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Ukrainian separatists are getting better at holding fake referendums

Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev
A man signs a document to receive a ballot in Donetsk on May 11.
By Jason Karaian
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As if there was ever any doubt, huge majorities apparently voted in favor of self-rule in yesterday’s referendum in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk. Representatives of the pro-Russian groups said that some 90% of voters in Donetsk and 96% in Luhansk voted in favor of independence. Turnout was 70-80%, they said.

There were plenty of problems with the vote, not least the fact that organizers were denied access to the official election register. Lax security and a lack of independent monitors—but plenty of masked gunmen ”protecting” the areas around polling booths—made the results impossible to verify. The claims of some election workers strained credulity, suggesting that voters submitted more than 100 ballots per minute at certain stations. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt certainly wasn’t convinced:

In summary, the exercise echoed a similar vote in Crimea, where a hastily arranged poll in March resulted in a 97% majority in favor of joining Russia, with a turnout of more than 80%. The swift annexation of the peninsula rendered moot the fact that the actual turnout in the poll was possibly as low as 30%, as it later emerged.

In recent national elections, turnout in Crimea was among the lowest of Ukraine’s regions. And although comfortable majorities backed ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and related parliamentary candidates, the results weren’t nearly as conclusive as the March referendum.

Yesterday’s votes in Donetsk and Luhansk may feature similarly gaudy numbers in favor of independence from Kyiv. But, perhaps learning a lesson from Crimea, organizers reported results that hew more closely to previous national polls in the region. Some 90% of voters in the two oblasts voted for Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election, with a turnout of around 75%.

Still, few independent observers would consider yesterday’s vote free or fair by the usual international standards. Critics in Kyiv called the vote a “farce” and, like in Crimea, suggested that the actual turnout was a small fraction of what was claimed by organizers. EU ministers are meeting today and may impose additional sanctions on Russia for its perceived role in stirring up unrest in Ukraine.

Recent opinion polls suggest that only a small minority of people in Ukraine’s eastern regions are in favor of joining Russia, the government in Kyiv said in a statement. But the question on the ballots in Donetsk and Luhansk was more vague than that, asking only whether voters supported “the act of state self-reliance.”

Some see the vote as a move to bolster the case for greater sovereignty for Ukraine’s east under a more federalized legal structure, rather than Crimea-style annexation by Russia. For its part, the Kremlin said in a statement today that it “respects the expression of the people’s will” in the referendum, noting the “high turnout.”

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