AMSTERDAM, May 14, 2014 — A referendum on independence was held on Sunday, May 11, by separatists in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. The referendum was held even though Russian President Vladimir Putin called for it to be suspended.
The referendum was organized in a rush. There was no up-to-date electoral register. Voters could even put their names in the voters list while picking up their ballots. Due to the rush, there were no controls and double-voting was possible.
Independent observers were not allowed at voting places. Journalist who had been in the region gave reports of double voting and fraud. These accusations were fuelled by the publication of voting results only two hours after the polling stations closed. The self-proclaimed governor Pavel Gubarev claimed that turnout was 75 percent and that nearly 90 percent voted for independence.
That’s doubtful. A limited independent exit poll gave not only a lower number, but showed that not all voters understood what they were voting for. Some thought they’d voted for independence, while others thought they’d voted for the federalization of Ukraine. Most supporters of the status quo did not vote at all.
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After the referendum, the leader of the separatists, Denis Pushilin, said that this is a clear mandate and that Russia should absorb the Donetsk region. He sees no need for the second referendum that was originally planned for May 18. That referendum is supposed to be about independence or joining Russia.
The referendum is part of the ongoing information war between the different sides. It does not provide democratic legitimacy for declaring independence of the Donetsk region, but it will be used to pressure Kiev for further concessions. It also makes the divide between the separatists and the unionist and their supporters wider and deeper.
Russia greeted the referendum results with demands that Kiev respond to them quickly, while the government in Kiev, the E.U. and the U.S. all reject the referendum and its outcome as illegitimate.
The referendum doesn’t help the situation in Ukraine, but there is still time for a peaceful solution. There have been hopeful signs over the last days. Russia tried to get the separatists to postpone the referendum, and today the government in Kiev started round-table talks. But a real dialogue requires that further steps be taken.
The government in Kiev has to accept that there are serious concerns in the Eastern part of the country. The referendum might be bogus, but it sends the signal that people in the Eastern parts of the country are concerned and do not feel supported by the national government. Federalization of Ukraine should be a serious option. Furthermore, the separatists must be included in the talks. They currently are not. But there is no solution that does not involve all parties.
More western pressure on Russia is needed. Kiev must talk to the separatists, but the separatists have to agree to talks as well. This will not be possible without having Russia on board. Only if the talks involve Kiev, the separatists, Russia, the E.U. and the OSCE as independent observer can they be seen as serious, and on then can an agreement be reached on a peaceful solution.
Presidential elections are scheduled on May 25. Talks have to result at least in a democratic and peaceful election in all parts of the country. Otherwise this election be just one more step to the destruction of Ukraine.