Crimea’s Sham Referendum

We already knew that Russia will game the referendum on Crimean independence. Steve Saideman considers why.

By: /
11 March, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

The language of the new Crimea Referendum makes Quebec’s referendums appear to be models of clarity. According to the Kyiv Post, voters in Crimea next Sunday will be asked whether they support the union of Crimea with Russia (an act of irredentism) or whether Crimea should be independent (secession). There is no alternative – one cannot vote for the status quo ante of remaining within Ukraine.

This would suggest that the referendum might just be a bit of a sham.

Well, we already knew that the referendum was going to be gamed, as Russia is keeping international observers out of Crimea, it has moved the date of the referendum from much later in the spring first to March 30, and now to March 16, and there is the detail of the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops. This is somewhat puzzling because it raises the question of why have a vote at all if the effort is devoid of any possible taint of legitimacy?

Certainly Vladimir Putin and his friends in Crimea are not concerned with impressing the international community with how free and fair this referendum will be. Otherwise, they might not be printing about 66 percent more ballots than needed (2.5 million ballots for 1.5 million Crimean voters). Mr. Putin may resort to the usual international organization for monitoring a sham election in the former Soviet space – the Commonwealth of Independent States – which has monitored past elections in Abhkazia, South Ossetia, and Trans-Dniester.

So, why bother with such a clearly illegitimate referendum? Authoritarian regimes have a long history of sham elections which provide some kind of domestic legitimacy to their rule. To be fair, Russia’s elections have not been shams. Those for who governs in Russia, anyway. For those who govern in the frozen conflicts? Not so much. Still, those who disrespect democracy still feel compelled to use the guise of democracy to appear less authoritarian and more legitimate. It may not play well outside of Russia, but it might do OK within.

Indeed, some scholars have found that these kind of elections can be used to scare the opposition. That is, holding such an event puts opponents in difficult positions, as the fakery may actually suggest that the government is strong, rather than weak. And this is quite the gamble, as faked elections can serve as focal points for political protest. And these protests can help to bring down governments (see Ukraine last month).

So, how to do win the gamble? For one thing, you put out a heap of propaganda like the billboards that appeared in Crimea this week, showing an outline of Crimea with a swastika on it beside an outline draped in the Russian flag, reading: “On March 16, we choose fascism in Crimea or Russian Crimea.”

There is some genuine support from some Crimean Russians for annexation with Russia, but it is pretty clear that the non-Russian population is not happy with this. Even some Russian-Crimeans might be aware of the reality that being a minor hunk of Russia may not be such a good deal.

There has been much disagreement about whether this whole crisis suggests that Mr. Putin is strong or weak. We will really not know until the shooting starts (will the Russian soldiers shoot?) or if protests break out after the sham referendum. It is clear that Putin is willing to gamble, as there are no certainties here. Everything else is even more unclear than the referendum’s wording.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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