The dubious Crimean referendum on annexation by Russia

March 17

To the surprise of absolutely no one, yesterday’s Crimean referendum on secession from Crimea and joining Russia resulted in a “yes” vote. What is, perhaps, somewhat striking is that the official results state that an incredible 96.7% of the voters voted yes. A 96.7% is almost never seen on anything at all controversial outside of places like North Korea – or, of course, the old Soviet Union, which Russian President Vladimir Putin served as a high-ranking KGB officer.

It is highly improbable that 96.7% would have voted yes in a genuinely free vote, since the Crimean population includes large Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities that are overwhelmingly opposed to a return to Russian rule. Crimean officials are also reporting a high 83% turnout. If that figure is correct, it makes it unlikely that the 96.7% result is explicable by selective turnout. If, on the other hand, officials are lying about the turnout, they could be engaging in deception about the vote margin as well.

Thus, it is likely that the referendum result was “achieved” by fraud and/or intimidation – tactics which the Putin regime had previously resorted to in Russia itself. The likelihood of fraud is also suggested by the fact that even some Russian journalists were forcibly prevented from observing the vote count and had their camera smashed by officials.

Given Putin’s repression of opposition in Russia itself, Crimean residents inclined to vote “no” might have been scared into voting “yes” or just staying home. Even if Putin was not actually planning to punish those who voted against annexation, prudent Crimeans had no way of knowing that, and might understandably not be willing to accept even a small risk of punishment or official harrassment once Russian rule officially returns.

Nonetheless, it is certainly possible that a majority of Crimeans really do favor annexation by Russia. Some 60 percent of the population consists of ethnic Russians, many of whom are nationalistic and dislike the Ukrainian government. The fact that Putin’s Crimean minions have likely resorted to fraud or intimidation does at least suggest that they were not confident of getting the result they wanted in a free vote.

For reasons I outlined here, the annexation of Crimea by Russia would be indefensible even if it did enjoy the support of the majority of the local population. But the fact that the referendum is likely tainted by fraud or intimidation further undermines the legitimacy of Russia’s policy.

UPDATE: This Russian-language Ukrainian news report states that a Crimean Tatar leader has claimed that there was extensive “falsification” of the referendum vote by the new pro-Russian authorities in Crimea.

UPDATE #2: Brad Friedman of Brad Blog has written a lengthy response to this post, but ultimately provides no real evidence that the 96.7% result is at all plausible. Perhaps his best argument is that many opponents of annexation by Russia may have boycotted the vote. This may be true. But it is inconsistent with the Crimean authorities’ claim that there was a very high 83% turnout. And if the authorities are lying about the turnout, their claims are about the vote margin are also difficult to credit. In addition, 96.7% is an implausible figure even given a substantial boycott.

In response to the problem of intimidation, Friedman cites the paucity of reports of Russian troops directly intimidating people at polling places. This ignores the reality that the really intimidating aspect of the situation for potential opponents of annexation is that Crimea is now under the control of a regime with an extensive record of persecuting political dissenters. The possibility of persecution or harrassment after the fact is in itself intimidating, regardless of whether troops directly intimidated people at polling places or not. Friedman himself quotes some opponents of annexation who say they stayed home out of fear (in the context of claiming that the vote margin may be explained by opponents staying home rather than by fraud). Friedman makes much of press accounts indicating that most of the ballots in transparent bins were marked with a vote in favor of annexation. But this, of course, is entirely consistent with opponents of the referendum either staying home or voting in favor of annexation out of fear.

Finally, it’s worth noting that since I wrote the original post, more evidence has emerged of both fraud and intimidation. As I noted above, none of this necessarily proves that a majority of Crimea’s population does not support Russian annexation. Quite possibly they do. But the 96.7% vote margin is almost certainly bogus.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. "He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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Eugene Volokh | March 17