How Eastern Ukraine’s Chaotic ‘Referendum’ Might Reduce the Immediate Risk of War

REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

To Undercut Separatists, Kyiv Should Now Propose a Pro-Democratic Decentralization of Power

Eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian militants say yesterday’s chaotic simulation of a referendum gives them a popular mandate to secede from Ukraine. That claim, of course, won’t be taken seriously beyond the camp of the separatists and their Russian backers. But that exercise, along with recent signals by separatist and Russian leaders, suggest that the conflict might now be shifted away from warfare to more of a political and diplomatic struggle, say two Atlantic Council analysts on the region.

While the main engine of this conflict is still Russia’s effort to exert control in eastern Ukraine, opponents of Moscow’s aggression should recognize the importance of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians – frustrated by insecurity, impoverishment and corruption – who crowded around the makeshift polling stations yesterday. While they constitute no mandate for secession, they underscore that the separatists have a significant and motivated base of support among the 6.8 million people (14 percent of Ukraine’s population) of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

The Ukrainian interim government and its international supporters should focus on consolidating the government’s position through the Ukrainian presidential election to take place in thirteen days, and on the chances for accelerating negotiations and securing a resolution of this conflict after the new president is in place, suggest Atlantic Council senior fellows Adrian Karatnycky and Sabine Freizer.

The Ukrainian government’s smart move now is to open a nationwide debate on reforming the constitution to provide greater democracy and more accountable government at the provincial levels. All parts of the country – not just the east – have an interest in that step, which would create a basis for a stronger Ukrainian state and the defeat of Russia’s attempt to undermine Ukraine’s independence.

Here are excerpts from Karatnycky’s and Freizer’s notes overnight, following the vote:

The attempt at a referendum is politically important despite its illegitimacy as a democratic exercise.
Karatnycky: “First, it was physically impossible, given the number of polling stations, the size of crowds, etc., for more than 20 to 25 percent of the population to have voted in Donetsk and Luhansk. Nevertheless, the fact that crowds turned out in significant number shows that the roughly 30 percent of the population that wants separation from Kyiv is highly motivated.”

Freizer: “​Experience in other parts of the former Soviet Union shows that,” even if such referenda are poorly run and have an unimpressive turnout, they “are easily used to create a new narrative of popular support for autonomy or independence. This is what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea and now Donestsk and Luhansk. In none of these previous cases has local leadership later been willing to negotiate down its demands. Yet in this case, ultimately Kyiv and leaders from the east will need to negotiate what the self-rule voted on yesterday means in practice, most probably as part of the country’s decentralization reform process.”

Amid the cacophony of shouted rhetoric are important signals that the radical demands by separatists in recent weeks may now be subject to moderation.
Karatnycky: “First, Putin declared in the middle of last week that the Ukrainian presidential election on May 25 could be a constructive step forward.” In the hours since yesterday’s vote, many Donetsk secessionist leaders, including their figurehead, Denys Pushilin, have proclaimed victory and a determination to press ahead for full independence. But “it’s important to focus on the real arbiters. What the Kremlin is saying today is not to speak with the self proclaimed leaders of Donbas, but to include the East and other regions in serious negotiations.”

“Russia is saying that the referendum was a call for autonomy…that requires a negotiated, constitutional adjustment.”

Karatnycky noted the statement read out in Moscow today by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which the Kremlin declared: “Moscow respects the will of the people in Donetsk and Lugansk [Luhansk] and hopes that the practical realization of the outcome of the referendums will be carried out in a civilized manner, without resorting to violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.”

Karatnycky: “So I think there is little sense that Pushilin and [his fellow Donetsk leader Pavel] Gubarev figure in this in a significant way, nor even that they set the agenda.”

Ukraine now has an opportunity to move the conflict toward the political/ diplomatic fields, rather than street battles.
Karatnycky: “The signals are that this may be the beginning of a long, drawn-out political (not insurgent and counter-terrorism) struggle. In my view, the vote is an effort to give the secessionist of eastern Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, additional chips in the diplomatic and intra-Ukrainian negotiations.”

​Freizer: “The Ukrainian government in Kyiv should regain the high ground by starting a public debate on decentralization. ​In Ukraine, governors are not even elected,” but instead are appointed by the central government. “There is much that can be done to promote greater participation and buy-in by local citizens, to fight against corruption, and to improve the distribution and use of resources without causing the federalization of Ukraine,” and thus the weakening of its central government and its independent statehood. “Interviews by journalists of eastern Ukrainians in recent days underscores the suggestions from opinion surveys showing that this population is not ‘pro-Russian’ or ‘anti-Ukrainian,’ but rather wants more say over political and economic decisions that affect them. Ukraine’s prime minister already has called for work on decentralization to begin. Now is the time for the government to unveil some preliminary ideas and start a nationwide discussion.” 

On Putin’s game: Is he now seeing the limits of his reach?
Karatnycky: “Putin had also called for the referendum to be delayed. In part, that was to forestall further sanctions” by the West, but it also was partly “because his end game may be to seek a deal and stabilization, with Crimea firmly in his hands.  Clearly, given how disorganized and ill-funded the referendum was, there was no Russian oomph behind it.”

Freizer: ​”If you compare Crimea with eastern Ukraine, it is obvious that where President Putin was confident that he could quickly swallow the former, he understands the limitations of what is achievable in the latter. Russia has neither the military nor economic means to integrate Donestk and Luhansk as it is doing in Crimea. However President Putin is seeking to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable — in his mind a guarantee that it will be unable to come closer to prospective European Union or NATO ​membership. 

“As Moldova approaches the signature of its association agreement with the EU in June, Russia also needs to retain some resources to use there. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s visit to Transnistria” last weekend, and reports that he carried back to Russia “Transnistrians’ petitions urging annexation of their territory by Russia, is part of this scenario.” 

Local business and political elites are seeking to re-assert control and to stabilize eastern Ukraine.
Karatnycky: “Leaders of the Donbas establishment – including billionaire  Rinat Akhmetov’s company Metinvest – have called on all armed forces, those of Kyiv and the insurents, to stand down. They have created self-defense units to patrol in key municipalities along with local police. This move is a reaction to the mayhem and disorder by the Moscow-backed fighters. It came after Akhmetov met with Putin envoy Vladimir Lukin last week.”

James Rupert is managing editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky and Sabine Freizer

Image: An armed pro-Russia militia man casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk May 11, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis