How the eastern Ukraine referenda relate to the May 25 election


It’s hard to know, especially from afar, how to interpret the weekend’s referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine.Ukraine Flag Icon

According to the pro-Russian organizers, 89.07% of voters in Donetsk voted for ‘self-rule,’ on the basis of 74.87% turnout. In Luhansk, fully 96% of the electorate voted for ‘the declaration of state independence’ on the basis of a reorted 75% turnout. Those numbers are all disputed by Ukraine’s central government. 

Adding to the lack of clarity, the referendum questions themselves are vaguely worded, so no one knows exactly what the region’s voters elected to do.

In Donetsk, voters were asked, “Do you support the declaration of state independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” In Luhansk, voters were asked, “Do you support the declaration of state independence of the Luhansk People’s Republic?” The Russian word used for ‘state independence,’ samostoyatel’nost‘, means ‘standing by oneself,’ so no one really knows what the voters were actually asked to choose — it could mean anything from greater autonomy to full independence to, possibly, Russian annexation.

Interim Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov declared the votes a ‘farce,’ and Western observers, including European leaders, have dismissed the referendum as illegitimate in its conception and fraudulent in its execution.

Everything that we know about the region suggests that while its residents might not be incredibly thrilled with Kiev, especially after the interim central government’s awkward ‘anti-terror’ campaigns and comically botched attempts to reassert control over the east, there’s not an incredibly strong love to become part of the Russian Federation, either. Though it’s hard to gauge voter sentiment, credible polls suggest that there’s not an incredible groundswell of support for either independence or for Russian annexation.

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RELATED: All you wanted to know about Ukraine’s Donbass region

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For Russia’s part, president Vladimir Putin is taking a much more nuanced, even subdued line. He argued before the referenda that they should be delayed. Organizers ignored his calls and proceeded with the status votes anyway. It’s not incredibly clear that Putin wants to take on the burden of annexing what amounts to 15% of Ukraine’s population, creating a new dependent region under Russian control. That approach would also leave the rest of Ukraine increasingly united against Moscow and in favor of political, economic and security cooperation with the European Union. Another land grab would also invite further isolation and more severe sanctions against Russia, disrupting its already precarious economic condition.

Donetsk and Luhansk aren’t clones of Crimea — so what’s Putin thinking? 

Many US media outlets are reporting that the eastern Ukranian referenda follow the same pattern as in Crimea. But it’s a mistake to conflate the current process in eastern Ukraine to the Crimea process.

Certainly, the March 16 Crimean referendum was neither free nor fair, taking place under Russian military occupation organized hastily and in league with a vote of the Russian Duma, the lower house of its federal assembly, to annex Crimea. But there was an unmistakable Russian will to retake Crimea. The peninsula has served as a key Russian naval point on the Black Sea for centuries, and it was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev gratuitously transferred it from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (a distinction that hardly mattered until the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991).

Ethnic Russians form 60% of the population in Crimea, a much higher proportion than in eastern Ukraine. For all the bluster between Washington and Moscow, evoking a wan shadow of the Cold War, you can intuitively understand why Russia would be so excited to take advantage of Ukraine’s chaos to correct what it saw as an ahistorical fluke of geography.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is different. Certainly, there’s a greater Russian tilt in eastern Ukraine than in the rest of the country. Donetsk oblast has a ethnic Russian population of around 38% and Luhansk an ethnic Russian population of around 39%. The dominant language in both oblasts in Russian, not Ukrainian (though that’s almost equally true in Kiev, where sentiment is much more anti-Moscow — the pithy saying goes that Kiev ‘speaks Russian and thinks Ukrainian’). It’s also true that both regions overwhelmingly supported Viktor Yanukovych, the relatively pro-Russian former Ukrainian president — in the most recent 2010 election, he won 76% of the vote in Donetsk and 71% in Luhansk.

Though they aren’t recognized internationally, the referenda give Putin a fig leaf to order Russian troops into eastern Ukraine at will, with the invitation of the eastern separatists — just as in Crimea. The bumbling response of the Ukrainian army, which killed two civilians yesterday, gives Putin another fig leaf to intervene for the protection of ethnic Russians — just as he did in 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in response to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s miscalculations. Russian forces could easily take control of the region. So what’s Putin’s game?

Most immediately, the current chaos in Ukraine’s east will undermine the legitimacy of the country’s presidential election, scheduled for May 25 — a vote that’s supposed to take place in just 13 days.

Though Putin may not want to annex Dontesk and Luhansk, he’s certainly delighted at the mayhem the referenda have engendered. If the referenda in the two oblasts (and in Crimea) were flawed, it’s beginning to seem like the upcoming presidential election will have enough flaws that Putin will also be able to disregard it. Putin has argued that Ukraine should undertake constitutional reforms designed to create a more federal structure that devolves more power to Ukraine’s regions and, thereafter, hold new elections.

Undermining Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election

With Crimea now fully under Russian control and with Ukrainian forces unable to retake control of much of Luhansk and Donetsk (or unwilling to do so in light of the potential casualties that could result), it’s hard to believe that the presidential election will reflect the full participation and voice of eastern Ukraine.

