Friday, May 09, 2014

Explainer: The Separatist Referendums In Eastern Ukraine

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Explainer: The Separatist Referendums In Eastern Ukraine 

By Claire Bigg
Antigovernment rebels in eastern Ukraine say they plan to go forward with self-determination referendums on May 11, despite calls by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone them. The initiatives are similar to the one that led to Crimea's annexation by Russia in March. Here's what's known about the polls.

Where will the referendums be held?

They will take place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Both regions border Russia and have seen violent clashes between pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian troops in recent weeks.

The votes are organized by electoral commissions formed by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic.

Roman Lyagin, the head of the rogue electoral commission in Donetsk, says he plans to use the infrastructure Kyiv has put in place in the region ahead of the May 25 presidential election.

He says his commission will prevent the national election from being held locally.

What questions will be asked?

Voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" to a single question concerning their respective regions: "Do you support the act of state sovereignty?" It is unclear, however, whether the term "sovereignty" means greater self-government within Ukraine or secession from Ukraine.

The ballots are in Russian and Ukrainian.

The vote is modeled on a similar referendum in Crimea that paved the way for the peninsula's annexation by Russia.

Are there any forecasts of the outcome?

A poll conducted last month by the Kyiv-based International Institute of Sociology showed just over 10 percent of respondents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions supported secession from Ukraine.

With no observers on the ground, there are fears that voters will be handpicked to vote "yes."

Since there is no minimum voter turnout, separatists would then be able to claim victory even if the overall turnout is low.

Lyagin has said he "will consider the referendum successful no matter what."

Preliminary results are expected to be announced on May 12, and final results within a week.

What happens if the announced result is a "yes"?

Antigovernment rebels and their supporters in eastern Ukraine all seek greater independence from Kyiv, but they are divided over how to achieve it.

Some want more autonomy within Ukraine, while others advocate the creation of an independent state or annexation by Russia.

Several pro-Russian politicians have suggested that the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk republics be eventually expanded into one vast, autonomous region covering Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south.

The new entity would be called the Federative Republic of Novorossia, or New Russia, although it is unclear whether it would seek to become part of Russia.

Oleh Tsarev, a lawmaker in Ukraine's Verhovna Rada, says separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk will submit the proposal to their counterparts in neighboring regions if the referendum results in a "yes" vote.

Tsarev recently withdrew his candidacy from the presidential election and now heads the recently formed movement South-East, which lobbies for greater autonomy from Kyiv.

Who will recognize the referendum?

Authorities in Kyiv have already declared the referendum illegal.

Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko, a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, has rejected it as "a sham aimed at weakening the Ukrainian state and tearing it apart."

Kyiv is proposing its own referendum on decentralization instead, but only once the fighting ends in eastern Ukraine.

Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has refused to send observers.

The Kremlin has been more reserved in its support of separatists in Ukraine's east than in Crimea, where the referendum was held under the watch of Russian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 7 that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions should delay the holding of such referendums.

Russia hasn't publicly announced any intention to annex eastern Ukraine. But a "yes" vote in the referendum could serve as a motive for Moscow to intervene militarily on behalf of Russian-speakers in the east.

Putin also said on May 7 that some of the estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine's border had returned to their training grounds. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on May 8 that the alliance had not noticed a Russian pullback of forces from the Ukrainian border, as Putin claimed.

The international community will overwhelmingly reject the vote.

Western observers are snubbing it.

U.S. Secretary State John Kerry has rejected the referendum as "contrived and bogus," saying "no civilized nation" would recognize its results.

In a UN vote in March, nearly 100 countries backed Ukraine in dismissing Russia's annexation of Crimea as illegal. Ten countries sided with Russia.