Russia on Monday marked the fifth anniversary of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a move condemned by Kiev and its Western allies but celebrated by most Russians.
President Vladimir Putin was to take part in celebrations in the Black Sea peninsula, launching a power station and meeting members of the public, the Kremlin said.
Moscow took over Crimea in March 2014 after months of tensions with Kiev following the ouster of a pro-Russian leader.
Russia said it was righting a historic wrong — Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred Crimea to Ukrainian control in 1954 — and 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 led to wide-ranging sanctions against Russia.
In Russia, March 18 has been officially proclaimed the “Day of Crimea’s Reunification with Russia” and celebrated with events across the country.
City authorities in Moscow organized a street festival called “Crimean Spring” hosting jazz concerts, cooking workshops and a photography exhibition a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.
Up to 10,000 people were expected to take part in a flash mob in the Moscow region on Monday, dancing to the Soviet-era song “Waltz of Sevastopol” — the Crimean city home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Hundreds are expected to participate in another flash mob recreating the Russian flag in the Crimean seaside resort Yalta.
‘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 praised the 2014 events as “the restoration of historical justice” and said the peninsula is thriving 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.
Russia’s liberal press painted a more sombre picture on the anniversary, saying the takeover of the peninsula made Russians poorer and more isolated from the world.
“For one part of Russia, the events around Crimea were a moral catastrophe,” liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta said in an editorial.
Five years later, the euphoria surrounding the Crimean events has worn off and “stopped being a source of political benefit” for authorities, it said.
According to a survey published by the Center for Public Opinion (FOM) in early March, only 39 percent of Russians believed the annexation brought Russia more good than harm, compared to 67 percent in 2014.
Last week, the United States, Canada and the European Union slapped new sanctions on more than a dozen Russian officials and businesses in response to Moscow’s “continued aggression in Ukraine”.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told AFP ahead of the anniversary that Russia’s move had left Crimea in limbo.
“Under Russian occupation Crimea is going nowhere, it has no future,” he said.
“All these five 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.
Russia has banned the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars’ elected assembly which resisted Russian rule, denouncing it as extremist.
“Crimea was taken away from the Crimeans, their homeland was taken away from them,” Klimkin said.
Ukraine “feels pain for this every day”.