How do residents of the occupied Crimea remember 2023? Some recall the massive attacks on military facilities, air raid alarms, and their introduction to bomb shelters. Others remember the record increase in prices for various goods and services, while some highlight the most unsuccessful tourist season.
"The best thing to do is simply forget the year 2023 like a bad dream. Last year, we felt all the 'charms' of war, from explosions to economic consequences. If anyone had any illusions that everything would end quickly and improve, or that russia has the most powerful air defense and other weapons, and no one would dare to explode anything on its territory, those illusions shattered. Last year clearly demonstrated us that Crimea is not just a frontline territory but a real front, with all the resulting consequences", - said Oleksandr, a resident of Sevastopol, who permanently moved to the mainland of russia at the end of last year.
OstroV spoke with several Crimeans, and they all note that it was the worst year in decades.
"Everything bad that could happen happened last year: a new attack on the Crimean bridge, strikes on ships, submarines, airfields, military bases, a bunch of combat drones, air raid alarms, bomb shelters, unprecedented inflation on all goods and services, even the weather turned against Crimea. Not to mention the ongoing exodus of people from here, especially young people", - Kateryna M., a resident of Simferopol, notes.
The "local authorities" also do not hide their pessimistic mood. Crimean "deputy" and communist Sergey Bogatyrenko named the main problems for the peninsula's residents as the lack of affordable housing, jobs, and decent wages. He also highlighted demographic issues in Crimea.
"The birth rate is 1.7 times lower than the mortality rate! Uncertainty about the future prevents women from taking this responsible step – becoming a mother for the first time or deciding on another child. Every second marriage breaks up, including due to everyday problems: lack of housing, kindergartens, and jobs", - the "deputy" summarized the year for Crimeans.
OstroV investigated how yet another year of war affected the lives of Crimeans.
According to the UK Secretary of Defense Grant Shapps, in the last four months of 2023, 20% of the russian Black Sea Fleet was destroyed, and russia's dominance in the Black Sea is under threat.
For a long time, local residents perceived the war as something "somewhere far away". But the past year, as they themselves admit, became a cold shower for many Crimeans.
"The war is not somewhere there, not nearby; it is already here. This understanding took a very long time to form, but only the second half of the year finally shaped it. Anything can hit anywhere and anything. So there are many more people who want the war (or the special military operation) to end. Not victory, not surrender, but specifically the end of it", - says Svitlana N., a resident of Yevpatoriia.
Much changed in late September 2023. After the attack on the headquarters of the russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, locals learned for the first time what air raid sirens and bomb shelters are.
According to the so-called governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, the city entered a "new situation" since the attack on the russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters, requiring both authorities and citizens to respond systematically to what is happening with clear coordinated actions. However, as practice has shown, the occupying authorities were unprepared for such a situation, causing a storm of indignation among local residents.
"And who needs this show? First, do something, and then present it to the people. The war has been going on for a year and a half, and they decided to introduce alerts in one day. According to my son, who was at school during the alert, they asked everyone to go to the gym on the ground floor with panoramic windows. Can you imagine that? Half the school was crammed in there, no ventilation, one restroom, no water, everyone shouting and making noise. Some grades even continued their lessons. It's madness", - said Sevastopol local Mykhailo, speaking to OstroV back in September.
Several months later he told us that nothing has changed. Bomb shelters still do not function properly, air raid signals go off sporadically and not in all areas, sometimes sounding only after the first explosions.
The issue of the condition of shelters was commented on by the russian "head" of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, who hinted that the city would not be involved in repairing and equipping shelters.
"Do not expect that someone will come and stock up on water, install chairs, flooring, and provide ventilation. It is impossible to improve all temporary shelters; it requires billions. We prepared shelters a year ago while Sevastopol was relatively calm. But what is happening now is already a reality. And it is impossible to foresee everything", - he wrote in his Telegram channel.
Lately, according to local residents, psychological pressure has been intensifying. For example, in early 2024, leaflets began to appear in Sevastopol, reporting alleged planned Ukrainian attacks on Sevastopol. The "local authorities" called the information in these announcements fake, but the psychological effect remained.
"This is also manifested in comments on social media: they write all sorts of things there. Sometimes they hack into radio, television, and broadcast threats there", - says Simferopol resident Kateryna M.
Crimeans also pay attention to the constant statements from Ukrainian authorities and Western leaders that Crimea will be reconquered by Ukraine.
