From Novaya gazeta Europe, Sept. 28, 2022, Condensed text:

“Referendums” on the incorporation of occupied territories in Ukraine into Russia were held on Sept. 23-27. The Russian presidential administration, the “military-civilian administrations” (MCAs) and pro-Russian political strategists held these “referendums” in parts of the DPR/LPR and Zaporozhye and Kherson Provinces with support from the siloviki [law-enforcement and security officials]. In the so-called DPR, 99.23% of voters supported “incorporation into Russia”; in the LPR, 98.42% of voters were in favor. In the occupied part of Zaporozhye Province, 93.11% of “voters” voted in favor of incorporation, while 87.05% of voters in Kherson Province did.

The turnout numbers were no less jaw-dropping. Turnout was supposedly 85.00% in Zaporozhye Province, 78.86% in Kherson Province, 94.15% in the LPR and 97.51% in the DPR.

On March 16, 2014, Russia held a similar “referendum” in the Crimea [see Vol. 66, No. 12, pp. 3‑11]. At the time, residents of the Crimea and Sevastopol chose between integrating the Crimea into Russia as a constituent entity of the federation or restoring the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of the Crimea and remaining part of Ukraine. Ninety-three percent of Sevastopol residents and 95.5% of Crimean residents voted in favor of incorporation. Turnout was 83.1% in the Crimea and 89.5% in Sevastopol.

Plebiscite at gunpoint.

If the results of the referendums in occupied territories are to be believed, it works out that fewer residents of the historically pro-Russian regions of the Crimea and Sevastopol wanted to become part of Russia in 2014 than current residents of the occupied territories, where something is always exploding and many pro-Ukrainian civilians are missing or “in the basement.”

Turnout in the Crimea was lower, as was the percentage of people voting in favor of incorporation, with the exception of Kherson and Zaporozhye Provinces, where the numbers were slightly below the Crimean numbers. Such results more closely resemble the results of “Soviet elections” for the “indestructible bloc of communists and nonparty people,” or the results of elections in the republics of the North Caucasus.

Many factors raise questions about the plebiscite’s legitimacy. For example, the complete absence of independent observers and journalists. Russian propagandists did put some foreign observers on parade in the occupied territories and at polling stations set up for refugees in Russia. But this is pretty much the same kind of gag as the annual visits paid to the Crimea by marginal European politicians who recognized the peninsula as Russian territory on camera and made assurances that Europe was about to do the same.

The Ukrainian media are reporting that the high percentage of “yes” votes and the high turnout in the occupied regions were due to massive falsification. There were even photos of polls where commission members were counting blank ballots.

Some people who voted against incorporation into Russia were arrested and sent to the “basement” or added to special lists. And forget about the fact that no one can say for certain how many people are actually physically located in these territories. For example, how many people are left in wartorn Mariupol, which had a population of 425,000 before the war? It’s unlikely anyone knows the answer to this question. At the same time, BBC News Russian reported that turnout was 90% in many villages where hardly any residents remain. Ivan Fyodorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, said that of the 150,000 people living there before the war, only 60,000 remain and only 20% of them decided to vote during the three-day referendum. According to him, the occupying authorities were going around to people’s registered addresses and forcing them to vote on behalf of relatives or even total strangers.

Footage from Russian propagandists shows that most of the voters were pensioners and women, who will not be taken to the front. And even with all its little tricks, Russian propaganda failed to show large-scale participation in its stories.

A video showing commission members in Energodar going house to house in the company of two armed soldiers has been making the rounds on the Internet. The theory popular among Ukrainian politicians that the Crimea referendum was held “at gunpoint” came true in Zaporozhye Province in 2022. And the procedure of going around door to door during voting is certainly an innovation in global electoral practice.

The difference between the ‘referendums.

The political analysts that Novaya gazeta Europe spoke to agreed that the so-called referendums cannot be equated with events in the Crimea. But the very fact that pseudo-referendums were held in 2022 raises the issue that all Western politicians have refused to recognize the Russian protectorate over the Crimea, even de facto.

In a conversation with a Novaya Europe correspondent, political analyst Abbas Gallyamov commented that in the case of the Crimea, the majority of the population clearly was in favor of reunification with Russia. 

“At that time, Ukraine did not look as attractive as it does now,” he said. “At the time, it was a crumbling oligarchy filled with internal contradictions and conflicts. Now Russia is the one that looks like this, not Ukraine. Ukraine, on the contrary, is a united and effective democracy that is beating back aggressors on all fronts. In this situation, most inhabitants of the annexed territories would obviously like to remain part of Ukraine and not become part of Russia, but they can’t do anything with the ‘referendum’ results because they don’t control the political infrastructure of these territories.”

Political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky agrees that Russia annexed the Crimea with the active support of a large part of the local population. Naturally, the survey of the population conducted there after [Russia] seized control of the peninsula cannot be considered a referendum.

“At the time, there were already Russian troops there, although no one put a gun to voters’ heads as they did in the four Ukrainian provinces and territories occupied after Feb. 24,” he said. . . .

The Crimean pseudo-referendum and the peninsula’s annexation gave Putin a strong ratings boost and solved not just the problem of political support, but also the problem of the economic crisis, for which he was able to blame the Western countries that imposed sanctions [after the annexation]. Russia found itself in isolation, but not complete isolation, and several foreign leaders, including [then-] Czech president Milos Zeman, even spoke about the possibility of recognizing the Crimea’s new status. Ivan Preobrazhensky believes that this annexation could have lasted for decades, with the Crimea under de facto Russian jurisdiction, just like Northern Cyprus, which was seized by Turkey.

“However, the new pseudo-referendums, combined as they are with mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6] and all-out war, are lowering the population’s support for Putin. The small group of radicals that actively support the war are not going to start loving him more for this,” he said. “Russia will have the opportunity to bring conscript soldiers to these areas to protect ‘Russian’ territories. In addition, Vladimir Putin may continue to threaten to use nuclear weapons in attempts to liberate these territories. But this nullifies the legitimacy of the Crimean pseudo-referendum. Now no one outside of Russia will risk talking about it.”

Abbas Gallyamov does not believe that ordinary Russians care about the “referendums” at all. “First, no one in the country, even loyalists, has faith in electoral procedures. Everyone knows that elections are falsified in Russia. Second, politics has now entered a phase where the true results are determined by the situation on the battlefield and not by ‘voting.’ ”

The 2014 annexation took place without major hostilities because of the universal support and solidarity – although short-lived – of over 80% of the population. Support for the government also increased. Now we are seeing the opposite trend. But there is a chance that people will rally around the government again in the medium term. Nevertheless, Ivan Preobrazhensky believes that the referendums are not a symbol of power, but a sign of defeat in the new, aggressive war launched on Feb. 24.

*[A reference to a joke where a Russian is given two steel spheres in an experiment to see what he will do with them; he loses one and breaks the other. – Trans.]