MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Valentina, a 76-year-old former Soviet-era high-school teacher, has no doubt that people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine bordering Russia will follow Crimea’s lead and vote for secession Sunday—if for no other reason than to get rid of irritating packaging with Ukrainian-language instructions.
“I am an old lady and the medicine I get from the pharmacy has directions in Ukrainian,” she says. “I don’t understand all Ukrainian words.”
As she spoke we were standing outside the smoldering city administration building in the industrial port city of Mariupol a few hours after clashes between Ukrainian security forces and separatists left at least 20 dead. It was the eve of voting, and the gray-haired spinster was almost nonchalant about the debris and wreckage around us and much keener to explain that she wants only to see Russian-language signs and marketing. She also wants to see the city returned to Soviet times – and for it to be free of gays, who, according to Valentina, all come from Kiev and all want Ukraine to join Europe.
She leaned in a little closer, her shopping bag lurching violently, to confide that Europe is a den of indecency and perversion. She didn’t seem to notice drunken separatists lounging outside the scorched city administration buildings. A few minutes later one staggered half a block to throw a Molotov cocktail at an armored vehicle abandoned by Ukrainian security forces. After about half an hour, when it was fully ablaze, its ammunition began exploding, sending locals scurrying and outraging neighborhood dogs that took up a chorus of furious barking.
Valentina isn’t alone in seeing today’s separatist-engineered plebiscite on whether to break with Ukraine as the answer to all her frustrations. The language issue figures prominently among reasons given by separatist sympathizers at polling stations here for voting to break with Ukraine, but one of the biggest motives by far offered is the expectation that dumping Kiev and declaring independence—and either joining Russia or coming under the control of Moscow as a protectorate—will lead to jobs, better salaries and higher pensions.
The other prominent reason is hatred for Kiev and deep anger towards the interim government for its military campaign to restore order in east Ukraine and to clear out armed separatists from the dozens of government buildings they have seized in towns across the region. Kremlin-controlled media outlets have hyped the off-and-on so-called “anti-terrorist” operations linking them in the public mind with the reprisal raids launched during the Second World War by the Nazis. Kiev has not helped to dispel that impression, pursing hit-and-run tactics that deny little territory to armed and club-wielding separatists but leave local residents angry and fearful.
Of course, Kiev has been caught in a catch-22: it does nothing and the separatists can act with impunity and expand their reach; it intervenes and it loses the battle for the hearts and minds of locals who do not like to see outsiders coming in and bossing them around.
A tearful Maria, an eighty-one-year-old who has lived in Donetsk for 60 years but was born in the Russian city of Smolensk, says, “We mustn’t allow what happened during the war to happen here again.” Standing outside a polling station in Pushkin Boulevard in central Donetsk this morning, Maria, a grandmother, says she had voted for the establishing of a Donetsk republic but wants Russia to quickly annex the region.
The violence of the last few days was playing prominently in the mind of Alec, a 23-year-old translator, as he made his way to School 17 in the Voroshilov district in Donetsk. The voting was brisk although not as much compared to recent elections, locals said.
Alec highlighted last weekend’s clashes and fire in Odessa that left at least 42 mostly pro-Russian separatists dead and the violence on Friday in Mariupol as determining his vote. “I voted today because after what happened in Odessa and Mariupol, unity of Ukraine is impossible and it is better to secede.”
Fifty-five-year-old Svetlana also was worried about the threat of violence but highlighted economic worries as deciding her vote. “I have lost my husband, son and brother,” she says. A stout woman with a grating voice, she asked, “So you think life is so good here in Ukraine?” She adds, “We will be better off with Russia – Putin will take care of us.”
That was a common belief in the run-up to the referendum in March in Crimea and was fostered actively by the separatists who accompanied their propaganda with waving guns, intimidation and abductions. In point of fact, the good times have not yet started to roll in the Black Sea peninsula. But on May 9 it did have a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark Victory Day, the anniversary of the Soviet army’s defeat of Nazi Germany, his first since Crimea was annexed two months ago.
Invoking Russia’s imperial past stretching back to Catherine the Great and placing himself in the pantheon of czars, Putin hailed Crimea’s return to the “motherland,” thanking World War II veterans for their “enormous moral contribution” in helping the annexation to happen.
Putin also made an ominous prediction: “2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors.” The reference to “nations” suggests Crimea isn’t the end of the matter.
In a recent press conference Putin used the term “Novorossiya’’ (New Russia) to describe southeast Ukraine and Crimea—an area first conquered in the 18th century by Catherine the Great. “Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in Czarist times; they were transferred in 1920,” he said, lamenting, “Why? God knows.”
And despite, his midweek appeal to pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine to delay Sunday’s referendum, few here think he is not intent on correcting history—whether the numbers work or not.
