IT looked almost like a real election day in Donetsk, the capital of the industrial Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Polling stations in the usual schools and kindergartens opened on time, their entrances decorated with balloons, and jolly music played outside. Young and old queued up to cast their vote in transparent ballot boxes. There was but one hitch: the referendum for the self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic was a fake, a product of an extraordinary information war, just like the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Today’s referendum was illegal under Ukrainian law; polling stations had no electoral registers (people not on the out-of-date lists simply added their names in handwriting, some voted twice) and the people who organised it were imposters, backed by the same masked men with guns who have occupied government buildings. As imitations go, it was certainly a success. To increase the illusion of a high turnout, the separatists reduced the number of polling stations, leading to long queues to show on Russian television. “It was one of the largest special operations ever seen by Ukraine,” said Alexander Kliuzhev, of the Voters’ Committee, a civil group for clean elections in Donetsk.
Yet while the referendum itself was a farce, the people who were drawn into this spectacle were real, as were their frustrations, fears, their confusion and the anger over years of successive corrupt governments in Kiev. Also real was the violence in and around Donetsk. At least one man died, reportedly shot by a member of Ukraine’s national guard in the town of Krasnoarmeisk, north-west of Donetsk.
A few hours further north in the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk, people went to vote after a restless night of violence. South of the city, a line of railway cargo wagons served as a makeshift rebel barricade. Lying underneath a wagon and peering through his binoculars for Ukrainian forces, Dimitry, aged 37, said of the referendum: “We need to get our political and economic independence and then we can define our future.”
Close by, a 54-year old called Galina had spent the night frightened in her cellar with her husband and mother-in-law. She had voted in favour of the ballot proposition and claimed that everyone she knew had done the same. “We are fed up with such a life.”
Those who voted did not at all agree on what they were actually voting for. Some thought it was independence, others were convinced it was the federalisation of Ukraine. The key Russian word in the question, which in English could be translated as “independence” or “self-reliance”, is equally slippery in Russian.
Denis and Anna Antonova, who turned up at the polling station in Donetsk with their 18-month-old son, said they wanted the Donetsk region to be part of Russia because they had not seen anything good from Ukraine. The small shop which Denis used to own had been forced to close because of constant raiding by police-backed gangsters. “When my mother was dying of cancer, I could not get her medicine.” The region shows few signs of any government and although Donetsk may look almost normal by day, at night cars without licence plates and with gunmen inside roam freely around the city.
The biggest irony of this bogus referendum is that those who support Ukrainian sovereignty —allegedly nearly 70% of people in the region— do not recognise the referendum and so did not vote. Many in Donetsk simply left town in fear of the violence. One lady, who asked not to be named, said that “all pro-Ukrainians are staying at home.” She also said she believed that another vote, to join Russia, was going to be held on May 18th, a rumour which others repeated though no announcement has been made.
Those who did not go to vote, including Galina and Valery Polianitsa, who want to keep Ukraine united, feel abandoned by the state. “It is really dangerous to unfold Ukrainian flags on the streets or speak Ukrainian on the street…This is crazy – we are in our own country.”
As this post came out, Viacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed People’s Mayor of Sloviansk, proclaimed that preliminary results indicated an 80% turnout. An election official said that in one district of Sloviansk 1,505 had voted in favour of the propositon and 23 against and that results coming from elsewhere were similar.
The result of the referendum has no legal status, but it could be used in political games played by Ukrainian oligarchs who control the region. Some observers suggest this might be used to extract concessions from Kiev, including a federal status. But given the level of violence, the amount of weapons in the hands of militants, and Russia’s apparent proxy war against Ukraine, there is every chance that eastern Ukraine will turn into a grey, unrecognised and undesirable zone which nobody voted for.
11 May 2014 | 10:27 pm – Source: economist.com