A sudden and sizable demographic shift, driven mainly by migration, is helping Russia cement its grip on the Crimean peninsula.
After the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, at least 150,000 people have moved to the peninsula mainly from Russia, but also from other Eurasian states. At the same time, roughly 150,000 erstwhile residents of Crimea have left, heading mostly for territories under Ukraine’s control.
Official data compiled by Russian state agencies show that from the start of 2014 through the third quarter of 2016, Crimea experienced a net inflow of 83,000 individuals. Over 149,000 moved to the peninsula, while about 66,000 departed, according to statistics compiled by entities set up by Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat): Sevastopolstat and Krymstat. The latter agency tracks statistics in the so-called Republic of Crimea. Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet, is technically its own district apart from the rest of the peninsula, and is run directly by Moscow.
Observers say the official figures do not fully reflect the scope of migration concerning Crimea, since they only capture those who officially register with authorities.
Several factors are responsible for likely undercounting the number of migrants. Sevastopol, for example, has only preliminary data for the first eight months of 2016 available. In addition, the local authorities stopped tracking migration for several months in 2014.
Gaps in Rosstat's own reporting suggests that the actual number of those who left Crimea appears to be far higher than the officially reported number.
According to Rosstat, the peninsula’s population stood at 2.342 million on Jan. 1, 2014, and declined by about 5,000 to 2.337 million by the end of the third quarter of 2016. Rosstat also reported that over the same period Crimea had 15,500 more deaths than births, while experiencing a net gain of approximately 83,000 due to migration. If those figures are accurate, there would be at least 67,500 individuals who were somehow not counted in official totals as leaving.
The discrepancies in the data show that the actual number of those who have left Crimea is much higher than Rosstat reports, and conservatively stands at least at 150,000. Deeper analysis of Rosstat’s data for 2014 indicates that at the minimum about 70,000 left Crimea that year. Then at least about 80,000 more people moved from the peninsula in 2015 and the first three quarters of 2016. The outflow numbers since 2015 are supported by Ukrainian government statistics that show that between January 2015 and April 2016 alone, there was a net movement of 73,100 people from Crimea to the adjacent region of Ukraine.
Rosstat also seems to under-report the inflow of people to Crimea. That is likely due to the fact that many people who move to Crimea from Russia do not go through the official registration process, in part because of distrust of law-enforcement agencies. In addition, many consider the fine for failing to register and obtaining a propiska, or residency permit, to be negligible.
EurasiaNet.org met with dozens of Russians who have moved to Crimea, but none of them officially registered.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the migration trend in Crimea is that it is prompting a significant change in the peninsula’s ethnic composition.
According to both official data and independent sources, Russians account for the vast majority of the migration inflow, while the majority of those who left the peninsula went to the territories controlled by Kyiv, and are thus likely non-Russians, in particular Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.
According to sales data compiled by a leading realtor in Crimea, Alliance De Luxe, the majority of those buying expensive houses, condos and land lots on the peninsula are residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don.
More affordable options, i.e. real estate costing under 2 million rubles ($35,000), is favored by migrants from Moscow province, as well as citizens from CIS states, mainly Armenia and Azerbaijan.
De-facto local authorities want to boost Crimea’s population, mostly by promoting migration to the peninsula from mainland Russia. The legislature of the Republic of Crimea passed a development program in late December 2016. The plan seeks to increase in the territory’s population by 2.4 million by 2030, with most of the gain is expected to come from a “migration surplus.”
Rosstat representatives are more measured in their projections. For example, Krymstat estimates that up to 20,000 migrants per year will move to Crimea from 2017 to 2030.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Crimea is not getting good word-of-mouth reviews as a place to move to. EurasiaNet.org is aware of many examples where residents of major Russian cities are refusing to consider a move to Crimea, due to the peninsula’s poor infrastructure, high prices and low salaries.
Yekaterina, a resident of St. Petersburg who declined to give her last name, is among those who are down on Crimea. After a visit to Sevastopol in December, she decided against moving to Crimea.
“The local residents complain about salaries,” she said. “When I mentioned that I was from St. Petersburg, everyone would say that they wanted to move there. Generally, there is this atmosphere of poverty. Ultimately, I changed my mind about moving to Crimea. I think I will go with Sochi instead.”
Alexander Alikin is an independent journalist based in Crimea.