In the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhanks separatists organized a referendum on independence on Sunday 11 May. Rebel organizers claim 89 percent of the votes in Donetsk, and 96 percent of votes in Luhanks, favor independence. The self-rule vote was highly controversial and has been called illegal by the EU, NATO and the US.
According to the Donetsk and Luhansk Central Election Commissions the high voter turnout (Donetsk 74.9 percent, in Luhansk 81 percent) legitimizes the referendum. However, critics claim the vote was marked by irregularities. At some polling stations voters could cast multiple votes, there were no electoral lists and there were no international observers monitoring the to vote. Also, many people did not know if they were voting for independence or for accession with Russia.
The separatist self-rule referendum adds to the political tension in Ukraine as fears of a full-scale civil war mount. The Ukrainian authorities started losing control over the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since pro-Russian separatists started occupying government buildings as of 15 April. The Kyiv government has been trying to regain control over the separatist strongholds, so far without manor success.
Crimea all over again?
Ukrainian interim President Oleksander Turchinov fears the referendum might lead to a break-up of the country. He said to parliament "the farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other serious crimes". In an official statement he added “These processes are inspired by the leadership of the Russian Federation and are destructive to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions' economies, threaten the lives and welfare of citizens and have the aim of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine, disrupting presidential elections and overthrowing Ukrainian authorities".
Russian government officials stated that the Russian government acknowledges the outcome [of the referendum] but has called for dialogue between the government and the separatists. They stated “In Moscow, we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilized manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue”. The Western powers and the Ukrainian interim government blame Russia for stirring-up civil unrest in eastern Ukraine and fear Russia wants to annex more regions.
Separatist spokesman, Denis Pushilin, said “All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of the referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers […] it is necessary to form state bodies and military authorities as soon as possible”. Spokesmen for the new ‘Republic of Luhansk’ said that if the decision to hold a second referendum to join Russia is made, the view of the people will be taken into account”. Russian government officials deny any Russian government involvement.
On 6 may United States Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the referendum as “contrived and bogus”. He accuses Russia of orchestrating the referendum in order to destabilize the Kyiv interim government. Kerry called the Donetsk and Luhansk referenda “the Crimea play-book all over again”, he added “no civilized nation is going to recognize the results of such a bogus effort”. In an unexpected move, on 7 May Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the separatists to delay the vote until the violence subdued. The separatists did not listen to Putin’s request.
Maja Kacijancic, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that “the so-called referenda in Luhansk and Donetsk regions are illegal and that the EU does not recognize the outcome. Those who organized the referenda have no democratic legitimacy”. European Foreign Ministers, meeting in Brussels on Monday 12 May, announced a widening of existing economic sections on Russia for failing to deescalate the crisis. German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, announced plans to travel to Kyiv on Tuesday 13 May to promote dialogue. He stated “We have to be prepared for what we do if someone prevents the [Presidential] elections on 25 May. If that is going to happen, then we have to think about further sanctions.” The separatists already announced they will boycott the 25 May elections.
Sources: Radio Free Europe I, Radio Free Europe II, Reuters, Russia Today, The BBC, The Guardian I, The Guardian II.
Author: Koen Migchelbrink