For example, President Volodymyr Zelensky believes that in 2024, Crimea and the associated battle in the Black Sea will become the focal point of the war.
"The isolation of Crimea, illegally annexed by russia in 2014, and the reduction of russian military potential on the peninsula are extremely important for us because it is a way to reduce the number of attacks from this region", - he said in an interview with The Economist.
The President is convinced that a successful operation would serve as an "example to the world" and would also have a significant impact within russia: the loss of a central element of kremlin propaganda would show that "thousands of russian officers died solely because of putin's ambitions".
Former Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, also believes that Ukraine will continue to exert pressure on russians in occupied Crimea.
"The most strategically important part of Ukraine, occupied by russia, what we call the 'decisive territory', is Crimea. Ukraine will do everything possible to continue exerting pressure on russians, making it unacceptable for them to stay, including the russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, as well as russian forces at Crimean airbases and their bases for logistical support in Dzhankoi", - he stated.
A resident of Sevastopol, Oleksandr, noted that it was precisely because of such statements that he decided to leave his home and move into russia.
"I understand everything; Ukraine can say such things, but constantly hearing about it is psychologically very difficult. As much as I love my home, I still decided to leave. I hope that in a few years, I can return to a safe, prosperous, and tourist-attractive Crimea. Right now, it is effectively involved in military actions, and staying there is extremely unsafe", - he told OstroV.
The end of 2023 marked an unpleasant "record" for the peninsula – Crimea took the top spot for the highest egg price growth in russia.
According to official statistics, Crimea secured its leading position by a significant margin, with the cost of eggs soaring by 68.11%. Sevastopol ranked 6th with a growth of 56.48%.
It's worth noting that in some grocery stores in Crimea and Sevastopol, the price of a dozen eggs has exceeded 200 rubles (approximately USD 2.3).
"I am shocked by the egg prices. They've become like gold. There aren't even any social prices for pensioners. Eggs are the main food I rely on, so I keenly felt the sharp spike in prices. They've started importing from Turkey and Belarus now, but they don't make it to Crimea; they say it's complicated logistics. So now I have to save eggs and think about how many to use in an omelet", - says pensioner Raisa from Sevastopol.
In local social media groups, Crimeans don't hesitate to express their outrage about the rising prices:
- "What prices will we have in the new year for chicken eggs and overall for products, for meat, if now mackerel costs 400-500 rubles per 1 kg? Pensions will be raised by pennies, but prices for everything will skyrocket to millions".
- "Everything's great, but salaries remain stagnant!!! Soon, salaries will only last exactly one day after being deposited".
- "In the '90s, people kept chickens on balconies and didn't complain".
Interestingly, the "Ministry of Industrial Policy of Crimea" one of the reasons cited for the price increase was the "increase in the volume of poultry meat supplies to new regions of russia, leading to a redistribution of cultivated agricultural products".
Only a month after the sharp rise in egg prices, the "head of Crimea", Sergei Aksyonov, instructed the "Minister of Industrial Policy" to monitor prices for products until February 1. As of today, prices are still holding at a high level.
However, it's not just about eggs. Over the past year, prices have skyrocketed for almost everything. Notably, Crimea and Sevastopol didn't even make it into the top 35 socially prosperous regions of russia (according to the rating of the Civil Society Development Foundation, based on the ratio of average wages to the calculated minimum cost of living).
According to the so-called "Crimean Office of the Federal State Statistics Service", in 2023, prices for construction materials significantly increased on the peninsula. Tared cement rose by more than 30%, metal roofing went up by almost 24%, and red brick increased by over 10%.
Fuel prices also rose over the year (diesel fuel by 27%, liquefied petroleum gas by 17.52%, gasoline with an octane rating of AI-98 and higher by 17.97%, gasoline AI-95 by 15.98%, and gasoline AI-92 by 13.31%).
The cost of passenger transport services increased by 20.64% compared to the previous year, largely due to the rise in fuel prices. Taxi fares increased the most (by 43.48%) compared to the previous year.
City bus, tram, and trolleybus fares increased by 22.47%, while intercity bus fares rose by 13.06%. Tickets for long-distance trains increased by 29.56%.
According to Federal State Statistics Service's analysis of consumer prices, prices in Crimea have risen by over 50% in the past year for carrots, beets, fresh tomatoes, lemons, and pears. Oranges, in particular, saw an increase of over 100% on the peninsula.
