Graham Stack in Lugansk -
Pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine's two easternmost regions, Lugansk and Donetsk, have declared a landslide victory in an unrecognised and formally illegal referendum held May 11 on whether the respective regions should separate from Ukraine. A second referendum on whether the region could join the Russian Federation is now possible, election officials said.
In a vote that has not been recognised as legitimate by any international body, provisional results in Donetsk spoke of around 90% of those voting in favour of the referendum. Provisional results for Lugansk ranged between 94-98% in favour, according to self-styled head of the election committee of the "People's Republic of Lugansk", Aleksandr Malykhin.
It is feared the result will be used by Russia as the first step in annexing the two regions, in a scenario analogous to the annexation of Ukraine's region of Crimea in March.
Malykhin told bne that a second referendum on whether the "People's Republic of Lugansk" should join the Russian Federation was possible. "Let's first wait for the final results," he said.
Roman Liagin, Malykhin's counterpart in the equally self-styled "People's Republic of Donetsk", had been quoted in the run-up to the referendum as saying that a second referendum could take place May 18 on whether the (newly-declared) independent states should join Russia. Liagin later denied he had made any such statements.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also refrained from commenting on the results of the illegal referendum until the final results were in.
There was little surprise over the landslide result: voting in the illegal referendum in itself was an expression of support for the separatists. "If I didn't want us to break with Ukraine, I wouldn't be here," 24-year-old miner Vladislav Nemirov told bne after giving his "yes" vote. "Everything in this region is connected to Russia – language and our economy. We have to protect this, and break with Ukraine's illegal government, which is a blind alley."
The critical question is thus the turnout. The separatists declared a very high election turnout in Lugansk region of around 80%, and in Donetsk region 75%, according to the improvised electoral staff. That considerably exceeds Ukraine national elections, where turnout is rarely over 75%.
Few observers believe such a high turnout is plausible. According to bne observations, at poll stations in central Lugansk, voters trickled in to vote at a rate of roughly one per minute in the late morning, but in the afternoon polling stations were very quiet with one vote being cast every five minutes at the most. "By 6:00pm polling stations were pretty empty," the sole election observer, Moscow lawyer Andrei Markine, a Canadian citizen, told bne.
Markine, a private citizen who has election observation experience in Moscow, otherwise gave the elections a clean bill of health, and said he was now hiding from his wife, a patriotic resident of Kyiv.
The other critical question is what the voters actually thought they were voting for in the two regions. The question was worded as: "Do you support the act of state autonomy of the 'people's republic of Lugansk / Donetsk respectively?" The word used denotes "self-reliance" and falls short of "independence", but seems a lot more than the Russian word used in Soviet times for home rule – autonomy.
In contrast to Crimea, very few of those voting expected or wanted to immediately join Russia. "What has Russia got to do with this? Russia is Russia and Ukraine is Ukraine," said 62-year-old Alexei Simonkin, a welder and mechanic, who voted in favour. Many voters appeared to have some unclear concept of home-rule within Ukraine, arising from disgust at the perceived illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities.
But in what may have been a Freudian slip after a long day, Lugansk election commission spokesman Vassily Nikitin told bne explicitly that the question had been clearly worded as "state independence," using the Russian word for (full) independence.
State of East Ukraine
The real impact of the referendum has been the separatists' ability to hold this – from the point of view of the national government Kyiv – illegal and treasonous referendum across two major regions comprising a total of 7.5m people, humiliating the national government by exposing its loss of control over one of the country's economic powerhouses.
Sufficient components of a normal election were in place for interested parties to claim some validity for the result; polling booths duly opened at schools across the two regions, equipped with voting urns, electoral lists (admittedly of ten years ago), and election commission members.
The illusion needless to say faded on closer inspection: voters not on the lists were simply added with no crosschecking, while ballot papers were not proofed against duplication. bne sources mentioned that election commission members appeared to be drawn from the staff of the respective schools. At most polling stations there were no curtained booths, meaning voters filled out their ballot papers in plain sight. "We didn't fuss around much with curtains and in this respect it was not a secret ballot in the full sense of the word," Vassily Nikitin, spokesman for the self-styled election commission, acknowledged to bne.
Local sources in Lugansk argued that the extent of administrative support for the referendum could only have been possible with support of the region's oligarchy comprising former Party of Regions bosses, who retain influence over local state structures. Local pro-Kyiv blogger Serhiy Ivanov posted on his facebook page a snapshot of Party of Regions bosses lunching together in Lugansk on the day of the referendum.
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