The Russian Effect on Crimea

Thanks to Michael Jennings for forwarding me this story:

A man died and a woman ended up in a hospital in separate incidents in the line for the ferry between the Krasnodar region and the recently annexed Crimea over the weekend, local news website Kerch.FM reported.

The woman sustained a head injury Saturday after being attacked by other passengers for allegedly attempting to jump the line for the ferry back to the Krasnodar region, the website reported. In recent days, people have spent up to 40 hours in the line for the ferry service. Another man died from a heart attack after spending hours waiting to board a ferry to Crimea.

After border control was imposed between Crimea and Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula last March, most Russian tourists and visitors to the popular summer tourist destination have started taking the ferry there instead of driving through conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. There is no border control for the ferry service.

Thousands of car passengers have been waiting in line for days to board ferries traveling in both directions. According to the website of the local transportation authority, the ferries transported 3,897 cars Saturday, of which 1,689 were traveling in the direction of Crimea.

In any normal country, the ferry operators would have anticipated the increased demand and brought in additional vessels, or switched to vessels of a higher capacity.  But in Russia, either the operators don’t give a shit or any attempt to procure additional vessels would get bogged down in a quagmire of bureaucracy and graft.

Following the annexation of Crimea, which is not connected by land to Russia, President Vladimir Putin pledged to build a bridge to link the peninsula with the rest of the country. In June the state-run road construction and maintenance company Avtodor estimated the cost of the 19-kilometer bridge at up to 376.5 billion rubles ($10.4 billion) and said it would take at least four years to build.

At 19km this bridge is roughly the same length as the Incheon Bridge in Korea.  According to the irrefutable Wikipedia, this cost about $2.7bn – double the projected cost – when it was completed in 2009.  At $10bn this bridge to the Crimea is already looking way overpriced, and given it looks as though they’re going to pass on a competitive bidding process in favour of handing the job straight to a mate in a state-run company, we can expect this figure to double or triple.  In fact, it looks to me like a continuation of the Sochi Olympic scam, which saw billions of dollars transferred from the state coffers into the pockets of favoured individuals via opaque construction contracts.  Those regions of Russia which are seeing earmarked funds diverted to Crimea might not be too impressed.

Two million visitors had traveled to Crimea this year as of Aug. 11, according to the region’s Tourism and Resorts Ministry. The government agency predicted the figure would reach 3 million by year-end. Last year 5.9 million tourists visited Crimea, according to the same agency.

I wonder how many of those 2m visitors were genuine tourists, and not merely servicemen, security personnel, and government bureaucrats arriving to take over the running of the place?  And of those genuine tourists, I wonder how many of them went there having been strong-armed into going by their employer:

As we talk, I gradually sense this young couple may be here not entirely through their own choice.

Word on the beach is that there is a new type of Russian tourist in Crimea. Since the crisis erupted in Ukraine, up to four million Russians who work for the state have been effectively banned from leaving the country – it’s rumoured that the government views holidays abroad as a security risk in their case. Since Sergei is an Interior Ministry official, I ask if he can still go holiday wherever he likes.

“If you are talking about money then yes,” he says. “But… we have certain restrictions connected to my job. So you see if we have to come here, we’re very happy with that too.” When I ask if he is forbidden to travel he says nothing and finally says that it’s “not recommended”.

But would you be punished for a holiday abroad, I persist? Another long pause. “I haven’t tried it,” he laughs.

Deadly queues for ferries, a wildly overpriced bridge, and a gaggle of tourists there under duress.  This annexation has gotten off to a flying start.

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14 thoughts on “The Russian Effect on Crimea

  1. Russia wants to rebuild its empire but it can’t even afford to take over Crimea, with a 60% ethnic Russian population. Putin’s forgetting that the USSR and its Eastern Bloc imperium collapsed, not as the result of some evil Western conspiracy, but because it ran out of cash. How the hell Putin expects to absorb the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, with their infinitely greater problems, I don’t know. The new Russian Empire is one that dares not speak its name: lots of surreptitious, frozen conflicts in small fringe territories such as Abkhazia and Transnistria, with Russian troops posing as peacekeepers, plus the half-baked Eurasian Union. I imagine if Putin wants to keep the nationalists’ dreams alive, he’ll soon have to divert money to the military budget from boring stuff like education, infrastructure and pensions.

