The ridiculous "referendums" held Sunday in two regions of eastern Ukraine are evidence that Russia's Crimean land grab was probably a one-off event. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his well-known ability to stretch and twist facts, couldn't bring himself to recognize the results of the preposterous votes. Moscow's tepid reaction tells Ukrainians it's time to stop fighting a phantom war with Putin and start the healing process if they want to keep their country together.
The secession referendums were held in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, with a total population of 6.5 million, 14 percent of Ukraine. The organizers, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk "people's republics," were unable to make the balloting look even remotely legitimate. Polling stations were few and far between (Mariupol, population 460,000, had only four), causing long lines of retirees who, since Soviet times, turn out in force for every election. Ukrainian troops conducting an "anti-terrorist operation" in the regions were always getting in the way. Without access to electoral rolls, some stations simply wrote down voters' names by hand. Nothing was easier than to vote at several stations or pick up ballots for imaginary relatives. A reporter for the local website Novosti Donbassa did just that, voting "no" to secession four times and picking up two more ballots for his nonexistent wife. "I could make a thousand or even 10,000 photocopies of them and open up my own polling station," the reporter, Ignat Svyachishin, wrote. "I could let all comers vote. I wouldn't even ask for their ID -- who needs it?"
The secessionists, however, solemnly reported that they had counted all the ballots, that turnout was 70 percent to 75 percent and that almost 90 percent backed the regions' self-determination.
The so-called results were lower than those in the March 16 referendum in which Crimea voted to join Russia: 83 percent turnout and a 97 percent "yes" vote. Putin took a gamble on that other electoral farce, organized in haste and, again, without current rolls, because Russia was genuinely popular in Crimea. A fact-finding mission of the Kremlin's own Human Rights and Civil Society Council estimated the real turnout at 30 percent to 50 percent and the "yes" vote at 50 percent to 60 percent. The report was promptly removed from the council's website, but, in a real vote, the numbers in it would have still handed Russia a victory. In Donetsk and Lugansk, there was no chance of even a rough estimate of how an honest vote would have gone. So Russia, while not hiding the fact that it's rooting for the Russian-speaking separatists, could only produce the vaguest of official reactions. "Moscow respects the expression of will by the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions," the Kremlin statement read, "and has the understanding that the practical realization of the referendums' outcomes will follow a civilized path, without any recurrence of violence, through dialogue between the representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk."
The votes' organizers had probably been warned that Putin wouldn't rush in on a white charger to welcome them to Russia. They had started backpedaling even before the vote took place. Roman Lyagin, who heads the rebels' electoral commission in Donetsk, had warned that a vote for the secession would not mean that the regions would immediately part ways with Ukraine. "It's just a declaration of our legal rights," Lyagin said. "We want to be heard."
So far, while Kiev is hearing the noises from the rebellious regions, it isn't really listening. "The farce that terrorists and separatists are calling a referendum is nothing but propaganda cover for murder, kidnapping, violence and other felonies," acting President Oleksand Turchynov said. The creaky "anti-terrorist operation" continues. In the Donetsk region alone, the local health department reports that 49 people have died since the clashes and riots started in March.
By milling senselessly about and sometimes shooting a rebel or two, the Ukrainian military is further alienating locals who lynched the police chief in Mariupol after he called in the national guard. "I am watching how fast people's mood is changing," Oleksiy Bluminov, a Ukrainian commentator sympathetic to the rioters, wrote on Facebook. "They finally get it that there is no Ukrainian power in the region, and there is no turning back."
The referendums were not real, but the anger and the chaos are. "The unbalanced poor regions have exhibited such a level of malice and aggression that the uncalled-for thought nags: 'Maybe we should forget about them,'" Kiev political commentator Leonid Shvets wrote on Kontrakty.ua. "Even if everything stops tomorrow and the militants hand in their weapons, a cure will take years, and it's not clear what therapy should look like and how much it might cost. But it won't stop tomorrow and I wouldn't bet on the day after, either."
It's not the referendums or the Russian military threat that Ukraine, and its Western neighbors, should worry about now. Moscow sympathizes with the rebellion, but deposed president Viktor Yanukovych's friends need it much more than Putin needs another headache. In an interview with Russia's state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Pavel Gubarev, one of the rebels' leaders, unexpectedly accused many of his comrades-in-arms of taking money from Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and a long-time Yanukovych ally. Politicians from Yanukovych's Regions Party have recently stepped up calls for the withdrawal of Kiev's troops from eastern Ukraine. The losers of last winter's revolution are hoping to turn the east into a successful version of the Vendee, the province that rose up against the Great Revolution in France in 1793.
Kiev needs to concentrate on counteracting that. A cynical deal with the Akhmetov-Yanukovych bunch could at least stop the bloodshed and let the wounds start healing. On the other hand, it would water down the revolutionary ideals, and the interim government's hesitation to buy peace before the May 25 presidential election is understandable. After the vote, the deal will still be the most effective solution, but it will fall to an elected president to make it - or to continue insisting on the use of force with the potential for more bloodshed and longer-lasting anger.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org