by Skoryh Tatyana
Pretty much everyone loves to play games, and the people of the Crimea are no exception. The most popular video games here on the peninsula are: Diablo, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, Arma3, Arma 2 , Grand Theft Auto V and League of Legends. But due to events of the past year, people here can't enjoy internet gaming services like they used to. The Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed by Russia in March 2014; the military intervention and annexation by Russia took place in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution. Since then, international sanctions have massively restricted everything here, gaming services included.
Putin justified Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine through what he called the necessity to defend ethnic Russians from “Neo-Nazis and Russophobes”. This was his term for the demonstrators based at Kiev’s Maidan protest camp, who toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s incursion was condemned by many world leaders as an illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory and led to introduction of the first round of sanctions against Russia.
US President Obama gives an address on the situation in Ukraine on March 17, 2014 (ABC News)
On 6 March 2014, US president Barack Obama signed an executive order that declared a national emergency. He ordered sanctions, including travel bans and freezing of US assets, against unspecified individuals (to be determined by the Secretary of the Treasury in consultation with the Secretary of State) who had "asserted governmental authority in the Crimean region without the authorisation of the Government of Ukraine" and whose actions were found, inter alia, to "undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine".
Under Ukrainian control (which lasted 23 years) the economy of Crimea was ruined and it felt like the authorities were more concerned with filling their own pockets than improving the wealth of the populace, but still we had our tourists. Now, though, despite the fact that it's peaceful here, foreign tourists are afraid to come, as travel insurance won’t cover it; transportation routes are also blocked. If you prefer to travel comfortably you’d hop on a plane rather than enduring our old trains, but there are no more direct planes to Crimea – except through Moscow. Salaries are higher than they were under Ukranian control, but prices are stratospheric. People are shocked to remember how cheap things used to be.
Ignat, a Crimean IT professional and developer, relates how this process of change in Crimea took place and that problems that he and his colleagues (web developers and gamers) encountered after the annexation. "The first unpleasant thing was that the Ukrainian banks closed. So businessmen, gamers who play international computer games, and everyone else who uses banks had to open new accounts in Russian banks that started appearing on the peninsula. Every citizen of Crimea had to receive new documents according to Russian laws. We had to wait in huge lines for our Russian passports, insurance documents, SNILSs [roughly equivalent to a National Insurance number], driving licences and plates. But during that first round of sanctions the United States blocked transactions with Russian banks such as "RNKB", "Sberbank", "Moscow Bank" and the "Bank of Russia" (which came to Crimea). I’d opened my new account at one of those.
Steam is currently blocking transactions in the Crimea.
“So once again I had to close my account as I couldn't receive my payment from the clients. The same thing happened to a lot of gamers who had to open new bank accounts to pay for services. I spent 2,000 rubles to open this account and had to close it pretty much immediately. Then I opened another account in another Russian bank, "Krayinvest bank", which was then still free from the sanctions, and I consequently paid a considerable sum of money for that. That bank is located in Krasnodar on continental Russia [not within the Crimea].
“For a while we had spells of peaceful working and gaming, until the second round of sanctions started at the end of December 2014. The US president signed the Executive Order, "Blocking Property of Certain Persons and Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to the Crimea Region of Ukraine," signed on December 19, 2014. It includes: "the exportation, re-exportation, sale, or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States, or by a United States person, wherever located, of any goods, services, or technology to the Crimea region of Ukraine." After that decree all transactions between all US companies and Crimea were cut off . Since then, nobody has been able to buy or play any more games via the internet as all the accounts of Crimean gamers were blocked. Google and Apple supported these sanctions, so now neither PlayMarket nor the App Store are available any more.
“So all my contracts with all my overseas clients were cut off, and my IT developer friends and I were left here without a job; we couldn't even play our favourite games any more. As an Apple developer I lost my licence for publishing my software products on the App Store. And all my products which I used to sell on AppStore are banned now. So I lost my income. Google obeys the sanctions even more strictly: they check your IP address and block the majority of its services for Crimeans. Only free services like Google Search, Google Plus, Google Hangouts etc are available now.
“Another problem here is that after the annexation, all the Ukrainian telecommunication operators had to leave and stopped broadcasting here. So Russian mobile and internet companies came along – but their services are more expensive and worse in quality.
Demonstration in Kharkiv for Ukraine unity and against Russia bringing its military troops to Crimea (credit: Mariia Golovianko/Shutterstock.com)
“My hosting company BlueHost, where my clients’ sites are hosted, also blocked me without even notifying me. So, as a result, all my clients lost all their sites in the blink of an eye. And I couldn't even recover them or make a backup because BlueHost had totally cut all access to my account.
“To add to all this, Russia is now blocking many Ukrainian sites! Since all Crimean internet providers are transferring their services from Ukrainian to Russian infrastructure [fibre optic networks], it gives the Russian Communication Department the ability to block our access to any part of the internet. We can't even read it. The biggest problem for me is that I can't go to the Ukrainian developer site DOU.ua now.
“The only option now is either to move to continental Russia or to Ukraine, and by officially registering there we can revive our internet business. In fact, going by what I’ve heard and read amongst my friends and on forums, about 1,000 developers have already left Crimea because of these sanctions."
The situation for players is not as dire as it is for developers. One Simferopol gamer, Vanya, gives his view: "Since January, Valve ceased operations of Steam in Crimea. There are 2.3 million people in Crimea and approximately 20-30,000 of them are using Steam. Now we can’t buy any more games or use our accounts for selling things that we’ve earned in-game. I have my money left there which I can't use! But we can still play the games which we had bought before; some of my friends have bought virtual IP addresses to get around the sanctions; they can use all internet services easily, including playing games."
VPNs are already popular in Russia to beat state-sponsored surveillance and censorship. Now Crimeans are cheating censorship from the west. VPNs work by disguising a user's computer to make it seem as though they are connected from another location. In this instance, a Crimean gamer can make it seem like he is connecting from France or Poland by using a French or Polish VPN.
Usage of VPNs and proxy services is technically against Steam’s terms of service: “You agree that you will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose. If you do this, we may terminate your access to your Account.” But in reality, though, it’s always been something of a grey area. There have been few documented bans.
League of Legends, one of the popular online games here, blocked Crimeans from playing two months ago. Publishers Riot Games offered an apologetic explanation, saying they "could not provide any timeline on when this problem will be solved".
Another option for players in Crimea is to buy games from resellers, other internet stores (not based in the US) that purchase games in bulk sell them on to gamers even cheaply. And, of course, there’s always another way to get hold of things: downloading cracked versions. This is one of many ways that games companies will lose profits under these sanctions.
Blizzard services were blocked at the beginning of April, but have now been reinstated
Maybe that was why Blizzard, which suspended access to its Battle.net service in Crimea at the beginning of April in order to comply with US sanctions, opened accounts again a week later. Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Diablo 3, and other games that require a connection to Battle.net are currently available; Blizzard hasn’t commented on why (or how, given the US authorities’ stance on this).
Not everyone’s experience of the sanctions has been entirely negative, though. "Frankly speaking," says Darya, a young Crimean gamer, "I had an enjoyable rest while Blizzard was blocking my account in the middle of April. At first, I didn't know what to do with all the free time that suddenly appeared. But then I started talking to a handsome guy I’d been seeing around, whom I hadn’t noticed before because I was too involved in gaming. He asked me out, I agreed and, you know what? Now we’re having a great time together. I’m playing games like I used to AND having fun in real life with a real boyfriend… so, thank you for the enforced break, Blizzard!”