SIMFEROPOL – Russian flags flew across Crimea's main city Simferopol on Monday, March 18, as President Vladimir Putin flew in to mark the fifth anniversary of Moscow's internationally condemned annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.
Putin used the visit to officially open two new power stations on the Black Sea peninsula, which was almost wholly dependent on electricity from Ukraine before the annexation.
Moscow took over Crimea in March 2014 after months of tensions with Kiev following the ouster of a pro-Russian leader. The move resulted in a major boost to Putin's popularity.
But the takeover was denounced by Kiev and the West as an annexation and, along with Moscow's support for separatist forces in Ukraine's east, has prompted wide-ranging sanctions against Russia.
"March 18 is a remarkable day for Sevastopol, for Crimea and for the whole country," Putin said, speaking at a ceremony for the launch of the power plants in the port city Sevastopol.
He said the plants' opening represented "another important step to strengthen the energy security of Crimea."
Kiev stopped supplying energy to Crimea in late 2015, leaving the peninsula reliant on an underwater cable running from Russia and facing frequent supply problems.
The plants were at the center of a scandal last year, after the US sanctioned Russian officials who supplied them with turbines built by German engineering giant Siemens – a violation of European Union sanctions against Moscow.
In Russia, March 18 has been proclaimed the "Day of Crimea's Reunification with Russia" and celebrated with events across the country. In Crimea, it is a public holiday.
Authorities set up a stage on Simferopol's main square for the celebrations. Posters that read "Five years of Crimea returning to its native land" hung on shop windows and public transport.
"There is a feeling of newness, of independence, of freedom," retired teacher Valentina Dorozhko told Agence France-Presse (AFP). She said she felt "reborn" when Russia took over.
But Oleg Ivanov, a man in his 40s, called for Putin to change course.
"If we have sanctions imposed on us, then you need to sit down, negotiate and change something," he told AFP. "And if there's no progress, then it's time for someone else to have a go."
'Part of Russia forever'
Putin signed an agreement on March 18, 2014, with local representatives to make Crimea part of Russia, two days after a referendum condemned by Kiev and the West as illegitimate.
Pro-Kremlin media on Monday carried reports of improvements on the peninsula under Russian rule.
"There is growing understanding in the world that Crimea is part of Russia and will be forever," Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, wrote in a column for newspaper Izvestia.
But the liberal press painted a more somber picture, saying the takeover had made Russians poorer and more isolated from the world.
The takeover prompted euphoria and a wave of patriotism in Russia, but 5 years later Crimea has "stopped being a source of political benefit" for authorities, liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta said.
According to a survey published by the Centre for Public Opinion (FOM) in early March, only 39% of Russians believe the annexation brought Russia more good than harm. In 2014, that figure was 67%.
Last week, the US, Canada and the European Union slapped new sanctions on more than a dozen Russian officials and businesses in response to what they called Moscow's "continued aggression in Ukraine."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is facing a difficult election this month, vowed that Crimea would return to Ukraine if he was re-elected.
Kiev's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told AFP ahead of the anniversary that the Russian annexation had left Crimea in limbo.
"Under Russian occupation Crimea is going nowhere, it has no future," he said.
"All these 5 years there has been an atmosphere of both open and hidden terror against the people of Crimea and international law."
The Crimean Tatars, a Muslim-majority community that is largely opposed to the annexation, have faced pressure from Russian authorities.
"Crimea was taken away from the Crimeans, their homeland was taken away from them," Klimkin said. – Rappler.com