Referenda Day

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Today, separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding referenda in a number of cities asking about something...

Do you support the People’s Republic of Donetsk?

You mean financially? Are you asking for money?

It seems pretty understandable that people would be confused.

The referenda, of course, are not recognized by the Ukrainian government, Europe, or really anyone who supports Kyiv. It remains to be seen if people who don't support autonomy or independence (no one seems to know for sure what is being voted on today) will actually bother to vote, or instead if they will boycott the hastily-called vote. Nevertheless, the NYT is reporting a "steady turnout," and said that voting in Slovyansk was "orderly."  

But even this relatively rosy report displays signs of trouble:

Ballots for the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were created on copiers. In one city, voting booths consisting of red drapes stapled to wooden frames had been thrown together Saturday, and an election organizer in Donetsk said he was sure the vote would count because there was no rule for a minimum turnout.

Separatist groups in eastern Ukraine conducting the voting on Sunday said they were as unfazed by the monumental task ahead as they were by the international condemnation of elections that many outsiders said could not possibly be free and fair amid the chaos enveloping the region.
Yikes. The Interpreter's Ukraine Liveblog is also running some pretty alarming stuff, reporting that armed men stopped the voting in the town of Krasnoarmeysk.
The Liveblog provides a daily account of wild stories, with today's including a) a Russian journalist tweeting that he'd been permitted to vote in Mariupol (but declined to do so); and b) the alleged abduction of the chief of an airfield in Kramatorsk, alongside three of his aides. 

CNN now reporting that the polls have closed in eastern Ukraine "amid allegations of fraud and double voting."

The Kyiv Post is running a more web-based live blog of events as they unfold tonight. Many of these will come out over the Borderwire on the right-hand margin of this page.
Something particularly ominous:

6:05 p.m. - Separatist leader and self-appointed Donetsk People's Republic governor Denis Pushilin greeted warmly today by the crowd.
He said that Ukraine's eastern Donetsk Oblast would form its own state bodies and consider government soldiers there as "occupiers" once results were announced from Sunday's self-rule referendum, Interfax news agency said.
"All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers," Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-styled Donetsk republic said, according to the agency.
"It is necessary to form state bodies and military authorities as soon as possible," Interfax said he added. - Christopher J. Miller
And now: armed men have reportedly fired on a crowd in Krasnoarmeisk. No word on whether these are the same armed men from the photo above, or different ones.

Bad times. Bad times all around.


Obviously, it will be interesting to see what the vote results are and how people respond to them. As I've written elsewhere, I think that what Putin wants most of all is to install a pro-Russian president in Kyiv. Rather than conquer a piece of Ukraine and incorporate it into Russia a la Crimea, I think the objective is to create a weak, federalized and pro-Russian Ukraine.

To some extent, this objective fits with that of the pro-Russia types in eastern Ukraine. They might not have independence or incorporation into Russia, but they'd probably be fine continuing as a restive republic within a federalized and powerless Kyiv 

Ukraine is scheduled to have country-wide presidential elections on Sunday, May 25. My guess is that it would be in the interests of both Moscow and the separatists to sow as much chaos as possible between now and then. The strategy makes sense. They already knew that no one would recognize their elections as legit. The more trouble they can stir up, and the more people that die, the better the odds are that Russia will get involved.

The challenges for Kyiv are without question incredibly steep. I think the EU is quietly hoping that Ukraine splits in half, and the Obama administration would probably also be amenable to just splitting the difference with the Russians. After a point, I think Washington's interests diverge from those of Kyiv.

What I fear most is this: people in DC and Brussels will be fooled into thinking that this is all about eastern Ukraine, and will lose Kyiv if they don't pay attention to the bigger picture. Regional conflicts can become much bigger if interested powers don't read one another's objectives correctly. At present, it seems to me that most people don't have a clue as to what Putin will do next. They must not be Borderland readers. 

I can only imagine what it must be like for people living in this region right now, or who have loved ones there. How terrifying, and how sudden. How familiar. If this conflict does eventually turn into a war that everyone later claims was fought over 'nationalist hatreds,' I'll be the one gagging myself in the corner.

I hope everyone remembers that they saw this play out live. I hope people recall  how clearly manufactured this conflict has been. Nobody, absolutely nobody, was calling for this. But by massing their troops on the border and giving people in eastern Ukraine a chance to imagine the possibility of a Crimea-like transfer, the Russian government created conflict out of resentment. Not that they are the first to do it, or that the conflicts in Ukraine are at all unique in this respect, but still. If this conflict turns into something very ugly, I really hope that we'll later recall how little demand there was for this.

Conflict has been provided for them, whether they asked for it or not.
Will the ghost of a Ukrainian child one day haunt the paintings of
Vladimir Putin?

Depending on how people respond to today's referenda, this conflict could grow very quickly and soon.
Also see: 

Next Stop, Kyiv?

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

Will he or won't he? Putin and Eastern Ukraine

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?
More links, commentary and other stuff can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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