Petro Poroshenko, a businessman who has bankrolled the Ukrainian opposition, is likely to glide to victory in a lopsided election. Though he may not win the absolute majority he will need to avoid a runoff on June 8, polls show that he’s developed an impregnable lead. His most serious competitor, Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-political newcomer, dropped out of the race in March to back Poroshenko. His remaining challenger, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and runner-up in the 2010 election, who was only recently released from prison upon Yanukovych’s ouster, trails widely. Voters largely see her as yesterday’s woman, a leader who was nearly as corrupt as Yanukovych and an equally inept economic steward.

Nonetheless, all three — Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Klitscho — represent different streams of the relatively pro-Western opposition camp, as does Turchynov and interim Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who comes from Tymoshenko’s center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина, Batkivshchyna).

The candidate of Yanukovych’s once-dominant Party of Regions (Партія регіонів), Mykhailo Dobkin, a former governor of Kharkiv oblast, which lies to the northwest of Luhansk and Donetsk, wins very little support. Eastern voters, to the extent they will participate at all in the presidential vote, seem likely to split their votes among Dobkhin and Donetsk native Petro Symonenko, the candidate of Ukraine’s Communist Party (Комуністична партія України).

Despite the corruption that has now come to define the Yanukovych era, despite his imprisonment of Tymoshenko, and despite his government’s use of violence against the Maidan Square protests that immediately preceded his abdication in February, Yanukovych was elected president in a relatively free and fair contest against Tymoshenko four years ago. Though the hasty creation of the current interim government was quickly ushered through the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, it was nonetheless democratically and constitutionally problematic.

Though many of the protestors were peaceful, some of them come from Ukraine’s stridently far-right political groups, including Right Sector (Правий сектор), a paramilitary outfit founded by Dmytro Yarosh, and All-Ukrainian Union ‘Svoboda’ (Всеукраїнське об’єднання «Свобода»). Until late March, Svoboda official Igor Tenyukh served as interim defense minister; other Svodoba officials include deputy prime minister Alexander Sych, environmental minister Andriy Mokhnyk and agricultural minister Ihor Shavaika. Militias tied to Right Sector and Svoboda are now understood to be working to provide security in Kiev and elsewhere in western and central Ukraine on behalf of the transitional government.

Putin will be able to use all of this to discredit Poroshenko’s likely election in the weeks ahead. If the West argues that the May 11 (and March 16 Crimean) referenda were flawed, Putin will be able to argue that the May 25 vote is almost equally flawed. It will be conducted by an interim government elected by no one and installed by little more than mob rule, which draws uncomfortable support from far-right nationalist militias, at a time when the central Kiev government likely won’t be able to secure a stable voting environment in eastern Ukraine.

Though US and European policymakers will be loathe to admit it, Putin has some valid points. That means that Ukraine’s political legitimacy crisis, at least in the Donbass region, won’t end with the presidential election. It also means that Putin is playing a longer term game with respect to Ukraine — not just to take ownership of the Donbass, despite the enthusiasm of its pro-Moscow separatists.

Photo credit to Kyiv Post / Kostyantyn Chernichkin.

2 thoughts on “How the eastern Ukraine referenda relate to the May 25 election”

  1. I do think there’s a case of false balance here, I don’t think you can really compare Ukraine’s forthcoming presidential elections (observed by OSCE, imparted by an interim government formed as a result of the then president literally running away from power) to the massively flawed “referenda” in Crimea and the Donbass.

    After all in Crimea you had plausible claims of fraud, ineligible people voting and an implausibly high margin of victory (out of kilter with all polling), contradicted later by Putin’s own human rights council. In the Donbass you have even more irregularities in the form of inadequate polling stations (too little for the reported turnout to be realistic), intimidation, no observers whatsoever and the lack of an electoral register. Not to mention the reported seizure of pre-marked ballots!

    Of course Russia will see the referenda as legitimate and the presidential vote as not but I don’t think you can claim that they have a point in saying so. I was also under the impression that polling had Poroshenko topping the ballot even in the east of Ukraine, albeit more marginally.

    Please don’t mistake being neutral with giving equal weight to both sides.

  2. I think Putin is still playing black, but it’s a confusing game because of the other side’s incoherence. It was to Russia’s advantage to have a more or less neutral state in Ukraine, with a substantial pro-Russian population to balance anti-Russian, pro-NATO forces there. Someone upset that arrangement, either as a part of PNAC’s overt Drang Nach Osten, or for some other reason, but however motivated, the pro-Western anti-Russian, putschist elements don’t seem to have any coherent plan or intention even to legitimize themselves. Putin has so far done the obvious: prevent the West from kicking the Russian state out of Crimea and the Black Sea generally. His next moves — such as recognizing, or refusing to recognize, the referenda in eastern Ukraine — will probably come only when the other side puts forward some kind of coherent initiative.

    Once again one wonders, ‘What were they thinking?’

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