|Voters in Luhansk, Ukraine, make their choice today at gunpoint (New York Times photo)|
A few things have to be in place before a referendum on self-determination can be legitimate. First, there must be freedom of the press and freedom to speak and organize and there must be independent bodies keeping watch on the voting process to ensure it is carried out properly. Not only are those conditions not being met in Donetsk and Luhansk, but they cannot be met. Those two oblasts—especially Donetsk, which, unlike Luhansk, is more or less completely out of the central Ukrainian government’s control—are effectively under military rule by a shadowy group of separatist activists. These include local ethnic-Russian militants (many of them current or former members of far-right or far-left street gangs or terror groups), police and military who have defected to them, certainly mercenaries and special forces trained in Russia, and quite likely even regular Russian troops operating in disguise. Most of the armed activists wear masks, and some exhibit such sophisticated equipment and training that the idea that they are not Russian-trained troops (which the Kremlin swears up and down is the case) is difficult to maintain. In such a climate, it is impossible for citizens to feel that they can campaign or vote in any way that they please.
|A Donetsk Republic flag|
Another important component of a legitimate vote on self-determination is that the separatism not be a mere cloak for the expansionist aims of a neighbor. This was the problem with independence referenda in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region (now a de facto puppet state of Armenia) and in the pro-Russian pseudo-states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (on Georgia’s territory) and Transnistria (on Moldova’s). And just to show that we are not completely partisan, it has also been an inherently troubling factor in autonomy and independence movements in places as varied as Kosovo (a part of Serbia coveted by nationalists in Albania), the Miskito Indian autonomous region in Nicaragua (used as puppets of the United States during the 1980s), Sri Lanka (where the government of India has at times had a stake in establishing a separate Tamil state), Northern Cyprus (a puppet state of Turkey), and the ethnically Magyar (Hungarian) parts of Romania, where dreams of autonomy dovetail unsettlingly with neo-fascist dreams of a reestablished “greater Hungary.” The very presence of such a dynamic does not mean any such vote is invalid, but it means that the relevant foreign power’s hands need to be seen to be withheld from the entire process. In Donetsk and Luhansk the opposite is the case. President Vladimir Putin’s grubby little fingerprints are all over every aspect of today’s referenda.
|Kosovars love to wave Albanian flags. Russia claims their independence|
movement is a cover for Albanian expansionism.
|Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, Slovyansk’s coup-installed “mayor,” speaks to|
the press beneath the Donetsk oblast flag (left) and the Slovyansk municipal flag (right).
But residents of Donetsk and Luhansk—only a third or so of whom, polls indicate, want to split from Ukraine—can be forgiven for not feeling that there are “many possibilities.” Their oblasts have been overrun by armed men in masks. No one in the world doubts the outcome of the vote. This is not democracy. This is an attempt by Russia to at least destabilize and weaken—at worst, to dismember and consume—a sovereign nation, Ukraine. And there doesn’t seem much reason to think it won’t work.
|Pavel Gubarev, “people’s governor” of Donetsk|
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. The book is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]