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Ukraine analyzes

Heiko Pleines

Dr. Heiko Pleines heads the Politics and Economics department of the Eastern Europe Research Center at the University of Bremen.

On May 11, 2014, the self-proclaimed People's Republics held referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk on their independence. This text explains the various points of criticism of the referendums, which relate to international law and democratic standards, and gives a brief assessment of the situation.


The self-declared People's Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk held a referendum on May 11, 2014 on their independence. The result was announced on the morning of the following day. In Donetsk, with a participation of 75%, a total of 89% are said to have supported self-employment. In Luhansk, with a participation of 81%, approval was even said to have been 96%. On May 18, 2014, a second referendum is to take place, which provides for accession to the Russian Federation. The separatists want to boycott the Ukrainian presidential election, which is scheduled for May 25th. A referendum planned for the Kharkiv region was canceled by the local organizers.

The first referendum

The "People's Governors" of Donetsk and Luhansk, Pavel Gubarew and Valeri Bolotov, ordered the referendums to be held and set up election and control commissions. The "Army of the Southeast" created by the separatists should be responsible for the security of the referendums. The question put to the vote on May 11, 2014 was: "Do you support the independence of the Donetsk (or Luhansk) People's Republic?". The separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk used the control of TV towers they had occupied, as well as print media and flyers to promote the referendum. The organizers of the referendums stated that they would use the official 2012 electoral roll to determine who would be entitled to vote. On May 11th, depending on the voting station, people could vote from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. The result of the vote was announced the morning of the following day and announced as the final result in the afternoon. The Ukrainian government in Kiev as well as the EU, the USA and the OSCE have stated that they will not recognize the referendum because it is illegal. Russian President Putin called on the separatists on May 7th to postpone the referendum "in order to create the necessary conditions for a dialogue". In its first statements on May 12, however, Russia declared its acceptance of the referendum, which should now be implemented "in a civilized manner". Overall, the points of criticism of the referendum can be summarized in four groups.

international law

The peoples' right to self-determination, to which the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk refer, is not clearly defined under international law and finds its limits in the territorial integrity of states, unless these states massively violate the rights of the ethnic minority striving for independence. In practice, this means - even in the case of civil war-like situations - that only independence referenda are recognized internationally that are made in coordination between the region seeking independence and the respective state, such as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum taking place in September 2014 by accepted by the UK government. Referendums that are not accepted by the respective state, such as the independence referendum of the Venice region this spring or the referendum planned by Catalonia for independence from Spain, are initially only symbolic in order to increase the pressure in political negotiations. Accordingly, at the General Assembly of the United Nations on March 27, 2014, only 11 of a total of 169 states voted against a resolution that declared the referendum in Crimea to be illegal, which on March 16, 2014, similar to later in Donetsk and Luhansk, won independence Ukraine and, in the case of Crimea, decided to join the Russian Federation at the same time.

Regions that can declare and enforce their independence despite a lack of international recognition usually become so-called "de facto" states. These function de facto like independent states, but are (at least initially) de iure not recognized internationally. The United Nations thus consider B. Kosovo continues as part of Serbia or Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China. Accordingly, Kosovo and Taiwan are not UN members and are not officially recognized by many countries. For example, Russia, like Ukraine and five EU member states, explicitly reject recognition of Kosovo's independence. Conversely, after the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia itself recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as two "de facto" states that the UN believes still belong to Georgia. Russia has also supported Transnistria since its de-facto independence from Moldova in 1992. With the annexation of Crimea, Russia has gone a step further, because this is no longer about recognizing the independence of a region against the will of the respective state, but rather the integration of foreign territory into one's own state. The widespread international rejection of the Crimean referendum is therefore also likely to have something to do with the fear that a new precedent for territorial wars has been set here. In summary, it can be said that the international objections raised against the independence referendums in eastern Ukraine do not relate to the actual implementation, but fundamentally to the principle of territorial integrity, which requires the approval of the central government in Kiev. Russia has agreed to this principle of territorial integrity in the case of Kosovo and also in dealing with its own regions in the North Caucasus. Based on the results of the UN General Assembly's vote on the Crimean referendum, it is to be expected that only a very small group of states will recognize the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk. In addition to this fundamental objection to the legality of referendums, it can also be stated that they did not meet democratic standards.

Information level of the population

A second problem is that the referendums did not follow the legal requirements for holding referendums, but were scheduled at short notice by the separatists according to their own ideas. There was no public debate about the election option offered in the referendum, nor about the ranking of the two referendums in the steps of independence and accession to the Russian Federation. It is characteristic that parallel to the independence referendum on May 11, 2014, a less noticed survey "For peace, order and the unity of Ukraine" was carried out in 40 cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, calling for the two regions to be merged with the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk. The governor of Dnipropetrovsk, the entrepreneur Ihor Kolomoyskyj, who initiated the survey, has established himself as an outspoken opponent of the separatists. According to the organizers, 2.5 million citizens took part in the survey. Above all, however, the population had little opportunity to form an opinion on the content. On the one hand, both the central government in Kiev and the separatists switched off the other position in an armed struggle for transmission towers. On the other hand, there was simply no time for a substantive debate. The separatists' information campaign began two weeks before the referendum was held at the earliest. An example of the campaign is a television ad with the following text: "If you answer yes to the referendum, you will be able to live in a peaceful, multinational state. In a state that is not based on fascist principles. You will live in a state who cooperates with our fraternal nations: Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in one community. No foreign armies will enter our country. No NATO troops or their allies will stand here. We lived and will live in peace and friendship. " For comparison: The discussion about the Scottish independence referendum, which is to take place on September 18, 2014, began in 2009. In October 2012, the agreement to hold the referendum was concluded, leaving two years for public debates on the specific referendum. If approved, Scotland is expected to become independent in March 2016.


