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No One Knows What the Referendums in Eastern Ukraine Decided


Separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums this weekend on increased autonomy, ignoring Putin’s request last week to delay the vote “in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.” Initial results from the referendums indicate massive fraud correlated with a landslide vote in the separatists’ favor.

The election fraud was sweeping, and barely disguised. Pro-Russia separatists in Donetsk were found with 100,000 pre-marked ‘Yes’ ballots the day before the vote. Many people voted multiple times, even at the same polling station. Several towns in both regions refused to participate in the referendums, BBC reports.

The results are, of course, contested. Russian news agencies are reporting a 96.2 percent vote in favor of “self-rule” in Luhansk and an 89 percent vote for the separatists in Donetsk, as well as a turnout of about 80 percent. But the “official” results won’t be in for about a week “because of difficulties in collecting ballots,” a representative from the Donetsk People’s Republic told the New York Times. So far, it seems that the separatists are getting better at staging fake referendums, as Jason Karaian writes in Quartz. Organizers deliberately opened fewer polling stations than were necessary in order "to increase the illusion of a high turnout," The Economist reports. "The biggest irony of this bogus referendum is that those who support Ukrainian sovereignty —allegedly nearly 70% of people in the region—do not recognise the referendum and so did not vote." 

Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the votes a “farce” and said that only 24 and 32 percent of the voting-age population actually participated in Luhansk and Donetsk, respectively. The referendum is undoubtedly “illegal by anybody’s standards,” as British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it. But that’s no reason to discount its implications, says Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitry Trenin. “One can dismiss the real internal divisions in Ukraine only at one’s own peril. Russia certainly pursues its interests in Ukraine, as does the United States, but the actual forces engaged there are the locals.”

It's unclear what the referendum was about. The ballot question asked, "Do you support the act of self-rule for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?” But as the Times reports, a "yes" vote leaves open a number of possibilities for the region, including federalization and annexation to Russia. "The key Russian word in the question, which in English could be translated as 'independence' or 'self-reliance', is equally slippery in Russian," The Economist explains. A representative from the separatist Donetsk government told the Kyiv Post that "Civilian and military authorities independent from Kyiv will be formed" as a result of the vote.  

Isaac Webb reports in the Kyiv Post that more referendums in the east may follow. "Oleksiy Chmilenko, the leader of the Luhansk separatist group People’s Front, told Interfax Ukraine on Sunday that his rebels hope to 'create a unified space, a united state with Donetsk and in the future probably with Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and other regions, which may follow our example.'" 

The Kremlin said the results of the referendum should be implemented. “Moscow views with respect the expression of the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and expects that the practical implementation of the outcome of the referendums will be carried out in a civilized manner without any recurrence of violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk,” the Kremlin said in a statement on Monday

Gazprom is strong-arming Ukraine. The Russian gas giant is now claiming that Ukraine owes $22 billion. As recently as March, Gazprom executives said the country owed only $2 billion. The $20 billion increase is entirely political.

The EU will expand its list of sanctioned individuals and entities. “Two Crimean companies and 13 individuals have been added to the sanctions list,” BBC reports. Meanwhile, France is refusing to go back on a $1.2 billion military contract with Russia. Under the terms of the 2011 deal, France is to build two Mistral helicopter carriers for Russia; 1,000 French jobs are dedicated to the project, Yahoo News reports.  

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called for Ukraine to cease its anti-terror operation in the east in a statement on Monday. "Ukraine has come to resemble Germany under the reign of Hitler," he said. 

NATO says it will help Ukraine undertake much-needed reforms to its defense sector. 

Over the past four years, Russia has increased its military spending 80 percent, and “spending on the special services and police has gone up 50 percent,” Paul Goble reports. The increase in defense expenditure coincided with significant cuts to education and health care spending, and, Goble writes, indicates that the Kremlin has been preparing for military conflict—or at least repression at home—for years.

Timothy Snyder writes on how the Kremlin is deploying the language of fascism and its emerging alliance with the European far right in this week's issue of The New Republic. One of the many absurdities of the situation, he writes, is that "Separatists in the Ukrainian east, who, according to a series of opinion polls, represent a minority of the population, are protesting for the right to join a country where protest is illegal. They are working to stop elections in which the legitimate interests of Ukrainians in the east can be voiced. If these regions join Russia, their inhabitants can forget about casting meaningful votes in the future." Far right politicians in the E.U. are expected to make significant gains in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Dan Bilefsky reports on the increasing prominence of the extreme right in Europe.