A referendum held in Crimea on 16 March returned an overwhelming vote (96.7%) in favour of the region’s accession to Russia. Given this overwhelming margin, why should this not be regarded as a legitimate expression of popular will on the part of the peninsula’s population?
1. Because it was illegal
Clearly it violates Articles 72, 73, 85 and 134 of Ukraine’s constitution. The Constitution clearly stipulates that the status of any part of the country’s territory can only be changed as the result of a nationwide referendum. This referendum was declared unconstitutional and illegal by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine.
2. Because of Russian interference
Crimea has for several weeks been under military occupation by Russian armed forces, which have installed a pro-Russian puppet administration that commands no popular mandate (the current Crimean ‘PM’’s party polled only 4% of the vote in the last free election held there in 2010). This administration rail-roaded the proposal for a referendum through a closed parliamentary session, under watch from armed, foreign gunmen, from which MPs opposed to Russia’s agenda were excluded.
3. Because it wasn’t properly organised
The timeframe for the referendum has been changed twice: originally scheduled for 25 May, it was then brought forward to 30 March and then again to 16 March. The referendum’s preparation was characterised by a complete lack of transparency over the composition of local electoral commissions, voters’ lists, the number of ballot papers issued, etc. The lack of detail over such key issues, together with the extremely short time-frame of its organisation, provided the authorities with enormous scope to manipulate the referendum’s eventual outcome.
4. Because it wasn’t fair or representative
The wording of the two questions posed made it impossible for votes to express support for the status quo in terms of Crimea’s existing status within Ukraine. One of the questions referred to a previous (1992) Constitution of Crimea without providing voters with detailed information as to this document’s content.
5. Because there was no debate
The referendum has taken place at ten days’ notice, without a proper campaign or public debate, with the political leaders of the country being unable to visit Crimea, and in the presence of many thousands of troops from a foreign country. The local media environment in the run-up to polling day was grossly skewed in favour of the pro-Russian camp, with no space allocated for genuine debate or the presentation of counter-arguments (central Ukrainian TV channels have been jammed in Crimea since early March).
Numerous credible reports emerged prior to polling day of local pro-Russian militia groups intimidating potential pro-Ukrainian voters and forcibly confiscating/destroying their Ukrainian identity documents, thus preventing them from voting. Leaders of the main organisation representing the Crimean Tatar community (12% of the region’s population) called for a boycott of the referendum in protest at its deeply-flawed nature.
6. Because its results cannot be verified
The referendum took place in the absence of any meaningful monitoring by impartial domestic or international observers: so there is no clarity on who voted, whether only registered voters were allowed to vote or indeed if the results were in anyway real. The 96.7% result is wildly out of kilter with the results of a representative opinion poll, conducted by a reputable Ukrainian research institute, as recently as February 2014, which indicated that only 41% of Crimean voters supported the region’s incorporation into Russia. The turnout is also suspiciously high given wide opposition boycott.
7. Because the OSCE said so
Given the lack of legitimacy and legality of the vote, it is right that OSCE monitors did not observe the referendum. Insufficient preparatory work could be done in the timeframe available to ensure that any referendum would meet OSCE standards for democratic elections: the international community would need to be able to verify the existence of an accurate and current voter registration list; to have reassurance that only those holding Ukrainian passports were eligible to vote; and to have confidence that voters will not experience harassment or violence when attempting to vote. The vote was monitored by observers from fringe parties.
Conclusion: the Crimean referendum was illegal, badly organised, unrepresentative, unfair and held under conditions of direct external military interference. It is a mockery of justice and its results cannot be viewed as genuinely reflecting the free will of the Crimean electorate.