November 26, 2015 / 7:49 PM / 2 years ago

Power blackouts test loyalty to Kremlin in Russian-annexed Crimea

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea (Reuters) - Power blackouts in Crimea orchestrated by anti-Russian saboteurs are stirring discontent a year and a half after Moscow seized the peninsula from Ukraine, threatening to chip away at the pro-Kremlin euphoria many Crimeans felt after annexation.

Power generators are on sale at a market in Simferopol, Crimea, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

The blackouts - the result of pro-Ukrainian activists blowing up the electricity lines which supply Crimea in southern Ukraine over the weekend - are causing misery for the population of some 2 million and testing loyalty levels to Moscow.

But dozens of interviews conducted by Reuters, while only providing a partial snapshot of public opinion, suggest the crisis is unlikely to provoke widespread protests or prompt a majority to question the wisdom of voting in a referendum last year to join Russia and break with Ukraine.

“We need to put up with this for the time being, but it will all be solved,” said Yuri, an employee in a wine shop in Simferopol, the capital of the contested territory. “There were terrible blackouts in the 1990s but somehow that passed.”

Such stoicism in the face of a problem which could last some time appeared widespread, though the dispute has exposed how dependent Crimea remains on Ukraine.

The blackouts have also spurred Russian efforts to plug the peninsula into its power network and served as a stark reminder of how raw anger in Ukraine over the annexation still is.

STONE AGE

Crimea’s pro-Kremlin authorities have blamed the crisis on politicians in Kiev, and many locals speak of how they are hopeful that Russian President Vladimir Putin will solve the problem.

Putin this week accused Ukraine of “torturing” Crimeans with the power shut-off.

Kiev, whose relations with Moscow are also strained over a smoldering conflict in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists, on Monday banned road and rail freight to and from Crimea.

Ukrainian engineers have begun repairing some of the damaged power lines. But ethnic Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalists are obstructing further repair work and the Ukrainian authorities have not moved them on.

That, Putin and some Crimeans believe, reflects Ukraine’s tacit approval for the activists’ actions.

“It’s like living in the Stone Age,” said Ekaterina, a university student, pushing her eight-month-old child in a pram in a residential area of Simferopol.

“I thought things would be different after we became part of Russia. It’s not how I imagined,” she said, adding that there had been power for only two to three hours in her flat on Wednesday and less on Thursday.

She said she thought the Russian-backed authorities could have done more to prepare for such an eventuality.

The authorities have managed to restore partial power to most large towns and cities by mobilizing emergency power generators, but disruption is still severe.

Traffic lights in parts of the capital are not working, forcing police to direct traffic by hand. The signal for mobile phones is weak as base stations run low on electricity. And long queues have formed at petrol stations as people try to stock up on fuel for mobile generators.

Trolley buses are not running either. Schools and kindergartens are shut, there are reports of people sleeping fully-clothed to keep warm, and supermarkets have run out of candles. On the second floor of a deserted shopping mall, a Reuters reporter saw what used to be an ice rink. It now resembled a pond.

In rural areas, the picture was bleaker. Fifty kilometers (31.07 miles) from Simferopol, villagers are receiving power for as little as an hour a day, late in the evening. Many businesses are shut and those that are open talk of steep losses.

Crimean officials preach patience. Those who seek to destabilize the situation will be punished, they say. The sale of alcohol has been banned after 5 p.m. in Simferopol and cafes have been ordered to close by 8 p.m.

RESISTANCE

Russian maps already picture Crimea as part of Russia. But the peninsula still receives at least two-thirds of its electricity from Ukraine and a large amount of fresh water via a canal fed by the Dnieper River.

Activists impeding repair work at the site of the damaged power lines in Chaplinka, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, told Reuters on Thursday they would not allow engineers to restore electricity to Crimea until the peninsula was back under Ukrainian control.

“We won’t give them power until Crimea is ours, until Ukrainian flags are raised over Sevastopol and Simferopol,” said one of the activists, who only gave his name as Radik, huddled in a tent a short distance from the twisted wreckage of the blown up pylons in a muddy field.

Another activist, who said he was an ethnic Tatar from Simferopol, said he was protesting over the treatment of Crimea’s Tatar population, whose rights he said were being violated by the new Russian-backed authorities.

The peninsula’s pro-Kremlin leaders deny any crackdown on the Tatars is underway.

Crimea’s power deal with Ukraine expires at the end of this year. Russia is laying undersea power cables to end Crimea’s dependence on Ukraine.

But it is a long process. The first cable is due to come online in mid-December and will only provide a fraction of Crimea’s electricity needs. A second line is only planned to become operational by the middle of next year.

Putin this week ordered work on the so-called “energy bridge” to be sped up.

There are plans too for a bridge from Russia to Crimea across the Kerch Strait which will increase the speed with which Moscow can get supplies to its recently acquired territory. That project may take several years to complete, however.

In the meantime, Crimeans will have to muddle through. Many said they had lived through worse and blamed Kiev for their discomfort.

“If Ukraine doesn’t want to be friends with us, then so be it,” said Sergei Chizhman, an aide to a local lawmaker with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. “Russia is big and we’ll find other friends.”

Others said the blackouts were more likely to unite locals than push them into the arms of Kiev.

Sergei, who said he was a member of a militia which last year helped Russia seize Crimea, said:

“We have that sort of mentality. If you pressure us, we organize ourselves.”

Pavel Polityuk reported from Chaplinka, Ukraine; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Anna Willard

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