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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crimea: A Short Fuse

Since May 24 passenger trains from Ukraine have been arriving in Moscow four hours later than usual. The reason for this is that customs officers have begun operations on the border with Russia.


I was returning from the Crimea with my family in June. (By the way, until 1954, the Crimea was part of Russia, so it can be described as Ukrainian only relatively speaking. ) In any case, the news of the border innovation had already reached vacationers. I should have been prepared, but I had a surprise in store for me.


At. 6: 00 A. M. , on the bare steppe beyond Kharkhov, customs officers of independent Ukraine "attacked" the Sevastopol-Moscow train. "Attack" is just what they did, unceremoniously bursting into cars where people lay sleeping, chasing children out into the corridor, rattling suitcases and shaking bags. It was as if gangsters had carried out a raid on the train.


I tried to protect my daughter, who was asleep on the lower bunk. "But I have to know what you've got under the bunk", said a relatively polite customs officer (the others did not stoop to explanations). "What on earth could I have there that's forbidden? " I asked, interested. "Well, a television, for example. . ".


Good God! It turns out that you can actually get Ukrainian televisions!


We were leaving a poor country. It reminded me of Russia in December, 1991, just before the start of Gaidar's economic reforms. The shops were empty, the prices sky-high. There were lines everywhere. You could not buy meat at all. Could it really be that there was no sugar, no sausage in Ukraine - none of the traditional Ukrainian export goods? In the past you could get everything, but the Ukrainians complained that Moscow was taking the best goods for itself. Now Moscow is not taking anything at all, but in Ukraine, everything has disappeared.


Is life in Zaporozhye and Kharkhov beginning to get better? If so, why is it that in these major Ukrainian industrial centers, our train was met by crowds of people who tried to squeeze rubles out of the passengers, despite the fact that rubles are now forbidden in Ukraine? They offered in exchange their own paltry goods: a bowl of boiled potatoes, a tattered book, a bottle of spoiled beer.


Life here echoes the situation in pre-reform Russia. An announcement on the doors of a bank reads: "Currency up to the value of $200 may be bought in the mornings on presentation of an exit visa in a passport for foreign travel". In Moscow, currency, in any quantity, is sold in many banks round-the-clock to anyone who wants it, without a passport, and exit visas have been abolished.


In the restaurant car they have the same rotten beer along with stronger drinks of dubious quality. There is absolutely no food to be seen. The conductor pours boiling water into glasses (you need to bring your own sugar and tea), makes a note of those to whom he has given an aluminum spoon (an invaluable item! ). Even passengers accustomed to traveling by plane now travel by train: There is now only one scheduled flight a day to Moscow, yet there is no fuel, and this single flight can sometimes be delayed for two days.


Who is to blame? President Leonid Kravchuk? Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma? The deputies of the Supreme Soviet? The government? No, none of these men are to blame and they all are to blame. Blame must fall on the communist deformity, the cursed past that is pulling Ukraine, as well as Russia, backwards. Russia managed to break free from the tenacious grip of the "socialist option" and move forward, however slightly.


If Yeltsin hesitates, the Baburins and Zyuganovs (leaders of the Communist opposition) will get the upper hand - we will once again end up in the common pit. Then Ukraine will again be friends with Russia.


Ukraine is not paying Russia any money. It keeps on begging, making all sorts of promises - but afterwards it forgets these promises. I remember Mayor Luzhkov's dismayed speech on television during one of the regular sugar crises in Moscow: He dashed off to Kiev, signed an agreement. Moscow gave the Ukraine its own products - from Zils to consumer goods - in exchange for future supplies of sugar. Moscow sent everything off on time, but the sugar never came.


In our train there were two rowdy cars carrying 18-year-old sailors, who had refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Ukraine. They were being transported to the Northern Fleet. Service in the north is far from easy, not at all like in the Crimea, and these boys in their navy jerseys probably knew this. The majority of them entered the army from Ukraine, some of them were from the Crimea. So it is not just officers that are causing problems in Sevastopol, as some newspapers claim.


These sailors who were being taken off to the Northern Fleet would shoot if need be. The command to fire would coincide with personal conviction. This is frightening. There are hot-headed people on both sides.


The Crimea could well become the detonator of a serious crisis. Today, customs; tomorrow, visas for dollars. Then the nationalization of holiday resorts built by Russian companies. Any unilateral actions of this type can only hasten an explosion. It seemed to me that the newly appointed Ukrainian customs officials were not really looking for contraband (they themselves clearly did not know what was contraband and what was not); they wanted to demonstrate their authority, to try to humiliate the passengers.


Unfortunately, they did not understand that wars start from insignificant incidents, from suspicion, a lack of trust, unpaid debts and broken agreements. From searches on trains.


Andrei Malgin is editor in chief of the weekly news magazine Stolitsa.