Sunday, May 11, 2014

Imperialism, Not Democracy: Donetsk and Luhansk Vote Today at Russian Gunpoint

Voters in Luhansk, Ukraine, make their choice today at gunpoint (New York Times photo)
We at Springtime of Nations are in favor of regional, ethnic, and linguistic self-determination and the right of peoples to choose who governs them.  But that does not mean that every movement that invokes those principles is worth supporting.  The referenda being held in two oblasts (provinces) in Ukraine that have already declared themselves independent “people’s republics”—Donetsk and Lugansk (Luhansk, in Ukrainian)—are a case in point.

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
The Crimea referendum on March 16th failed to meet those criteria as well.  In some voting districts, the number of those voting “yes” to annexation by Russia exceeded the number of residents.  But the Russian military controlled the entire peninsula; although previous referenda clearly show that the majority of Crimean residents did and do prefer to be part of Russia, this vote was illegitimate.  In the Donetsk Oblast city of Slavyansk, which is under complete separatist control, the newly installed mayor, Vyachislav Ponomaryov, predicted—“with a gold-toothed smile,” as the New York Times put it—a “yes” vote of 100%.  Given the fact that everyone knows that many elements in the community are known to be against separation, this amounts to a bald-faced promise that the vote will be rigged.

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.
Sometimes, a minority is so threatened with violence that it is necessary to push through a good-enough referendum and make some kind of forced separation from the parent country just to save lives.  This is the rationale that was used when the U.S. and the United Nations ushered South Sudan to independence in 2011 and, most notably, in the late 1990s when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) established the Republic of Kosovo, which declared full independence in 2008. Putin and his state-controlled media cite the Kosovo example constantly, to point up the West’s supposed hypocrisy in opposing his annexation of Crimea.  Putin claims that ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are an endangered and oppressed minority in post-Soviet Ukraine and that Serbs were not really persecuting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo all that badly.  He is wrong on both counts.  There is no violence or oppression to speak of by Ukrainians against Russians in Ukraine to justify any kind of rebellion.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, Slovyansk’s coup-installed “mayor,” speaks to
the press beneath the Donetsk oblast flag (left) and the Slovyansk municipal flag (right).
Roman Lyagin, the pro-Russian election commissioner for the Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters this week that the question on today’s ballot, “Do you support the act of self-rule for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?”, is open-ended and intentionally ambivalent. “ We win the right for self-determination,” he said. “The next step will be another referendum when we ask, ‘Do we want to join Russia? or do we want to join Ukraine? or do we want to become an independent state?’ There are many possibilities.”

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.]


  1. this interesting blog is named spring of NATIONS...but, what is a nation+++
    thinking about the right of breaking a state, a not there any limit to that+++
    and about USA...was USA a nation in the XIX century+++ were confederals breaking a nation or building a new one+++
    to end, the revolts in kiev or maidan square revolt was right and the revolts in donets and lugansk were wrong+++ i don' t like breaking as a game of superpowers anywhere and i have many doubts about jugoslavia...

  2. what has happened in ucrania+++ that is the big question which many media like tvs, press etc do now...putin, ussr, democracy...but all this mess started in february, a ggod month for revolutions...this dangerous game started when the bad goverment i kiev decided not to sign with bruxelles and signig with moscow...but we must not forget that during these years of democratic ukraine many goverments have been playing a romance with russia and with the west...a risky play, isn' t it+++
    and no, i am not defending the devil, i am describing the facts...julia and viktor have been dancing with many partners...

  3. What 'previous referenda' in Crimea are you referring to? The opinion polls I have seen indicated a broad support for continued unity with Ukraine (although, this seems to have changed recently in a PEW poll). The only referendum that the Crimeans were given prior to this one, they voted to remain part of Ukraine.

  4. This article didn't mention one important thing, these all people of Luhansk and Donetsk were destined to vote against that anti-human government which shield the neo-nacists which killed many unarmed civilians in Odessa and other regions. You prefere to close your eyes on this fact. Support of Russia is a mission to protect the civil people. I watched about this issue on Ukrainian TV every day throughout one month, and if I was living in Luhansk i would also vote for secession despite I hate many things in Russia and Putin especially.

  5. "There is no violence or oppression to speak of by Ukrainians against Russians in Ukraine to justify any kind of rebellion."
    That depends on your deffinition of oppression. But banning their language and than burning alive about 40 of them is something which Albanians never faced prior to NATO invasion of Serbia


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