Crimean Referendum Dissected: Why Vote to Join Russia Is Suspect

russian paramilitary truck in crimea

The recent referendum in Crimea saw a majority of civilians voting for independence from Ukraine and annexation with Russia. However, the vote came at a complex time in international relations and, as such, deserves some dissection. The reported vote numbers showed 96.77 percent of voters in favor of a split from Ukraine to rejoin Russia, with 2.51 percent voting to remain part of Ukraine. The election spokesperson said that 83.1 percent of those eligible to vote had done so, as reported by The Washington Post.

Russian legislature has since voted to accept the annexation request sent from Crimea’s parliament, the State Duma, with a vote of 443 to 1 — to no one’s surprise — claiming that the addition of Crimea to the Russian Federation would help protect vulnerable ethnic Russians in the area. Both Ukraine and the West have made it clear that they see the annexation as illegitimate and illegal, and sanctions are being put in place while alternate energy sources are sought for Europe and Ukraine, vulnerable due to gas dependency on Russia.

The U.S. has claimed that the vote was influenced by “intimidation from a Russian military intervention, as have other nations, and Ukraine has stated that it goes against its constitution.” FiveThirtyEight‘s Carl Bialik recently published a report noting that both the high turnout rate and local media reports made fraud seem more likely. He noted the polling conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, a regional polling effort with a good reputation, according to Bialik. The KIIS poll, conducted most recently in February, found that 41 percent of Crimeans were in favor of a unification with Russia, but that a majority of respondents in both Ukraine and Russia were, on average, in favor of independence for each, “with open borders, without visas and custom houses.”

Those in favor of combination into a single state have decreased in Ukraine since November of 2013, down from 20 percent to 12 percent, bumped up to 9 percent after the occurrences on the Maidan. Regardless of the polling numbers, Volodymyr Paniotto, the general director of KIIS, said that the information doesn’t mean very much when it comes to the recent vote. He told FiveThirtyEight that an occupied Crimea made the poll more difficult to conduct face-to-face, and as a result, opinions are more difficult to accurate gauge for this month.

Paniotto also said that their organization was hesitant to legitimize the referendum by asking about it, and noted that Crimean opinion may have changed over the last month, a result of Russian propaganda. “My Russian friends said they don’t remember, even in Soviet times, such intensive propaganda as on mass media in the last month,” said Paniotto to FiveThirtyEight. He also criticized the wording of the options in the referendum. “The questions are very bad,” he said, prior to the vote, noting that those without strong opinions would be most influenced by the way the choices were worded, and that, “What question we ask [would decide] what we receive.”

Part of the problem with the way that the options were phrased was that neither option was neutral. One called for independence and the application for rejoining Russia, while the other states that Crimea would return to the 1992 constitution — meaning that Crimea’s legislature would make the decision on whether or not to separate from Ukraine. It had already indicated its desire to return to that constitution prior to the vote. The absence of an option to remain with Ukraine yet retain friendly relations with Russia is notable.

Still, another explanation given for the vote was the recent removal of Viktor Yanukovych, having been accused of mass killings before he fled the country, but still a link that had previously meant close ties with Moscow. While part of Ukraine may have been sparked to protest by links to Russia over an opportunity for closer relations with Europe, others could be leery of the goals of the interim government. Paniotto agreed that Yanukovych’s removal and Ukraine’s recent “foolish steps” to cancel and then reinstate the equal status of minority languages within Ukraine could have had an effect. He reiterated his feelings that Russian troops and propaganda were more likely factors.

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