More than two years after Russia annexed Crimea and promised its 2 million people a better life, residents say prices have soared, wages and pensions have stagnated and tourists have fled. The sunny and mountainous Black Sea peninsula is back in the news, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kiev of sending infiltrators across the border to wreck its industry. But locals say the damage has already been done by Moscow's neglect. "We joined Russia and they stopped giving a damn about us," Yevgeny, a worker at a titanium plant in the town of Armyansk told Reuters. "People are naive. They thought that if we were part of Russia, everything would be Russian. Prices have now jumped to the Russian level, but wages have stayed the same. That's the main problem." Fearing reprisals from his boss, Yevgeny declined to give his surname, as did other workers who spoke to Reuters.
Armyansk, a sleepy Crimean town near the newly-established border with Ukraine, is not far from where Russia says it fought armed clashes with Ukrainian infiltrators last week. Kiev says the clashes never took place and Moscow fabricated the incident as a possible pretext for new military action against Ukraine. The alleged plot has dominated headlines in Crimea, distracting attention away from the region's own problems. But according to some residents of Armyansk, a long way from Crimea's Tsarist-era palaces and its picturesque mountainous sea coast, those problems urgently need addressing.
Armyansk has never been prosperous. A quarter of the town's 20,000 people work at the Crimea Titanium chemical plant, riding in dozens of identical green passenger buses to the factory from the town each morning, and back again in the afternoon. When Crimea was controlled by Ukraine, goods and services were affordable, and the plant's workers were able to treat themselves now and then, they say. But after Kiev blocked freight supplies last year prices soared. "I can only buy food and it's hard to buy clothes," said Pavel, a technician, who said he was paid 17,000 robles ($265) a month. That is only around half the average monthly income in Russia. "It would be enough in Ukraine because prices were lower. I'm shocked. My wage is stuck and everything grows in price." Three other workers who spoke to Reuters described monthly salaries ranging from just 10,000 robles for a laboratory assistant to 21,000 for a man who runs an engineering department.
The Crimea Titanium plant is controlled by Ukrainian tycoon Dmytro Firtash. His spokesman and the plant's management did not reply to for requests for comment. Russia is building a bridge to link Crimea to southern Russia it hopes will establish a new supply route and reduce consumer prices. However the first trucks are not expected to be able to use it until 2018 at the earliest.