Political Legitimacy Is What Matters in Ukraine’s Popular Referendums

A decade ago, The Spectator magazine commissioned me to write an article arguing that the British government ought to hold a referendum on the proposed new constitution for the European Union. I went further, and proposed that if the government did not grant a vote, the British people should hold an unofficial referendum of their own. “Although under the current laws a privately held referendum would lack binding authority,” I wrote, “what people often do not realize is that the same is true of government-sponsored ones. In both cases, legitimacy depends not on official sanction, but on getting a sufficiently large turnout to prove that the votes cast represent the true nature of public opinion.”

As it was, a referendum proved unnecessary since the EU constitutional project collapsed before the British could get to vote on it—but the principle remains valid. If enough people choose of their own free will to vote for something, then their choice has real political meaning regardless of the legal status of the process.

The votes have credibility in the eyes of the people who count—those who live in those regions.

This is a point worth bearing in mind as we consider the referendums held on Sunday in the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces of Ukraine. The fact that these plebiscites were unofficial has led many to denounce them as ‘illegal’. This is a false charge. People in Ukraine, as in Canada, are free to assemble and vote on anything they like. The unofficial status of their vote means that the result is not legally binding, but it is not ‘illegal’. Nor does international law have anything to say on the matter. Western states accepted the independence referendums held in many Soviet states in 1991, even though those were contrary to the Soviet constitution. What matters is not so much legality as political legitimacy.

Legitimacy, though, is thoroughly subjective. Critics of the referendums in Ukraine have denounced them as illegitimate because the voting process was not up to accepted standards. (The electoral commissions lacked current lists of eligible voters, ballot papers could be easily forged, there was no way of checking that the results were valid, and so on.) As a result, the Ukrainian government has called the votes a “criminal farce”. The British government has similarly declared the votes to be “meaningless”.

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This is a condescending and mistaken view. Those who turned out to vote on Sunday did not think that they were participating in a farce. People do not wait for hours to vote for something they consider meaningless. And vote they did, in the hundreds of thousands. Supporters of the revolution in Kiev often describe it as a popular uprising, but more people turned out on Sunday in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces than ever demonstrated against the previous government in Maidan Square. Whatever the flaws in the process, this was a very impressive display of popular will.

The Kiev government and its Western backers have been keen to portray the unrest in eastern Ukraine as caused by a small number of discontented people and orchestrated by Moscow. That focus on Russia has allowed them to ignore the real problem: that most of the population of eastern Ukraine regard what they call the ‘Kiev Junta’ as illegitimate. British Foreign Secretary William Hague commented that the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk have “zero credibility in the eyes of the world”. That may be true, but it is beside the point. The votes have credibility in the eyes of the people who count—those who live in those regions.

This week, eastern Ukraine has a system of ‘dual power’ (dvoevlastie) somewhat similar to Russia in 1917. On the one hand, there is the ‘provisional government’ sitting in Kiev, which controls the bureaucracy, but which lacks moral authority and is regularly disobeyed. On the other hand, there are the ‘people’s republics’, which lack any of the formal levers of power but which can claim to have been strongly endorsed by the people in a referendum. This is far from meaningless. Politically, it is of enormous significance.


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Unfortunately, Kiev and the West seem seemed determined to ignore reality and bury their heads in the sand. This will mean the continuation of misguided policies that have only made matters worse. These include an unwillingness to talk with the rebel leadership and a determination to resolve the crisis by force. The latter has so far achieved nothing but killing people. On Friday, troops of the Ukrainian army opened fire on unarmed civilians in Mariupol, killing several. On Sunday, men of the Ukrainian National Guard seized a referendum polling station in Krasnoarmeysk, and when local citizens protested, shot at them, killing two. Politically, the effect has been to further alienate the population. In unleashing its troops against its opponents, the Ukrainian government has acted ineptly, recklessly and irresponsibly. A change in policy is urgently required.

It is not too late to save Ukraine, but the window of opportunity is closing. Sunday’s referendums should serve as a wake-up call making Kiev and the West realize that what is happening in eastern Ukraine is not insurrection by a small number of terrorists taking their orders from Moscow, but true mass discontent with a government that the population does not recognize. The referendums may not have legal force, but the message they send should not be ignored.

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