How Russia Rigged the Crimean Referendum
In Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, turnout for Sunday’s referendum reached an astonishing 123% of registered voters. There may be an explanation for this number that doesn’t involve the simple stuffing of ballot boxes:
One reporter from Kiev showed his Russian passport and was handed a ballot and allowed to vote. This raised questions in Kiev if perhaps the Russian soldiers and Russian paramilitary occupying the area since late February had been allowed to cast votes.
Overall, an impressive 96.77% of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine. Legal scholar Ilya Somin asks whether such a result may reflect the fact that opponents of the Russian invasion simply stayed home. After all, why take part in what you know to be a Soviet-style farce? Unlikely, he says.
Less than 60% of Crimea is ethnically Russian and about 12% belongs to the Muslim Tatar minority, which wants to stay as far from Moscow as possible. Thus, the result itself demonstrated the referendum’s humorous nature, even before one considers procedural tricks or intimidation. And there was no apparent shortage of intimidation. A correspondent for the New Yorker reports:
One day last week, I watched as the leader of a group of [Crimean "Prime Minister” Sergey] Aksionov’s militamen savagely beat a young man. He’d had the temerity to ask a trio of masked men standing on a street corner in the Crimean capital of Simferepol—clearly Russian soldiers despite the lack of insignia on their uniforms—who they were.
A uniformed policeman managed to stop the beating and lead the young man, who was dazed by several vicious blows to his head, to a police car. He was driven away, presumably, to a hospital for medical attention. Then the same policeman tried to speak to the militiaman who had done the beating, a man in black clothing and black boots and a black knit cap and a black gun. The thug, amid a knot of his snickering cohorts, refused to answer. Defeated, the policeman gave left the scene. The militiaman’s companions applauded.
Does Putin Have a Plan?
By rigging the referendum and abusing the Crimean population, Putin has sent a very clear message that he is not interested in rapid resolution of this crisis, nor perhaps in any resolution at all. He seems to have little fear that Europe will come together to impose the kind of punishing sanctions that would actually impose real costs on Russia.
What Putin doesn’t seem to realize is that such blatant fraud and abuse will only increase the likelihood of Europe taking serious action (with sufficient American prodding). The same goes for his decision to immediately sign a treaty initiating the absorption of Crimea into Russia. Some observers hoped that Putin only intended to use Crimea as a bargaining chip. Now it seems clear he is ready to test Europe and the United States, to see whether there is any substance to their fine words about Ukrainian freedom and sovereignty.