Medicine prices are also on the rise in Sevastopol, with a reported 9% increase since the beginning of the year, as per "Crimea Statistics Service".
Crimean internet providers have also begun raising service prices, experiencing an average increase of 5-15%. Russian experts believe that providers need funds to purchase expensive, sanction-affected equipment. They argue that, aside from tariff hikes, providers have virtually no other revenue sources for network modernization and expansion.
The new year doesn't promise improvements either, as the russian government has approved a schedule for communal tariff increases from 2024 to 2028, with a 9.5% increase in Crimea for 2024 (10.6% in Sevastopol).
As of October 2023, the annual inflation rate in Crimea, according to official russian data, reached 7.54%, surpassing the nationwide figure of 6.69%.
The main reason for record prices on the peninsula is said to be complex logistics.
"The explosive price growth for a number of products in Sevastopol and Crimea is explained by the fact that some manufacturers do not want to deliver goods to the region due to possible risks. Plus the Crimean bridge, which opens and closes all the time. Logistics costs have increased, so it is not surprising that prices have also grown", - says Mikhail Lachugin, an independent consultant on the promotion of food products to retail chains, who was quoted by russian media.
"Despite the positive dynamics in the domestic tourism market, the results of the summer season on the resorts of the Black Sea coast this year turned out to be modest. Due to a cold June, floods in the southern part of the country, and traffic jams on the Crimean bridge caused by a series of explosions, the flow of vacationers to the peninsula decreased by 25-30%", - summarized russian media on the outcomes of the tourist season.
According to the "head of Crimea" Aksyonov, the number of vacationers in 2023 amounted to 5.2 million tourists, which is 20% lower than the 2022 level.
However, he later noted that not all of these 5.2 million arrivals are tourists. "We don't know who is going on vacation, who is on a business trip", - he remarked.
The so-called "head of the Crimean parliament" Vladimir Konstantinov provides more conservative figures. He believes that by the end of 2023, the tourist flow to Crimea amounted to 4-4.5 million people.
The majority of them (58%) arrived via the Crimean bridge by cars and buses, by trains – 28%, and by land through the so-called "new territories of the russian federation" – 14%.
It is worth noting that in 2022, according to statistics from "local authorities", Crimea hosted 6.5 million tourists, and a year earlier (before the full-scale invasion) – 9.5 million.
Even if one believes the official statistics from the occupying authorities, the full-scale war has reduced (if not killed) the tourist flow to Crimea by at least half.
"I would assess the decline in the tourist flow to the peninsula even more pessimistically. Previously, there were well-to-do tourists who rented hotels, houses, spent money on restaurants, excursions, and trips around Crimea. Now, the meager number that travels consists mainly of budget employees in state-run holiday homes. They settle in and live there, not contributing to the development of the peninsula's economy. That's the entire tourism scene. It died in 2023, leaving a pitiful semblance", - said Serhiy, a local travel agent, to OstroV.
Official reports from russian tour operators reveal more details about the relatively unsuccessful season:
1. The russian tour operator Alean notes that the number of bookings in Crimea this summer has halved, while in Sochi, it increased by 5%.
2. The booking service Tvil reports a 66% decrease in bookings in Sevastopol and a 69% decrease in Yevpatoriia. Consequently, the average cost of a night's stay in the latter has decreased by 21% to 3,800 rubles.
3. According to Ostrovok.ru, the number of bookings in Crimea has decreased by 50–60% compared to 2022, while in the Krasnodar Krai, it remained at the previous year's level.
For the next year, the "local authorities" have set a modest target for the number of tourists. The so-called "head of the Crimean parliament" Vladimir Konstantinov aims to increase the tourist flow to 6-6.5 million vacationers in 2024. How he plans to achieve this remains a big mystery, considering the ongoing challenges facing the peninsula, logistical difficulties, and record-high prices for products.
Several local residents of Crimea told OstroV that rumors have recently been circulating, suggesting that the war will end in the summer of 2024, and life on the peninsula, including the tourism sector, will improve.
"Apparently, we need to endure a bit longer. I don't know where this rumor came from, but people talk about it in public transport, at workplaces, on the streets. A couple of months ago, there was no such informqtion at all, and now every third person will mention it if asked. Perhaps people are just wishing for the best, maybe it's the authorities' tactics to calm citizens, or perhaps someone knows something ideed", - said Yevpatoriia resident Svitlana N.
By Andriy Andrieyev, OstroV