SIMFEROPOL, Crimea - The hands of a clock on the main railway station in Simferopol jumped from 10 PM to midnight on Saturday as Crimea switched to Moscow time, symbolicly finalising the region's incorporation into Russia.
Several hundred people gathered on the railway square for the ceremonial change of time, waving Russian national flags and chanting "Crimea! Russia!" after Moscow formally annexed the Black Sea region from Ukranie on March 21.
"I greet you with our return home," Crimea's new pro-Moscow Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov told the crowd. "I am confident that all that we have done is to the benefit of Crimea and Crimeans," he exclaimed, extending his thanks to"our President Vladimir Putin" to noisy applause from the crowd.
Wrapped in Russian flags and some with tears of joy in their eyes, the people gathered in the provincial capital of Simferopol on Saturday sang Russia's national anthem when the clock moved to Moscow time. "This is my moment of happiness. We all dreamed of this but did not dare think it may come now," said Tatiana, a 35-year-old waitress dancing to the music played on the square.
Her colleague Inga said she was 11-years-old when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, giving Ukraine independence and splitting Crimea from Moscow. "My heart was crying back then. But now it is rejoicing, we have returned home. We were born on Moscow time and we are back to it again," she said. "I love the Ukrainian people but I do not recognise Ukraine as a country." Crimea has already introduced the Russian rouble as its official currency and started paying out pensions and state salaries in the unit since the region voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia on March 16.
Kiev and the West have denounced Russia's annexation of Crimea, an impoverished region of 2 million people with a narrow ehtnic Russian majority, as illegal and undermining peace in Europe.
The United States and Europe curbed cooperation with Moscow and introduced sanctions on Russia as well as some of Putin's closest allies over the move but have refrained from harsh economic sanctions.
Kiev has ordered its troops in Crimea to retreat to the mainland, acknowledging defeat after Russian soldiers grabbed Ukrainian bases in the region one after another in a largely bloodless seizure.
Scores of mid-level Russian officials are now in Simferopol helping the local authorities to bring Crimea's legal and tax regulations in line with the Russian ones, a process due to be finalised by the end of the year.
Aksyonov and Crimea's new authorities hope Russia will now sponsor an economic upgrade of the region, a project likley to put additional pressure on the state coffers in Moscow that are already strained from a slowing economy.