Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 03.10.2017
Russia is at war with the West and Russia loves referendums. Referendums are easily manipulated. When Russia invades neighbours it holds referendums under the guns of its occupying troops. When referendums occur elsewhere Russia uses information warfare to tilt the result towards division, strife, and separation. No matter what the outcome, Russia succeeds in spoiling the idea of citizen plebiscites as a valid and genuine democratic instrument. If the only result is chaos, that result serves the war aims of the Kremlin. Russia loves referendums.
Very quickly after invading Ukraine in Crimea, Russia held a fake referendum on 16 March 2014 and announced the pre-determined result. The Russians didn’t go to much effort to make it look like a real referendum. In Russia-occupied Crimea there was no choice to keep the status quo; Ukrainian authorities were kept out of by the invaders; there was no pro-Ukraine campaigning allowed; there were no rules about financing; the date of the referendum was only 10 days after the confusing question was formulated; no recognized international observers were present; armed force was used to intimidate voters; balloting was done only at a few locations for propaganda TV crews; the announced result was statistically improbable. No one was fooled, except the Putin regime (which strangely believes its own propaganda). Because Russia did such a poor job of faking a referendum, the Putin regime gained no meaningful international recognition for its so-called ‘annexation’ of Crimea. Despite this, the Kremlin trots out the propaganda lie that “the Crimean people voted” at every opportunity.
Russia held a fake referendum under the barrel of a gun in Donbas, too. Here, the pre-determined result dictated by the Kremlin was separation. Russia’s Federal Security Service had invented a country called “Novorossiya” and the vote was ostensibly in favour of that. Made-for-propaganda-TV election theatre about so-called “Novorossiya” was played out for a world-wide audience on 11 May 2014, in the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions which the Russian army controlled. As in Crimea, there was a great rush after Russian troops invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory to hold this referendum. Pushing Putin on in his recklessness was the Ukrainian presidential election, which was held on 25 May 2014. Russian invasion troops forcefully prevented Ukrainians in Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions from exercising their right as citizens to vote in the 25 May 2014 presidential election. The invader-occupiers from Muscovy used the two fake referendums as a flimsy cover for this grave violation of human rights. Propaganda pushed by the Kremlin was that the people “had already voted and they had voted against Ukraine.” Of course, the Donbas referendum violated all standards of democratic practice. Even Russian propaganda TV had a hard time finding anyone in Donetsk or Luhansk who knew what the referendum was about, or who said that they had voted.
In those democratic countries Russia has not yet invaded, Russia uses referendums as a weapon of divide-and-conquer information warfare. In the Netherlands, Russia worked through “GeenPeil” to certify an advisory referendum against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (but not the agreements with Georgia or Moldova). Russia then worked social media in the Netherlands into a frenzy of anti-European Union hysteria, while all the while targeting Ukraine. Sadly, this information warfare exercise by Russia succeeded on 6 April 2016. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – for which Ukrainians had shed blood on Maidan in Kyiv – was delayed for two years.
Russian information warriors worked exclusively and effectively in support of the “Leave” or “Brexit” side of the British referendum which was held on 23 June 2016. Russia was less effective in Hungary on 2 October 2016; the so-called “migrant quota referendum” had too low a turnout to be valid. Hungarians who did vote overwhelmingly rejected EU quotas, though.
In the Netherlands, Britain, and Hungary, Russia used all its formidable weapons of information warfare to secure an anti-EU result, and in the case of the Netherlands an anti-Ukraine result as well. Now, in Spain, Russia is up to its usual tricks. The Kremlin is heavily backing the Catalan independence referendum, which has been declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court. Russia would like nothing better than to see NATO-member Spain broken up. Russian propaganda TV and social media info warriors are already drawing parallels between Catalonia and Putin’s invented land of “Novorossiya.” Russia raises the spectre of civil war in Spain – it is a well-worn theme from its use in Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine.
Russia will back separatism and divisive referendums anywhere in the world, but never in Russia itself. Although it calls itself the “Russian Federation,” Muscovy and its invaded, conquered, occupied territories is a highly-centralized state. It’s an empire, in fact. Separatism is illegal in Russia. When a man in Siberia called for an independent republic, a court on 20 September 2016 found him “not responsible for his actions by reason of insanity” and had him forcible confined to a psychiatric clinic (yes, punitive psychiatry from Soviet times has returned to Putin’s Russia).
The West must defend its democratic institutions from Russia. Referendums are particularly vulnerable. Canada has a sensible answer, gained from its experience with two referendums over the separation of Quebec. In Canada, the Clarity Act requires a referendum to pose a clear, unambiguous question, and obtain a clear, unambiguous result. The Scottish referendum on independence, held on 18 September 2014, adhered to both these principles and was democratic. The two so-called ‘referendums’ held in Russia-invaded and occupied Ukraine failed on every democratic principle and in no way demonstrate the will of the people. Crimea is Ukraine and Donbas is Ukraine, and fake referendums change nothing.