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      Putin Parties Down with Pop Singers at Rally Celebrating Anniversary of Crimea Annexation

      Putin Parties Down with Pop Singers at Rally Celebrating Anniversary of Crimea Annexation Putin Parties Down with Pop Singers at Rally Celebrating Anniversary of Crimea Annexation Putin Parties Down with Pop Singers at Rally Celebrating Anniversary of Crimea Annexation
      Photo by Pavel Golovkin/AP

      Politics

      Putin Parties Down with Pop Singers at Rally Celebrating Anniversary of Crimea Annexation

      By Alec Luhn

      A year after Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula and annexed it from Ukraine, escalating tensions that sparked an ongoing separatist conflict in the region, the country has become something of a diplomatic pariah, its economy battered by Western sanctions.

      So why not throw a party?

      Russian President Vladimir Putin, parliamentarians, and cheesy Russian pop singers joined together in front of the Kremlin on Wednesday for a carefully stage-managed display of patriotism on the anniversary of the takeover of Crimea, portraying it as a historically inevitable act and scorning international objections.

      As with previous pro-government demonstrations, tens of thousands of Russians came out for the occasion, many of them mobilized by labor unions, universities, and political parties. Moscow police, known for inflating the number of participants at such gatherings, claimed that more than 110,000 people had attended.

      Speaking on a stage across from the iconic onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, Putin said that his countrymen had shown "surprising composure, surprising patriotism in helping Crimeans and Sevastopol residents return to their native shores."

      "We're not just talking about territory, which we have enough of," he said. "We're talking about historic roots, about the roots of our faith and government. We're talking about what makes us a single people and a single cohesive unified nation."

      Putin added that he considered Russians and Ukrainians to be "one people," despite the damage he claimed Ukrainian nationalism had done to the relationship. While Putin and other officials often call Ukraine a "brother" country, their affection hasn't been returned by the pro-Western government in Kiev, which blames Moscow for inciting a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.

      The rally came just hours after Putin signed a document that brings Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia — another disputed territory that was the site of a much briefer war in 2008, ending in Russian occupation — further under Russian control. The agreement integrates South Ossetia's military and economy with Russia's, much like a similar deal that was signed last year with the nearby Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

      'We'll overcome all the problems and difficulties that they try to throw at us from outside. This is a useless tactic against Russia.'

      After his speech, Putin joined in singing the national anthem as some in the front of the crowd enthusiastically chanted his name. The pop stars harmonizing with the president included gravelly voiced crooner Grigory Leps, who was blacklisted by the United States in 2013 for alleged mafia ties.

      Organizers handed out Russian flags, and others held printed and handwritten signs reading "Russia and Crimea together forever" and "Thanks, Putin, for Crimea and Sevastopol." One law student held a sign reading "Obama, admit the obvious," referring to the American president's refusal to recognize the annexation of Crimea.

      As Russia has solidified its hold on the peninsula, Putin has portrayed it as a vital part of his country's national and religious heritage, even referring to it as Russia's "Temple Mount" in a speech in December. Prince Vladimir the Great, who converted the Russian antecedent Kievan Rus to Christianity in the 11th Century, is said to have been baptized in Crimea.

      Western nations imposed economic sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea last March. The combination of sanctions with a sharp drop in oil prices since the summer has sent the country's economy into a recession. Inflation in Russia climbed to 16.7 percent by February — the biggest rise in over a decade — and has spiked even higher in Crimea, hitting 42.5 percent by the end of 2014.

      The US and Europe established a trade and investment embargo on Crimea, while Ukraine shut off electricity supplies, a main irrigation canal, and public transportation to the peninsula following its annexation, causing frequent blackouts as well as other problems.

      Despite the hardship, Putin has remained defiant and even flippant toward Western sanctions.

      "We will overcome the difficulties that we have so easily created for ourselves recently," he remarked at the rally. "And of course, we'll overcome all the problems and difficulties that they try to throw at us from outside. This is a useless tactic against Russia."

      Several other prominent attendees echoed his assertion of Russian resilience.

      "It's not the biggest problem," Nikolai Valuev, a seven-foot-tall former world heavyweight boxing champion who is now a parliamentarian, told VICE News when asked about Crimea's economic woes. "People are alive and well. That's more than we can say about thousands of people in eastern Ukraine."

      "Yes, prices are rising, but these sanctions won't make anyone reconsider," added Alexander Zaldostanov, a friend of Putin and leader of the Night Wolves biker club. Nicknamed "The Surgeon," he had flown in from an anniversary rally within Crimea to speak at the Moscow demonstration. "In fact, they'll have the opposite effect. They'll make people think we did the right thing."

      Indeed, sanctions so far appear to have had little impact on policy, while Russian state media's unquestioning support of his opposition to Western "aggression" has effectively boosted his popularity at home. His approval rating reached a record high of 88 percent last week, according to state pollster VTsIOM.

      "I never voted for him, I didn't participate in any elections, but now that he returned Crimea, my relatives and I are 100 percent for Putin," history teacher Olga Nikolayevna told VICE News.

      Cold War-style posturing pervaded the rally. A Russian general took the stage to declare that Crimea was an "outpost" defending the country from the "aggression of America and NATO."

      "If Putin hadn't done what he did (in Crimea) a year ago, then the US fleet would be standing next to my home right now," said Valery Zolotaryov, a pensioner from the Black Sea coast who participated in the clean-up following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He called the sanctions "small change compared to human lives and baby's cries."

      "They wouldn't have agreed to live under the Kiev junta," he said of Crimeans. "Blood would have flowed."

      Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn

      Topics: politics, europe, russia, crimea, crimean peninsula, ukraine, eastern ukraine, separatists, annexation, anniversary, vladimir putin, south ossetia, georgia, abkhazia

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