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How People In Crimea View The Union With Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to check in on Crimea. Four years ago, Russia annexed the Ukrainian province, the first time since World War II that one European country seized territory from another. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim covered the annexation in 2014, and now he has returned to Crimea to see how life has changed under Russian rule.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: A ferry filled with evening commuters leaves a pier in Sevastopol. This city on the southern coast of Crimea has been the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet for two centuries. It was from here that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the occupation of Crimea and oversaw a hastily arranged separatist referendum that few countries recognize to this day. Following a pro-European people power revolution in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, many of Crimea's 2.3 million residents decided they'd rather live under Russia. Demid Kupayev, a 24-year-old sailor, was one of them.

DEMID KUPAYEV: (Through interpreter) I witnessed how babushkas came up and said, thank God the time has come for Crimea to return to its historic homeland.

KIM: Kupayev says international sanctions have made finding work in commercial shipping harder. But like many Crimeans, he calls economic hardship the acceptable price of joining Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS TOLLING)

KIM: Forty miles away in Crimea's capital, Simferopol, the sun is glinting off the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A giant sign says the church was restored under the patronage of Vladimir Putin. One of Putin's biggest supporters is Crimea's leader, Sergei Aksyonov, whose offices are near the church on Lenin Square.

PRIME MINISTER SERGEI AKSYONOV: (Through interpreter) Not one Ukrainian president devoted as much attention to Crimea as Vladimir Putin does now. He has taken many issues under his personal control, so the results are much better.

KIM: After the annexation, Ukraine cut off the delivery of supplies and the peninsula became dependent on ferry shipments from Russia. Prices doubled, tourists stopped coming, and many people are still struggling to make ends meet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: An outdoor loudspeaker near Aksyonov's office advertises a market selling goods from Russia, Belarus, Turkey and Poland. Although prices have stabilized, Crimeans complain they pay more than people in Russia do. They hope a new bridge to the Russian mainland due to open this year will help increase the flow of goods and visitors. Even critics of the annexation concede that Putin's multibillion-dollar investments have improved roads, schools and hospitals. But Nariman Dzhelalov says Crimeans have lost the basic political freedoms they enjoyed in Ukraine.

NARIMAN DZHELALOV: (Through interpreter) Today in Crimea there's an atmosphere of fear. Only that small group of people who are completely in love with Putin feel comfortable saying what they think. Anybody with a critical viewpoint will be rather afraid.

KIM: Dzhelalov is a representative of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority that was deported from Crimea by the Soviet government and only returned to their ancestral homeland as Ukraine gained its independence. Many Crimean Tatars remain loyal to Ukraine, and some have faced prosecution as a result. The new political climate means thousands of Crimeans have had to flee. The exiles aren't just Tatars but ethnic Russians like human rights activist Olga Skripnik, who now lives in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

OLGA SKRIPNIK: (Through interpreter) My husband and I were forced to leave Crimea, and I can't return as I face criminal charges as an extremist or a terrorist because I openly refuse to recognize the Russian occupation.

KIM: The U.S. and its European allies have also pledged they'll never accept Crimea's annexation. But in the meantime, Vladimir Putin is doing everything in his power to make the takeover irreversible. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Crimea.

(SOUNDBITE OF HALVES' "BLOOD BRANCHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.