DONETSK, Ukraine — Shortly before separatist leaders here declared a huge majority had voted in a referendum to break from Ukraine, their press spokeswoman had chortled at the idea that a result would be declared a mere three hours after polling stations closed.
“Are you crazy? How would we have time to count the ballots?” said Claudia.
Precisely, how indeed? But then despite a series of opinion polls over the past few weeks showing only a minority of eastern Ukrainians wanted to follow the example of the Black Sea peninsula and secede, the plebiscite in Donetsk—one of two of Ukraine’s easternmost regions voting Sunday—was always a foregone conclusion.
The procedures in the plebiscite managed by Denis Pushilin, a former casino croupier who is the co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, followed the Kremlin's house rules: the cynical strategies and plays of Russian-style “managed democracy,” not the electoral models outlined by organizations such as the United Nations or the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
The separatists used all the now familiar techniques—including weeks of armed and thuggish intimidation, the abductions and murder of opponents, multiple voting, pre-filled ballot papers, adding names to an incomplete electoral roll and allowing anyone who turned up at a polling station with a Ukrainian passport in hand to cast a ballot.
In the circumstances the separatists were restrained with their referendum result: an 89 percent majority for secession and 10 percent against on a 74.7 percent turnout. A Soviet-style majority but not as unabashed as Crimea’s supposed 97 percent secession triumph in March.
In neighboring Luhansk, one of the poorest Ukrainian regions, where similar plebiscite tactics have been employed, the leader there, Valery Bolotov, at least had the decency to appear to go through the motions of actually counting votes, and so a result will be declared later Monday. No one is in doubt about which way that vote will go, either. Luhansk separatists hint their turnout was even higher yesterday—79 percent.
With the results already determined, in the run-up to the plebiscites separatist leaders spoke of their post-secession plans—and depending on which leader was doing the talking Donetsk oblast would either observe self-rule with close protectorate ties with Russia or quickly come under Moscow's rule. In other words, follow Crimea and be annexed or become Ukraine’s Transnistria, the Moldavian breakaway cut off from the rest of the World.
At a press conference on Monday, Pushilin declared that the Donetsk region would ask Moscow to consider annexing the region. Bolotov has been the most enigmatic of eastern Ukrainian leaders on this score. But then the tall, solidly built former paratrooper has been the least talkative of the separatists. Asked last week whether after the referendum Luhansk would go for self-rule or Moscow rule, he responded: “People will give the answer on May 11 to the question whether we will be a republic or join Russia. I can’t tell you the answer.”
In fact, as in Donetsk, the ballot in Luhansk only featured one question—whether the region should declare sovereignty or not. So a certain amount of divination will be required. Presumably, Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to use his powers of second sight to know what the people really think.
The police in the city of Donetsk had no doubts which way the vote would go: Yesterday afternoon one young pro-unity activist fell afoul of the upholders of law and order after filming in several polling stations. He was questioned vigorously and then saw his Ukrainian passport being ripped up. “You won’t be wanting this,” he was told. “There will be no need for Ukrainian passports here now.”
In most towns in Donetsk oblast the police have either sided with the separatists and done their bidding, including colluding in murder and kidnapping, or they have kept their heads down ignoring the mayhem around them. Instead they focus only on enforcing traffic violations, as I found last week when speeding away from Luhansk after being ordered out by gunmen angry at my temerity interviewing prosecutors who had just been thrown out of their office.
The police have made little secret of what they want—Russian annexation. As Russian cops they would make 10 times their current Ukrainian salaries of $200-$250 a month. They doubt an independent republic would be much more generous. “My cousin in Rostov-on-Don is a cop and he has a good life,” Mikhail, a policeman in the town of Kramatorsk, mused while watching drunken masked gunmen stopping traffic at a makeshift checkpoint of burning tires near the town’s small airport.