    Then there’s the billions spent on international sporting events. If they are supposed to improve Russia’s image around the world, then that’s cash down the toilet. I’m just wondering whether the Russian Grand Prix (the first in 100 years) will go ahead in October. Putin is said to have spent $200 million on the new track in Sochi.

  2. They are emptying the store shelves of high quality food. Also, people seen as being of value to the state are being prevented from leaving the country? This has a weird sense of familiarity to it. They *really* want to go back to this?

  3. My guess is there are two bottlenecks: limited capacity of suitable wharves at ports on both sides, and a limited number of large vessels in a working condition. I don’t watch Russian TV but those insane lines get lots of coverage on Moscow FM stations and in the Russian press.

  4. They *really* want to go back to this?

    I don’t think they have the slightest idea where they’re headed, to be honest. They’re too drunk on the nationalistic Kool-Aid.

  5. My guess is there are two bottlenecks: limited capacity of suitable wharves at ports on both sides, and a limited number of large vessels in a working condition.

    I don’t know if this is still the case, but back in 2008 the Russian regulations stipulated that any foreign vessel wanting to work in Russian waters required approval from the president himself, and the application had to be submitted in the January of the year in question. So if you have some unforeseen event come up requiring a specialist vessel, you have to either try to find one in Russia (good luck with that!) or wait until the next year. It’s the inflexibility built into the whole Russian way of working which generates the chaos, not the actual problem itself.

  6. I think the resources curse is a big part of all this, too. With oil, your elite can become rich without doing anything much, and they spend their time fighting over the spoils.

    On the other hand, if you are (say) Poland and lack these blessings, you just have to build a diversified economy.

  7. “I think the resources curse is a big part of all this, too. With oil, your elite can become rich without doing anything much, and they spend their time fighting over the spoils.”

    The USA first became rich as a primary producer. Do you think that this applied to her too?

  8. By “primary producer”, do you mean through agriculture? If so, I don’t think that is the same thing as oil wealth at all.

    I’m an Australian. Australia is another country that is rich due to mineral resources, and which hasn’t squandered it, on the whole. It doesn’t have to be squandered and there are certainly examples where it hasn’t been, but there are far more where it has.

    I don’t think Australia is entirely free of negative consequences of being rich due to this, but it’s a functional country with the rule of law. Australia got rich through agriculture first and had functioning institutions before everything became about mining. Maybe that was part of the difference.

  9. Despite being written by a Guardian journalist, I thought Mafia State by Luke Harding was a good read. He essentially describes the government, state security apparatus, police, Putin’s business buddies, and organised criminal gangs as one big continuum. There’s no real ideology there, it’s just a kleptocracy with a thin veneer of nationalism to keep the proles in line.

  10. There’s no real ideology there, it’s just a kleptocracy with a thin veneer of nationalism to keep the proles in line.

    Quite, and when I made this remark to my wife she said the same thugs have been running Russia since 1917. She had a point.

  11. “…back in 2008 the Russian regulations stipulated that any foreign vessel wanting to work in Russian waters required approval from the president himself…” – Tim.

    “That explains a lot,” to quote a Russian movie. Not that many countries besides Turkey would be willing or able to jump at the opportunity but if they were, it would lead nowhere unless the regulations were changed.

    I hear that the line on the Russian side has all but disappeared. I guess not many are willing to take the risk anymore.

  12. It’s worse than that, Alex K. Under the regulations, assuming they are still in place, the Russian ferry operator would not even be allowed to charter a foreign vessel in order to increase capacity. So unless there is a spare ferry sitting around in Russia (I’ll let you imagine the state of any such vessel) then they are stuck until 2015.

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