won’t be any flights at all, except to Russia. Crimea’s party was as fun as Abkhazia’s, but I fear the hangover will last a long time. A lot of Russian parties are like that.
Oliver Bullough is the London-based author of The Last Man in Russia.