Down and out in Crimea

Crimea (OpenDemocracy) – Three years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, social inequality is on the rise across the peninsula – and it seems that honest work doesn’t pay.

This month, Russia marked the third anniversary of its seizure and annexation of the Crimean peninsula, but the years since haven’t gone entirely smoothly. State employees such as teachers and medical workers have taken to the streets to demand job security and decent wages. Social inequality blights Crimea – what will the occupying authorities do about it?

Hungry young minds and their hungrier teachers

“Give teachers their salaries”, “How long can this go on?”, “Hungry teachers can’t teach” – read the slogans on the placards held by a couple of dozen teachers at a recent demonstration in the centre of Simferopol, the administrative capital of Crimea. At Crimea’s only Cossack Military Academy, staff were demanding decent pay for their labours.

Ilya Bolshedvorov, head of Crimea’s anti-corruption committee and one of the protesters, told me what had brought them to these extremes. The academy’s staff are forced to live off the cadets’ families: although tuition is formally free, parents continually have to pay the teachers out of their own pockets. The Crimean Ministry of Education refuses to provide the Academy’s statutory funding or approve its accounts. It has also made several attempts to have the Academy’s licence revoked, but these have been rejected by the courts.

The teachers at a nursery school in the village of Vasilyevka, in the Belogor District, are in an even worse situation. According to the official figures revealed by Bolshedvorov, their monthly salary comes to a mere 4000 – 5000 roubles (£55-70). The village recently had a visit from Crimea’s head Sergei Aksyonov, but the local education authority threatened teachers with dismissal if they complained to him about their pay.

According to official figures, the average school teacher in Crimea earned 31,000 roubles (£432) a month in the first half of 2016, while university teachers earned 49,600 roubles (£691). Doctors and other medical workers earned a monthly average of 39,100 roubles (£545) over the same period.

On a recent visit to the peninsula, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets announced that by the end of 2016 average pay in Crimea had risen to 25,254 roubles (£352) a month, 68.7% of the average for Russia as a whole. For comparison, the official minimum monthly subsistence level per head of population in Crimea for the same year was 9,502 roubles (£132), broken down into 10,174 roubles (£142) for the working age population; 7,850 roubles (£109) for pensioners and 9,913 roubles (£138) for children.

According to Bolshedvorov, however, these statistics bear little relationship to reality. “I have no idea where they get these figures from”, he tells me. “Officially, the average monthly salary of a pre-school teacher in the Belogor District is 22,000-23,000 roubles (£306-320). But in fact the local education authority hands out incentive bonuses of up to 50% of salary on a completely irrational basis. Each pre-school facility receives the same amount, but one may have 60 members of staff who each get a mere 500 rouble (£7) bonus, while another has just 10 members of staff and so get six times as much”.

The grants received by students at Crimean universities are also ridiculously low: only a third of what they got when Crimea was part of Ukraine. At the beginning of 2016 grants were standardised at the statutory Russian level. Students receiving free tuition at Sevastopol State University, for example, saw their grants cut from 4,500 roubles (£63) a month to 1300 (£18), with enhanced grants for outstanding students fixed at 2,600 roubles (£36). Now the minimum grant has been raised to 1,500 roubles (£21). By comparison, in Ukraine, where the official minimum monthly subsistence level per head of population is 1600 Hryvnya (£47), students receive grants of 1,100-1,600 hryvnya (£32-47).

“Grants are lower than they were in Ukraine three years ago”, a student at one of Crimea’s universities tells me. “They weren’t great then, but it’s worse now, too little to lead a normal life. If someone comes to study in Simferopol from another city, they need accommodation. The monthly rent for a small one-roomed flat is around 15,000 roubles (£209), and about 5000 (£70) for a room, although you can save some money by sharing a room in a student hostel. But you also need to factor in expenses for food, transport, clothes and at least some social life.

This student earns some money doing design projects in his spare time, which gives him a basic standard of living. But his parents also help him financially.

A piece of your pay cheque

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=306900

Livadia Palace Crimea – CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Crimeans are angry about how government money is allocated, says Bolshedvorov: “Take nursery teachers’ pay: in the Simferopol District they earn about 25,000–30,000 roubles (£353-423) a month, but elsewhere it’s only 16,000-20,000 (£225-282). And teaching assistants and ancillary staff don’t even get the minimum wage”. As a result, he says, Crimeans are unhappy with their local authorities.

There are also dozens of cases where people have been paid more than they should. When Crimea came under Russian control, the payroll accounting system was overhauled, and a Simferopol school teacher admitted to me that he and his colleagues suddenly started earning several times more than they had under Ukraine: “They translated our previous Hryvnya salaries into Russian roubles and then multiplied them by two or three. So given the rouble-dollar exchange rate, we all earned between US$500 and US$1000, depending on our age, seniority and place of work”.

By the spring of 2015, however, salary conditions changed. The base unit of account for salaries in the education sector became 5000 roubles. And this year has seen a change in the way extra payments (premiums, increments, bonuses and other financial incentives) are to be funded, which assumes they will be lower than before.

“We started earning a completely different level of pay”, the teacher tells me, “although as the value of the rouble fell by half compared to the dollar, our income fell with it. Now the average teacher earns 18-20,000 roubles (£250-280) a month”. He adds that information about management salaries where he works is a secret, but “the assumption is that they earn fabulous money. What with various bonuses and pay rises, they might be earning 50,000-60,000 roubles (£696-835) or more a month”.

