Sevastopol, Crimea – A top Russian security official was very clear about the dangers Crimea is facing.
“Terrorism and corruption threaten Crimea,” Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reportedly said in the southern city of Sevastopol in early August, during a meeting with local officials.
The first threat, “terrorism”, was an obvious reference to the unrelenting international demands to return the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last year, an action the UN and Western countries do not recognise.
The second threat of corruption is much more ubiquitous in the lives of every Russian and Ukrainian.
Russia and Ukraine ranked 136 and 142, respectively, of a total 175 countries in the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index by Berlin-based Transparency International.
For many here, the March 2014 annexation, which was hailed by Russian media as Crimea’s return to “motherland”, was like trading a bad situation for a worse one.
The crown jewel
Crimea was a crown jewel of many emperors – Roman caesars, Mongol khans, Ottoman sultans and Romanov tsars.
It was the northernmost end of the Great Silk Road, a military and commercial gateway into the Mediterranean, an inexpensive Soviet riviera with beaches, resorts and vineyards – something most Russians don’t have around them.
After the peninsula came under Moscow’s control, properties of the Ukrainian government, oligarchs, and banks were nationalised, ownership rights to the smallest land lots were scrutinised and disputed, and affluent Russians rushed to buy their own little piece of the subtropical paradise.
Moscow also channelled billions of roubles to restore the crumbling infrastructure and rebuild the Soviet-era military and naval bases.
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As decades-old supply routes from Ukraine were severed, prices on the peninsula skyrocketed, according to local residents.
Local businessmen complain about the difficulties they face when registering their companies under the Russian jurisdiction.
The transition has created fertile ground for corruption.
Patrushev told a government meeting that more than 60 officials were fired for corruption and some 700 corruption-related crimes have been identified in Crimea since the annexation.
But was he – as in a Russian proverb – telling bees they shouldn’t like honey?
Most of the officials he addressed were former Ukrainian public servants who saved their seats by pledging allegiance to the Kremlin. Many of these officials were part of shady schemes that emerged under ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, analysts and officials say.
Yanukovich’s cronies started “corruption schemes, a system of kickbacks, nepotism and family connections”, Grigory Ioffe, head of Crimea’s Public Chamber, told Al Jazeera.
“It metastasised throughout Crimea’s economy – and not just economy, businesses, ties outside Crimea – so much that within the year-and-a-half [of Russian rule] it is really difficult to get rid of that by just dismissing these people,” Ioffe said.
But other officials and community leaders claim the practises never died out – only stopped for several months of uncertainty under the new government.
“There was a resumption of the corrupt practises that existed here under the Ukrainian government, when the entire system was infected with corruption from top to bottom,” Vladimir Garnachuk, a former Crimean lawmaker and head of the Clean Coast Crimea public organisation, told Al Jazeera.
He said local elites centred around Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov resist the Kremlin’s attempts to influence decision-making on the peninsula. They adopt laws that contradict Russia’s federal legislation and scare off Russian investors, he purported.
“What’s going on here is some sort of a separatist movement,” Garnachuk said.
His group deals with the most visible signs of this corruption – the illegal takeover of public beaches and land in national parks by officials and well-connected businessmen.
The takeovers in Crimea started after Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union – and the people orchestrating them quickly adapted to Russian ways.
Ukrainian officials-turned-Russian public servants “all very quickly became part of the Russian system, found their ways in and out”, Elena Yatsishina, an anti-corruption activist from the southwestern Crimean community of Fiolent, told Al Jazeera.
Her community of modest dachas is nested on top of an ancient cliff overlooking a breathtakingly beautiful Black Sea shoreline.
The cliff is famous in historical myths. It was one of the settings in the ancient Greek tragedy of Iphigenia, which inspired poet Goethe and composer Gluck to produce works on the theme; Orthodox Christian legends claim that Apostle Andrew, Christ’s first disciple, landed on the cliff to spread the Gospel in what is now Ukraine.
But the most recent news from it are far from mythical.
Yatsishina and dozens of Fiolent residents formed a group to fight land developers who seized a Soviet-era campground and installed metal fences blocking their access to the sea.
Despite a court ruling that deemed the land grab illegal, the developers are still there building luxurious houses, reinstalling the fences, posting guards, and cutting off water and electricity supply to the community, residents say.
After some 150 of them signed a petition to Putin and Crimea’s general prosecutor’s office, each received phone calls from city officials urging them to recall the petition.
“We don’t doubt that these people have the power and means to cause trouble,” Yatsishina said.
The good tsar
Three dozen white tents were pitched throughout Sevastopol in mid-August when Putin visited the peninsula. The tents were decorated with a round logo depicting Crimea surrounded by black, twisted arms. A sign below read: “Stop the pillaging of Sevastopol!”
Young activists dispatched by the city’s parliament told passers-by they were collecting signatures under a petition to Putin to sack the city mayor and appoint a “literate, effective manager”.
Some 22,000 Sevastopol residents, or some seven percent of the city’s population, had signed the petition by late August.
Putin is widely seen as the good tsar and the supreme arbiter of disputes with the Russian state.
“I feel like I am trying to import two containers with cocaine, opium and marijuana, not the goods necessary for the development of a zoo,” Crimean businessman Oleg Zubkov wrote in an open letter to Putin in late August.
In the letter he complained of the obstacles he faces when trying to import generators and other equipment for two private zoos he owns that are registered as small businesses and attract thousands of visitors.
He said out of some 120,000 registered business owners in Crimea, only one-fourth managed to get registered under the Russian government.
Several other business owners told Al Jazeera the delays seem to be caused by the difference between Ukrainian and Russian legislation and tax policies.
“That’s not the way to develop Crimea, we have to change something or someone,” Zubkov wrote.