Expert: majority in Donetsk Oblast stand for united Ukraine
On May 11th, a carnival of ‘referendums’ took place in Donbas. Citizens were polled on whether they supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, would like to join Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, or even to associate with Great Britain. The ‘plebiscite’ held by representatives of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk garnered the most publicity. There was only one question on the ballot: “Do you support the Act of State Self-Rule of the People’s Republic of Donetsk?”
The separatists’ ‘people’s referendum’ took place in school buildings, local houses of culture, and tents right in the streets. There were queues at some of the ‘polling stations’, mostly of elderly people. The main reason for the crowding was in fact the lack of places to vote. Voter lists were absent at some of the ‘stations’. Sometimes people were registered on the spot upon showing their passports, and sometimes simply upon oral requests. Some Donetsk citizens voted more than once.
The results were calculated very quickly. On the evening of May 11th, Roman Lyagin, head of the People’s Republic of Donetsk Central Election Committee, announced that 89.7% voted for recognition of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, 10.19% voted against, and 0.74% of the ballots were spoiled. He estimated the voter turnout at 74.87%. Roman Lyagin explained to journalists that among the reasons for such haste in calculations were escalation of the situation in the region and intensified armed clashes.
Serhiy Taruta, Donetsk Oblast governor, said in an interview with TV channel 1+1 that he would not recognize the ‘referendum’ results. He proposed an alternate plebiscite concerning decentralization of power. “We need a referendum which would be legal, with observers and election committees present. The president and prime minister have accepted this offer. We will hold a legitimate referendum on June 15th. This will be a consultative referendum on the decentralization of power,” Taruta announced on the air on 1+1.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine provided an official comment on the separatist poll.
“The illegitimate referendum on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts held on May 11th, inspired, organized, and funded by the Kremlin, is null and void and will not bear any judicial consequences for the territorial integrity and state structure of Ukraine,” said a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of Information Policy. The Ministry believes that the majority of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast citizens ignored the vote. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses that neither the Ukrainian people nor the international community will recognize the results of any ‘terrorist referendum’ in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, nor in Crimea.
Donetsk political scientist Olexander Klyuzhev commented on the national plebiscite.
“It is hard to make any forecast right now. Since the local authorities have often expressed their loyalty to the ‘referendum’, the Party of Regions will try to use this case in political bargaining with Kyiv. The task of the ‘regionals’ was to set a precedent, illegal or not, to create the impression of an ‘expression of public will’ in Donbas, and now we must seek a compromise. It is important that Kyiv not fall for these ultimatums. There should be no question of federalization. I see only one way to stabilize the situation: do not delay reform of local government, and immediately adopt a package of laws that would transfer the major powers and authority to local communities. There should also be early elections of local authorities.
“There are no valid results of the so-called referendum. Only a few polling stations were created, and their purpose was to show mass support of the initiative. There were only five polling stations in Mariupol, though a city with a population of 400,000 needs at least 200. Actually, we did not observe the ‘referendum’, because it was an illegal act and we did not wish to. Subjectively and based on information from our channels, I would estimate the voter turnout at 10%. However, even these numbers cannot be taken seriously because the whole thing happened at gunpoint and under media blackout. Russia is not ready to officially recognize this poll; they would probably just take the results into account.
“The separatists themselves had a hand in discrediting the ‘referendum’: announcing the results two hours after the referendum ended, and unsubstantiated statements regarding turnout, outcome, and so on. This suggests that they didn’t take it seriously themselves. Another problem is the disarming of people who could perceive it as a betrayal.
“Generally, this region traditionally has a large group of people with very mixed pro-Russian views. I would estimate them at 30% of the total population. We should work with these people and convince them that most of Donbas’s problems were caused not by the current Kyiv authorities, but by local elites treating the region as a resource for personal enrichment. We must restore the balance of information in the region. It is not normal for a state not to control the information space on its territory. Millions of Donetsk Oblast residents don’t get information from Ukrainian media, so we might expect any amount of support for separatists.
“The majority of Donetsk citizens support a united Ukraine. Under no circumstances can we consider the pseudo-referendum significant: there was no informational campaign, no public discussion, and many people were totally ignorant of what they voted for. I received a phone call from Enakievo saying that local grandmothers were sure they had voted for united Ukraine, peace and unity. I suppose most of the ‘referendum’ participants were expressing protest against the government in Kyiv and against social injustice. Therefore, I would not say all these people are truly in favor of the collapse of the country.”
Translated by Irina Kostyshina, edited by Robin Rohrback