“We live like beggars”

This enormous gap in salaries doesn’t just apply to education. In October 2016, for example, there was a high profile scandal in Crimea’s health sector. The Chief Accountant at the Semashko Central Republican Hospital in Simferopol awarded herself a monthly salary of half a million roubles (£6962), and the Deputy Medical Directors 300-350,000 roubles (£4178-4874).

According to Crimea’s prosecutor’s department, senior hospital staff were paid an extra 17.7 million roubles (£264,486) in bonuses in less than six months. But the average medic’s pay in Crimea is a tiny fraction by comparison. After widespread media coverage and intervention from Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, the hospital’s Medical Director was fired, but it is still unclear how these indecently high salaries came to be paid, and continued to be paid for several months.

Another explosive medical story took place in Kerch in June 2016, when an internal conflict in a city hospital went public thanks to media reporting. Medical staff, angry with their low pay rates and a lack of incentive bonuses, organised a meeting with the hospital’s chief accountant, financial director, medical director and journalists. “We want our voices heard and help in solving this issue”, said Olga Taranenko, a nurse at the hospital. “Perhaps we should ask the Russian Ministry of Health for help”.

Middle management and medical staff say that from January 2016 there was a gradual fall in incentive bonuses, and in May they stopped completely. “In May the porters received a 10% bonus, and the cleaning staff 40%, but medical staff didn’t get a penny”, trade union organiser Elena Ivashenko told the meeting.

At the same time, the amount of work has increased and salaries effectively fallen. The essential technical and utility infrastructure is also collapsing: “we have to ask for everything: dressing gowns, slippers, sheets, paper. We live like beggars,” complained charge nurse Marina Yakimenko. Meanwhile nurses’ pay has fallen to 10-11,000 roubles (£140-153) a month, 7000 (£97) if bonuses are not taken into account. And after the initial fuss, the whole thing was swept under the carpet and there was no public airing of any conflicts over pay.

Yet another factor worth mentioning is the differing pay levels in different economic sectors. Compared with public sector employees, specialists working in the financial sector, government and the production and distribution of electricity, gas and water have pretty high salaries, and are in fact, as Crimea’s Minister For Labour and Social Welfare has pointed out, the highest paid workers in the republic. This category also includes military and law enforcement officers, as well as officials working in the republic’s highest organs of power.

The average monthly pay of a regular soldier, for example, is between 30,000 and 60,000 roubles (£418 – 835), depending on rank. A rank and file police officer also earns about 30,000 roubles a month. The tax returns of senior officials in the regional administration show that their annual salaries reach a million roubles or more a year, which indicates a monthly figure of 90–150,000 roubles (£1253 -2089).

A troubled region

Ilya Bolshedvorov stresses that Crimea’s problems are being swept under the carpet. People’s inability to express their opinions, he adds, “will lead to apathy, lost hope and, possibly, real rebellion”.

Bolshedvorov’s words are indirectly corroborated by the experts of the Russian Committee for Civil Initiatives, set up by ex-finance minister Aleksey Kudrin. In early March, the committee published a report on Russia’s most politically-troubled regions, which for the first time included Crimea and Sevastopol.

As the authors of the report explained, their reason for creating an index of socio-economic and political tension boiled down to the need for an accurate and comprehensive report on the (mainly negative) changes in the regional government system. This was triggered by both the national and regional elections held in September 2016 and the continuing dismantlement of the existing local government system. The report also analysed the dynamics of protest activity in the second half of 2016.

The experts described Crimea and Sevastopol as a risk zone for two main reasons: its ineffective system of government and the large number of public protests that had taken place there. Crimea has also lost its de jure status as a priority region: in 2016 the level of subsidies it received from the centre fell by half, and Sevastopol’s share by a quarter.

According to the official statistics, unemployment in Crimea at the end of this January stood at 0.7% – a very low figure. But some observers believe that the real figure is very different – 35-40%. Real work has recently appeared thanks to the construction of a massive 4.5 kilometre bridge across the Kerch Strait, to provide a direct road and rail link between Crimea and Russia’s Taman Peninsula to its east – but most of the jobs have gone to construction teams from other Russian regions.

Leonid Grach, a communist politician, former speaker of the Crimean parliament and ex-member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (parliament), believes that the main reason for Crimea’s socio-economic and protest unrest is its high level of corruption. “As they say, fish rot from the head down, and what that means is that government subsidies have turned into a honey pot for the few, a money laundering exercise”, he tells me. “It’s all going on under the noses of the Crimean public: the endless road mending, the extremely fragile housing and utilities sector, the rise in prices and charges, the corruption in hospitals”.

According to Grach, the tipping point for the Crimean public, which had “voiced clear support for Russia’s president after the 2014 referendum” was PM Dmitry Medvedev’s “Crimean road show”. In a now notorious gaffe, Medvev made a fatal remark during a visit to museums in Feodosia: “There’s no money,” he said to a crowd of pensioners, “but you hang in there.” With these words, says Grach, Medvedev “practically ordered people to start protesting”. The former MP believes that unless drastic measures are taken to return order to the peninsula, there is real danger of social upheaval and an embarassingly negative result from Crimea at the next presidential election in March 2018.

Observers remark that the euphoria around Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia has long since disappeared. Three years ago, their vote in favour of Russia was a pivotal moment, but Crimeans today are more concerned about day-to-day problems, especially their pay slips, at a time when food prices are rising, as are the costs of other essentials and housing and utility bills. “Crimea is ours” goes the now familiar refrain – but at what cost?

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes.

This report prepared by Anton Korolyov for OpenDemocracy