Today the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk are holding referendums on ‘self-rule’, against a backdrop of continuing violence and a bloody day in the city of Mariupol. The only question on the ballot: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic/Luhansk People’s Republic?” So what exactly is taking place today? Will it change anything? And what effect is the violence having on the people of the East?
The referendum is being held in the provinces that have seen the most separatism, Donetsk and Luhansk. The pro-Russians intend to use the vote to show that the will of the people is to be one with Russia. Enthusiasm for the vote is strong in certain areas, with many people suggesting that the corruption and poverty affecting the East is their main reason for supporting the vote. However, so far it has been a chaotic day, making it impossible to take the referendum seriously.
- There is no list of who is allowed to vote in each area, meaning it’s entirely unclear if the people voting have voted before or are actually in their own area. Journalists have spoken to numerous people voting twice, or who are from other areas.
- The voting papers are not marked or numbered, merely run out on a printer, basically meaning the result can be faked in any number of ways.
- The polling stations are being run by the separatists, and many of them have no secret voting booths. The boxes for the votes are see-through. This makes voting against separatism an extremely risky act.
- In cities of 500 000 people like Mariupol there are only 5 polling stations. This has led to huge crowds and chaos inside.
- Many people seem unsure about what they are voting for: separatism or federalisation inside Ukraine.
- Even ignoring all these problems, the referendum is still illegal under the constitution of Ukraine, and it will not recognised by any country. The governor of Donetsk has condemned the vote, and even President Putin advised the separatists to postpone the referendum, though it’s unclear if this is part of another power play.
It’s almost certain that the vote will produce a ‘yes’ result, which will be impossible to relate to the actual feeling in these provinces. But will this result matter? Most experts don’t think so, saying the referendum is so illegitimate that it won’t even provide a pretext for Russian ‘protection’. I’m not so sure. The annexation of Crimea seemed equally ridiculous until it was completed. However, the vote will certainly place more pressure on Kyiv to agree to more demand for federalisation and regional autonomy; and with violence in the region only getting worse, this pressure is already high.
Friday saw fierce clashes in the city of Mariupol, south of Donetsk. Accounts of what started it differ, but the main fighting was between the Ukrainian army and separatists who either taken over a police station or allied themselves with local police. At least 7 people died as the Ukrainian army moved in to the city in force. Armoured vehicles didn’t let themselves be stopped by groups of civilians, pushing their way through. One man who tried to stand in front of a tank was shot in the chest. The fierce battle for control of the police station ended with the building completely destroyed, and the Ukrainian army withdrawing to their bases for now, the show of strength over. Numerous civilians had been killed or wounded
The following exceptionally clear video of one such incident shows exactly how this can happen. It shows a crowd of people walking towards Ukrainian soldiers who are withdrawing. While the crowd is shouting that they are unarmed, one man in the crowd pulls a pistol, shoots at a soldier, and then hides in the crowd. The soldier returns fire, and hits an unarmed man in the leg. Other videos of the incident show another man with a deadly head wound a few metres away (graphic). In this sort of vicious confusion, the seeds of anger and hatred that may yet lead to civil war are plain to see.
The ridiculousness of this referendum doesn’t change the fact that there is now serious anger in the east at the Kyiv government. With military action pushing more people away from the government, and the separatists showing no desire to negotiate, Ukraine is in a terrible situation. If it wasn’t for the separatist movement, the elections on the 25th of May might have been able to provide some unity. But the 25th has never seemed so far away.