Another point of criticism of the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk is that not all voters really had the opportunity to cast their vote. Roman Ljagin, the head of the central electoral commission set up by the separatists in Donetsk, explained that there was no contact with the city and district of Krasnyj Lyman (approx. 45,000 inhabitants) due to armed conflicts. The referendum in Krasnoarmeisk had to be canceled because Ukrainian troops were advancing into the city. If the voting locations named by the separatists' election commissions represent an exhaustive list, voting locations were only provided for 17 cities, while both regions together have a total of 53 administrative districts. In addition, in a city like Mariupol with a population of 480,000, only a handful of polling stations have been set up. In view of the small number of polling stations, long queues are also not good evidence of the participation of over 75% reported by the separatists. It is therefore more than questionable whether all residents of the two regions really had the opportunity to take part in the referendum. At the same time, the high voter turnout mentioned by the separatists does not seem credible in this context. This concerns the question of possible manipulation of the votes actually cast.


A first problem is that the referendum was held in an environment of violence and threats. Armed guards were posted at the polling stations. There were reports of kidnappings of journalists, exchanges of fire in the context of the Ukrainian central government's anti-terrorist operation and threats against people friendly to Ukraine. A second problem is the organization of the voting process. The separatists have declared that they have the 2012 electoral roll. At the same time, however, due to the small number of voting centers, voters were not assigned to a specific local. Voters' information was often simply handwritten without being compared with a voter register before voting. Simple methods of preventing multiple votes, such as coloring the index finger after voting were not used. There were no voting booths in some of the voting booths, as reported by the BBC, which had half a dozen journalists in the region. CNN filmed several people voting multiple times at the same polling station. Paul Ronzheimer, reporter for the Bild newspaper, tweeted that he was out with a man who had already voted eight times. It should be noted that there was no systematic use of independent observers during the referendum. International election observers did not participate because the referendum was not recognized as legal by the relevant organizations. Journalists were generally not allowed to count the votes. When it comes to the information on the result, only the information from the election commissions set up by the separatists must be trusted. The referendum in Crimea offers an example of the resulting problems. The voter turnout was given here as 83%, with 97% said to have voted in favor of joining the Russian Federation. The Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, an advisory body set up by the Russian President, stated in a report on "Problems of the Residents of Crimea" that "in the opinion of practically all experts and citizens interviewed [...] Crimea, according to various dates, voted for unification with Russia between 50–60% of the electorate, with a turnout of 30–50%. " According to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk attracted around 32% and 24% of the electorate, respectively. But these are estimates, the basis of which is not explained. Journalists only provide anecdotal evidence of possible manipulations that have been documented in individual cases. The actual voting result should no longer be reconstructable.

Kiev's dilemma

While on the one hand it is clear that the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk did not meet democratic standards and are not recognized internationally, it has also become clear that the central government in Kiev no longer has the situation in the two regions under control. Neither numerous arrest warrants against separatists nor a month-long "anti-terrorist operation" in the region could prevent the referendum, which Kiev regarded as illegal, from being held publicly and unhindered in many central locations. At the same time, in contrast to neighboring regions such as Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk, pro-Ukrainian forces were nowhere seriously visible in public space. The Kiev leadership is faced with a twofold dilemma. First, there is no obvious solution to dealing with the independence referendum. The official position that the referendums were illegal and that the regions belong under the control of the central government is not enforceable even in the context of a military operation. Negotiations with the separatists could, however, have further domino effects and further undermine the authority of the central government. Second, the situation in eastern Ukraine jeopardizes the country's political consolidation in the longer term. If both Crimea and eastern Ukraine were unable to vote properly in the presidential election on May 25, the legitimacy of the result would be seriously questioned. The replacement of the transitional government and a new democratic beginning could fail. In the longer term, there is a risk of a permanent independence movement with terrorist support, which, like in the Spanish Basque Country or Northern Ireland, would permanently burden the political climate in Ukraine.

Russia's options

Russia, on the other hand, continues to hold all the trumps in the short term with regard to developments in Ukraine. Should Russia opt for de-escalation and not annex Donetsk and Luhansk, the West would react with relief and probably de facto accept the annexation of Crimea as a lesser evil. At least this is what the Western reactions to Putin's call last week to postpone the referendums suggest. If Donetsk and Luhansk remained part of Ukraine, Russia would have the opportunity to stir up new conflicts at any time and could blackmail the Ukrainian central government. If Donetsk and Luhansk were to become "de facto" states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia would have control without having to assume full international responsibility and nationally the costs for the region's economic development. Should Russia decide to annex the two eastern Ukrainian regions, it will have the necessary troop presence on the border. But the costs would be high. Resistance by the Ukrainian army and thus bloodshed, which is not popular among the Russian population, would be difficult to avoid. Securing a new border across Ukraine and reorienting the entire infrastructure of the eastern Ukrainian regions towards Russia would be very expensive. The then inevitable western economic sanctions would put an additional strain on the already ailing Russian economy.


In international as well as national conflicts, Putin has always chosen the calculated risk and not the limitless escalation. If he follows this line, he will use the independence referendum to exert longer-term pressure on Ukraine in his interests without annexing eastern Ukraine. But the Ukraine conflict can also gain momentum of its own, which Putin will then no longer have under control. This applies not only to the promotion of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, but also to the "de facto" states supported by Russia. This could arouse new expectations of Russia that the country cannot meet and that could lead to further conflicts. Instead of a security ring against the advance of NATO and the EU, Russia would then create a ring of instability around itself.