This week, Russia’s official Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights suggested that the real numbers in Crimea’s plebiscite fell far short of the 96.7 percent vote in favor of breaking with Ukraine that the Moscow-backed separatist leaders in the peninsula announced. The claimed massive turnout was also (unsurprisingly) bogus. According to the Council’s report the turnout was no more than 30 percent of the electorate and only half of those who voted chose secession.
But like Valentina in Mariupol, separatist leaders have no doubts that another Soviet-style majority will be the result of Sunday’s pseudo referendum. The head of the referendum committee for the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” Boris Litvinov, says he expects a 70 percent turnout. The deputy chairman of the presidium of the Donetsk Republic, Denis Pushilin, also predicts “good results.” Hardly a reassuring forecast coming from a former casino croupier and Ponzi scheme salesman.
According to Roman Lyagin, the head of the Donetsk Republic’s rogue electoral commission, the infrastructure the Kiev government has put in place in east Ukraine ahead of the country’s slated May 25 presidential election is being used for Sunday’s plebiscite. It isn’t clear what he means by that: the separatists, despite strenuous efforts, including the kidnapping of two official electoral commissioners, have been unable to lay their hands on a voting register.
They had to send out blanket notice letters without names on them urging people to come and vote with their Ukrainian passports in hand. Lyagin told me the voting database was from 2012 but admitted it was incomplete and that, “we have added names.” He also said anyone who turned up and wasn’t on the list would be allowed to vote.
When asked about mounting reports of multiple voting he denied that would be possible. “To vote you have to queue for 20 to 40 minutes – so we don’t need any other precautions.”
The referendum will not meet international standards for fairness – there is not even a minimum voter participation required. Separatists will be able to claim victory even with a low turnout. This morning polling in most areas started early and there were constant streams of voters. The number of stations being run by the separatists is small compared to usual elections, so locals said it was hard to tell whether the turnout would be small or large. The elderly seemed to be the majority of voters turning up to vote but there was a fair sprinkling of young people. Those against breaking with Ukraine in recent days have said they won't bother to vote.
Twenty-one-year-old Daria, a fourth-year student, did however. “Because I don’t want to be Donetsk Federation or something like that,” she says. The dark-haired student says her parents voted the other way. “They are traditional Soviet people and believe Russia is the big brother and we should listen to Moscow. But why should we? I want to learn from my own mistakes and be free. Donetsk is Ukraine. I think that to break up our country is wrong. We have been together for ages.”
She fears Donetsk will end up being like the breakaway Transnistria, cut off from the rest of the world and at the mercy of Moscow’s whims.
“Under circumstances of coercion, armed occupation of government offices and violence, a referendum, regardless of its outcome, would lack legitimacy and broad public acceptance within Ukraine and by the international community,” notes a statement issued by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that advises on election procedures worldwide.
In neither Donetsk nor Luhansk oblasts “do the separatists have a representative mandate from the populations and, to the contrary, several public opinion polls in April reported that the majority of those populations do not support the separatists’ actions and do not believe that the rights of the Russian-speaking population are being violated,” says NDI.
One of those opinion polls, a survey by the Kiev-based International Institute of Sociology, showed just over 10 percent of respondents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions supporting secession from Ukraine.
But without independent election observers present it will be impossible to verify the authenticity of today's referendum. And results aside, it isn’t clear exactly what voters will be deciding on. They will be asked a simple “yes” or “no” to one question: “Do you support the act of state sovereignty?” It could mean greater self-government within a Ukraine federation or a total break with Kiev.
And what comes next when separatist leaders decide it means secession? They give different answers. In a midweek interview the separatist leader in Luhansk, former paratrooper Valery Bolotov, told The Daily Beast that on May 11 “people will give the answer whether we become part of Russia or are an independent republic. The people will give the answer to this question.”
He wasn’t clear either about whether Luhansk oblast would join with Donetsk formally after the plebiscite, saying, “We will decide after the referendum.” Apparently, the people are not to be trusted with that decision either.
Other leaders in Donetsk suggest that after the vote Donetsk will remain an independent republic, although enjoying close ties with Russia. “What for do we need Moscow’s help?” snaps Vladimir Makovich, speaker of the presidium of the self-styled Donetsk Republic. “We will declare an independent republic after the vote,” he says.
But separatist fighters seem in no doubt what will happen. Guarding a barricade in front of the town administration building in Kostyantynivka just north of Donetsk 55-year-old Igor says: “It would be good to be on our own but it would be better to be with Russia—they are our brothers.”
And most voters today when asked what they voted for said an independent republic but that it would have to join Russia quickly. “We are too small to be independent for long and would have to ask Russia to annex us,” says translator Alec.
How Kiev will react is not clear, which has been a major part of the problem all through this crisis.