Some separatists say they are considering holding a second referendum on joining Russia, but as yet have reached no decision. If they did so, they would likely not get a cold shoulder from President Putin. The Russian leader has already talked in glowing terms of Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, which included not just Donetsk and Luhansk but the whole of Ukraine’s southeast stretching to Odessa.
But then a second referendum might not be needed—not just because the separatists care little for formalities, but because de facto events may render “de jure” procedure irrelevant. The government in Kiev has denounced the plebiscite as a “criminal farce.” The question now is, do they send more sheriffs into Ukraine's Wild East? And what happens if they do? Does that bring Russian tanks across the border to protect ethnic Russians from the heavy hand of Kiev, making a second plebiscite about annexation redundant?
Most genuine voters The Daily Beast interviewed yesterday wanted stand-alone status to turn quickly into Moscow-rule. “We are too small to go it alone,” says 23-year-old translator Alec, a thoughtful, physically handicapped young man who was aided by his mother to the polling station at school number 17 in Donetsk.
Elderly voters—most of those casting ballots—were bubbling over at the thought of joining Russia, or, as some let slip, the Soviet Union. One of them is Svetlana, an 86-year-old woman who was an 8-year-old in Stalingrad and witnessed one of the most brutal months-long battles of the Second World War. A traditional Soviet woman, she says Russia will provide stability and order and give her and her family “normal lives.”
The propaganda being spewed out by Kremlin-controlled media outlets the past few weeks with hyped talk of Kiev fascists and WWII-style reprisal raids frightens the Svetlana generation and has propelled them into the arms of the separatists. But they are seemingly blind to the brutalities of the gunmen they believe are protecting them.
And normal lives seem some distance away. Things if anything are likely to get even more ugly. It isn’t clear that Kiev has the official forces to be able to restrain Donetsk and Luhansk from breaking away: They have struggled in recent weeks, resorting to hit-and-run punitive military tactics in the industrial port city of Mariupol and the flashpoint town of Slovyansk that have been unable to box in armed separatists or stop them from expanding their reach. What they have done is play into the hands of the Kremlin propaganda machine.
But letting a secession claim stand means dismemberment and they would appear to have little alternative but to confront it. Western-imposed pinprick sanctions have done little so far to restrain Moscow’s part clandestine and part public backing of the separatism, and the further sanctions likely to be announced now following the vote are unlikely to change the calculus.
Moscow’s agent on the ground hasn’t been deterred by past sanctions. Shadowy commander Igor Strelkov, who has been named by Kiev authorities as a colonel in Russian military intelligence, issued orders today from his headquarters in rebel-held Slovyansk. In a statement he orders all Ukrainian forces to either leave the region or join the Donetsk Republic army or they will be detained. They have 48 hours to comply. He has issued also an instruction ordering the police, local prosecutors and border guards to accept his authority. He says he intends to prosecute anyone involved in Ukraine’s “anti-terror” operations in Donetsk, including politicians in Kiev and US State Department official Victoria Nuland.
More mayhem is in the cards as the irregular anti-separatist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Ukrainian National Guard go into action. Their handiwork was on display Sunday, it appeared, in the small mining town of Krasnoarmeysk, 70 kilometers from Donetsk. There, members of the so-called “Dnipr” battalion, a “self-defense” force raised by a pro-Kiev oligarch in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, killed two civilians as a crowd tried to stop them closing down polling stations.
The Daily Beast arrived two hours after the shooting, navigating the unlit roads through mining country. The mood was angry with drunken men and frightened women denouncing the raid, saying they had no idea where the 40 armed gunmen who raided the town had gone. They insisted the raiders were from the “Dnipr” battalion and they swore revenge on them.
Ukrainian soldiers and official National Guardsmen manning checkpoints on the main roads into the town were jumpy, cocking guns in response to the slightest movement. Despite their vigilance they had seen nothing of armed men entering the town, they claimed.
On our way out, the nervous soldiers warned us to take care. One said: “We heard gunfire down the road.” In the weeks ahead that warning may well become the most common valediction in eastern Ukraine.