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Opinion: Turning Crimea into 'Putinland'?

From Andrey Kurkov, Special for CNN
updated 11:11 PM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the audience as he meets with Russian and Ukrainian motorbikers near Sevastopol in the Crimea Peninsula on July 24, 2010
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the audience as he meets with Russian and Ukrainian motorbikers near Sevastopol in the Crimea Peninsula on July 24, 2010
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Talk of war with Russia is on everyone's mind in Ukraine, says novelist Andrey Kurkov
  • Crimea may become a burden on Russia and isolated from the rest of the world
  • Perhaps its best future lies in becoming a Soviet-era theme park, he jokes
  • Fears that Russia will destabilize southern and eastern Ukraine before elections on May 25

Editor's note: Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist born in St. Petersburg in 1961. Having graduated from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he worked as a journalist, did his military service as a prison warden in Odessa, then became a cameraman, writer of screenplays and author. His books are published in English by Harvill Secker in the UK and Meville House in the U.S. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

For two nights between the 4th and 6th of March, I barely slept.

I was checking the Internet every hour to see if Russia had started war with Ukraine.

Then the feeling of imminent danger was replaced by emotional fatigue. Although a war still seemed unavoidable, it didn't inspire the same fear as in the early days of the occupation of Crimea.

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Ukrainian volunteers started to flow towards Crimea and the Eastern border with Russia, while roads filled up with armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles.

Ukraine was making an attempt to flex its military muscles, both to test the condition of the army and to reassure the population that we could protect ourselves.

It became clear that since independence in 1991 neither Ukrainian presidents nor the government had taken care of the military.

Nobody thought that Ukraine might need an army; it was as simple as that. Nobody thought that until this year and now it's an everyday topic. This, and a war with Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeats each day that Russia doesn't plan to occupy eastern and southern Ukraine. But it would be odd if anyone believed him. Russia also didn't plan to annex Crimea. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin said that.

On March 5, Putin announced to the world that "military maneuvers" were successfully completed and by March 7 all Russian soldiers, together with their equipment, would be back in their usual location, leaving Crimea alone.

However, instead of the promised end of these "maneuvers," more than 10,000 Russian troops arrived in Crimea.

What to do with Crimea?

When it comes to the occupation of Crimea, the Ukrainian government stands firm. Something that must occupy the mind of Putin and others in the Kremlin. This position is without doubt due to the U.S. support of Ukraine.

The rest of the world agrees that Crimea is Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. While Putin continues to show he is not interested in the opinion of the rest of the world, this fact will have rather serious consequences for the occupied peninsula itself.

Ukrainian International Airlines stopped all its flights to the Crimean capital Simferopol and Crimean residents are now anxiously waiting for the summer holiday season. A recent law passed in Kiev about occupied territories means that Ukrainians can't enter without prior approval from the authorities.

The statue of Lenin outside Yalta.
The statue of Lenin outside Yalta.

Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who visited Crimea recently, promised 33 airplanes full of visitors from Russia each day during the summer.

There are times when I think that Russia occupied Crimea just so Ukrainian nationalists couldn't demolish its Soviet-era landmarks.
Andrey Kurkov, novelist

Under pressure from the Kremlin, Russian airlines -- the only ones now flying to the peninsula -- have slashed prices on flights. I think Russian oligarchs will soon receive an order from the Kremlin to buy holiday packages to Crimean sanitoriums and resorts for their employees.

Otherwise how will the Kremlin get 8 million Russian visitors promised to Crimea this summer?

And if all of Russia's citizens do decide to support Crimean hotels and resorts this summer, then who will visit the newly built super-resort of Sochi?

But the summer season in Crimea only lasts a little more than three months. And after that, what? Crimea produces wine and grows fruit. They can only export it to Russia, but Russia has enough wine and fruit of its own.

Putin will have no other choice but to follow Europe's example and subsidize farmers and winemakers so they don't grow anything and reduce wine production.

The impact of this "acquisition" on Russia's budget looks scary. No wonder that the pre-referendum promise to quadruple pensions for Crimea's residents has been replaced with one to reconsider it starting from January 2016.

Currently tram and trolleybus driver's salaries are frozen, the number of suburban trains had been cut and people are trying to figure out how to keep on living.

Building a Soviet 'Jurassic Park'

If the self-proclaimed Crimean government asked me the question: "How can Crimea keep on going?" I would answer that we should create some kind of theme park there.

Something between Disneyland and Jurassic Park, but much bigger and more exotic.

For the last 20 years Crimea has been known for its love for everything Soviet. Strictly speaking, Crimea has remained Soviet. Against the background of south Crimea's truly stunning coast, lovingly preserved Soviet monuments look very odd. My favorite one -- a big statue of Lenin in Koreiz, not far from Yalta -- has him standing on the cliff looking sternly in the direction of Turkey.

There are times, when I think that Russia occupied this peninsula so that Ukrainian nationalists couldn't demolish these Soviet-era landmarks, just as they did in Kiev and central and western Ukraine.

So in my eyes the only possible solution to the complex economical situation in Crimea would be the creation of a theme park of Soviet life. Considering that Putin has often said he considers the collapse of Soviet Union as his own personal tragedy, it wouldn't be too much of a risk to call the park, spread over 27,000 square kilometers, "Putinland."

A simple, scary scenario

But I know that for Ukrainians this is not the right moment for jokes. Nor for me either; I look towards the near future with anxiety. My main concern is that Russia will start destabilizing southeast Ukraine before the presidential elections on May 25.

Andrey Kurkov
Andrey Kurkov

Putin has already declared that he won't recognize the results of the elections, but what is even more important for him, is that these elections don't take place at all.

Putin has said he won't recognize the results of the elections, but what is even more important for him is that they don't take place at all.
Andrey Kurkov, novelist

If they don't then he can keep talking about the illegitimacy of the government, the absence of a legitimate president, and he can move further into Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population.

The scenario of the Russian expansion could look very simple: May 9 will be commemorated as Victory Day -- something of an annual cult holiday for many in Russia. You can expect that this year communists and pro-Russian activists in the south and east of Ukraine will demonstrate, claiming to be commemorating victory over Nazi Germany.

The gatherings will follow a familiar pattern: the occupation of local government buildings and the planting of Russian flags on their roofs.

It is clear that Ukrainian authorities have got stronger and will use police and the security services to prevent this happening.

Riots will start with the first victims coming from the protesters and police. At that point Russia can send in its armed "peace-keeping" forces in to bring order. I am afraid that once Russian ''peace-keepers'' enter Ukrainian territory they will not stop until they get to Kiev.

That is because the Kremlin's main goal remains to put a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, the kind that will sign an agreement of friendship and cooperation and will recognize to Crimea as a Russian territory.

Only when this agreement is reached can Russia finally relax and develop the Crimean peninsula legally and without the fear of political and economic sanctions from the European Union and the U.S.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrey Kurkov

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