Crimea’s referendum was a sham display of democracy

Published in The Guardian (17th March, 2014)

Almost before they had cleared up the vodka bottles in Lenin Square, scene of the party to celebrate Crimea’s reunification with the motherland in Moscow, the well-planned moves kicked into place. There was, of course, no doubt about the verdict of Sunday’s vote in the referendum. So with the speed that has been typical of this incendiary crisis, the new political masters in Simferopol proclaimed that their citizens were shifting to a new monetary system and time zone as they rushed to become the 84th region of the Russian Federation.

For many Crimeans, this is a dream come true. Touring the polling stations, voter after voter said they were returning home to Russia. One elderly woman told me she was preparing to live in her fourth nation without moving home once, underlining the fluidity of borders on this desirable peninsular. Yet, as even a man doing market research for the government in Moscow admitted, it was obvious that the old and poor were the ones most seduced by President Putin’s propaganda. “The younger people are, the wealthier they are, the more they seem opposed,” he said.

But it is astonishing to see how many people outside the region have been transfixed by these smokescreens from Moscow – or, less charitably, simply cannot escape the prisms of their own prejudices. Thus we see Tory MPs, so hostile to Europe they fail to support people wanting to share our most basic freedoms, asking on Twitter whether there is any evidence the vote was rigged? Or there are those still so angry over Iraq that they weirdly refuse to condemn the shameful invasion of another sovereign state. Everywhere people discuss the future of Ukraine as a helpless pawn of either Moscow or Washington, with no consideration given to the right for self-determination among the country’s own citizens.

Pause for a second. There is a puppet government in Crimea that seized power at the point of a gun and is run by a party that won 4% of the vote at the last election. The streets are filled with menacing militia given arms but no training, supported by a variety of lethal-looking paramilitary groups and thousands of Russian soldiers who can be seen even on rooftops. Meanwhile events are dictated quite blatantly by Moscow; visitors to the Crimean prime minister’s office say even his private secretary and press aide are from Russia, along with other advisers telling him what to do.

Throw in the closure of critical television channels, the beating of a few journalists, the intimidation of opposition activists, the lies about “provocations”, and you get some of the backdrop to Sunday’s vote. The referendum, forced through as fast as possible to confuse voters and outwit opponents, failed to offer Crimeans the status quo choice of remaining loyal to Kiev. Given such circumstances, it was little surprise it was boycotted by fearful Tartars and Ukrainians, who comprise more than one-third of the population. Indeed, not one person I spoke to over the past week who opposed the ballot intended to vote.

So the results and turnout claims should be treated with extreme caution. Yes, in Crimea there is a majority of ethnic Russians – albeit not a big one. But among them are some who would have preferred genuine independence; others say they prefer the uncertainties of Ukraine to the repressive regime in Moscow. It is worth noting also that the official observers for this sham display of democracy were a motley collection of Putin apologists and – ironically given all the fury over “fascists” in Kiev – members of far-right parties.

Before anyone rushes to accept this vote, they might also like to note the most recent poll in Crimea – published last month – showed just 41% wanted unity with Russia. This was a rise of five points in a year, and was taken as the violence flared in Kiev, but it makes it impossible to assume a majority really wanted to join Russia – let alone  97% of the population. It is also worth recalling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, a majority in Crimea endorsed Ukrainian independence – although its economic performance has been disastrous and millions have moved away these past two decades.

My suspicion is a majority of Crimeans in a fair vote might have opted for independence, quite possibly under the loose wing of Russia. Instead, we have witnessed a facade of democracy over the fascistic takeover of a slice of Europe, met with the usual tough words backed by the mildest of deeds from the west’s weak leaders. The Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski has talked emotively about an ‘anschluss’. Watching from the ground, it is certainly shocking to observe all these people rush to rubber-stamp Putin’s putsch in Crimea.

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