Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Putin's Referendum Win in Ukraine

As the West looks on and frets, the Russian media narrative is all about a legitimate vote.
  • People cast ballots at a polling station on May 11, 2014 in Hartsizk, Ukraine. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
    People cast ballots at a polling station on May 11, 2014 in Hartsizk, Ukraine. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

While Western leaders make noises similar to those they made about the Crimean referendum two months ago, Russian media are presenting the May 11 vote as fair and legitimate, the Kiev government as murderous, and the West as collaborating with fascists.

It was all for the cameras on Sunday. EU countries got a chance to condemn a farcical pseudo-referendum in which people could ‘vote’ for others, and not living in the region was no impediment. They could even sound firm while doing nothing more than threatening more sanctions if the May 25 election cannot be held.

And Russians, as well as the many Ukrainian viewers of Russian TV channels, learned that “according to the CEC, 89.7% of voters voted for the independence of the Donetsk region”, and that the turnout was over 74%. They were also told, andapparently shown footage, ‘proving’ that Ukrainian National Guard shot at civilians in Krasnoarmeisk, killing at least one man. It is by no means clear who carried out the shooting, but that, of course, is not mentioned.

The West’s’ reputation among the Russian media audience is, in short, mud. Not so Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image. He, after all, called on the pro-Russian militants to postpone their referendum and was ignored. That’s a double win for him. He can use it as proof that the militants are not under his control, and that the referendum had nothing to do with him.

Meanwhile, all Russian TV channels loyal to or funded by the Kremlin were unanimous in finding the event legitimate and decisive. All of those media spoke of the Central Election Commission in headlines and only occasionally mentioned that the body in question was that of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Since the so-called referendum was about whether there should be such an independent republic, it could hardly be administered and overseen by the latter’s own election commission.

This is no quibble over terminology. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission condemned the event on May 11 as illegal and unconstitutional. This was reiterated by all major election watchdogs. The Luhansk Regional Committee of Voters of Ukraine [CVU] was, in fact, present, however its figure for turnout in Alchevsk – the one town where it found that voting had been sufficiently transparent to enable any estimate – was 50-to 60 per cent. CVU observers tried to vote in various places. In Rubezhnoye, lack of a passport was no problem at all, with a fictitious address and passport number being added to the supplementary list. Nor did being from Lviv prevent a person from voting. In Kremennaya, an observer asked for an extra ballot paper for her sister. It was issued, again with the address and passport number simply invented.

None of this, of course, is seen on Russian TV where the process looks impeccable. After quoting the head of the CEC, LifeNews is told by Mikhail Polyakov, described as the federal coordinator of the observer corps For Fair Elections, that “the high turnout demonstrates the huge interest in the referendum and the lack of coercion”. Almost as free, by that definition from a Russian NGO, as elections in Soviet times where the vote tended to be even closer to 100%.

The voting, by the way, according to the report, “took place against a background of the… operation by the Kiev authorities during which tanks and artillery are being used and peaceful civilians are dying”. Presumably the turnout would have been even higher if the Kiev authorities were not using heavy artillery against civilians.

The chief players, as well as the Russian media, took care of every aspect of the performance. Nothing was said to imply more than “support” for Russia. Even Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-styled “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk looked almost respectable, though he remains too candidly thuggish to be safely allowed near a microphone. This time, after stating that the next step would be the creation of a “Donetsk People’s Republic” which could join Russia’s Customs Union if it “gains independence”, Ponomarev got carried away. “Russia is our brother, with Russia we have full interaction, including entry into the Customs Union,” he said. He added that no decision on asking for the Donetsk region to become part of Russia had been taken. “If this is needed, then we can hold any elections, any referendum within three days”, he said.

Given the reluctance shown by Western countries to take real and painful measures, that may not prove an exaggeration.  

Halya Coynash is a journalist and a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. This story was originally published on the group's website.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.