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What's left of the 'Crimea effect'?

Roman Goncharenko
March 16, 2019

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin's approval ratings shot up. Five years later, this euphoria has given way to disillusionment and presented society with a real dilemma.

Televised Putin speech in Sevastopol
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/EPA/A. Pedko

Five years ago, heavily armed pro-Russian fighters in green uniforms without insignia took control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Several weeks later, on March 16, 2014, Russia's government held a highly controversial referendum asking the local population whether it wanted Crimea to become part of Russia or remain in Ukraine. Almost 97 percent of the electorate voted for Crimea to join Russia.

Most countries, however, did not recognize the referendum. Two days after the vote, a treaty was signed over Crimea's accession to Russia. Moscow refers to this as Crimea's "reunification" with Russia, while Ukraine and many other countries dismiss this move as a violation of international law. They say Russia annexed the peninsula.

Read more: Ukraine to ditch Russian friendship treaty amid tensions

Crimea affair boosts Putin's approval ratings

Crimea's controversial accession to Russia bolstered Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic standing, boosting his approval ratings from 60 to over 80 percent. Russian experts called this the "Crimea effect." Nikolay Petrov of Moscow's Higher School of Economics says a wave of euphoria swept over the country. "Back in 2014, people felt anything was possible and everything was allowed," adding that Russians were excited about their nation's return to greatness. He says this let "Russians forget their worries."

Konstantin Gaase of the Carnegie Moscow Center believes this "Crimea effect" was a unique phenomenon that cannot be compared to any other event in Russian history. He thinks that "any attempt to emulate this effect would fail." And that this effect "was more than just propaganda, the Crimea affair allowed many to express things they had never dared to say before."

Everyday tensions at the Crimean Bridge

2014 euphoria is history

Alexey Titov of the committee of civil society initiatives differentiates between two kinds of groups who supported Putin's actions in Crimea back in 2014. "One group was fascinated by the armed conflict, and harbored radical views like completely breaking with the West," he told DW. The other group, according to Titov, was more careful and pragmatic about the Crimea affair. And today has mixed feelings about Putin.

Today, the "Crimea effect" is history. This became clear in the summer of 2018, when Putin announced that Russia's pension system would be reformed and the retirement age raised, causing his approval ratings to plummet. Today, only about 64 percent of Russians say they are satisfied with the president. 

Though experts say disillusionment grew much earlier. "The number of Russians who thought the sanctions [imposed by the US and the EU] were harming their country started increasing in late 2014," says Titov. Many Russians were shocked when authorities publicly destroyed food stuff in 2015 that had been brought into the country illegally. While many still supported Moscow's foreign policy, they also realized that the situation at home was becoming increasingly dire.

Read more: Despite EU sanctions, hotel rooms available in Crimea

Nobody is talking about Crimea

Today, a sense of disappointment and frustration pervades the country. And the Kremlin has not yet found a way of boosting approval ratings. One thing that could change things, meanwhile, would be taking an uncompromising stance on corruption. Which is what Singapore and China have done, says Titov. But "Russia's current leadership will not go through with this for a number of reasons, which is why they go after small fry like governors or mayors instead," he told DW

There is no more public debate over whether Crimea truly belongs to Ukraine or Russia. Even though back in 2014 most Russians did not really question the annexation of the peninsula, either. Konstantin Gaase says that now, "even the Russian opposition has stopped talking about Crimea." And one of the most vocal critics at the time, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered in 2015.

But Gaase says Crimea "remains a major problem for international law." It is to be expected that the peninsula will pose a problem for Russian society and its rulers in decades to come.

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