The Crimean referendum has reopened old debates about how territories can legitimately secede. Most of these debates focus on whether the referendum itself is legitimate and accurately conveys the will of the people. A condition imposed by the U.S. government and others is the presence of impartial election monitors. The research on election monitoring, however, does not offer much hope that this would improve the quality of the referendum. Indeed, it should be obvious that the Russian government is not organizing the referendum primarily to convince the international community that the annexation is legitimate (or if they are, they are not trying very hard). A decisive victory will communicate Russian strength, not Russian righteousness.
The reason that election monitoring is unlikely to improve the quality of the referendum is not because monitors are unable to detect fraud. Susan Hyde and others have demonstrated that monitors are quite good at finding deception at the polling stations they visit.
The problem is that there are many ways to manipulate an election. For example, Chris Blattman reports on a new paper, which shows that politicians simply relocate fraud from polling stations where monitors are present to places where they are not.
Even more troublesome, Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno find evidence that high-quality election monitoring induces governments to resort to tactics that may have long-term negative implications for democracy. Rather than simply stuff ballot boxes, which is easy to identify, governments rig courts and administrative oversight bodies or suppress the media. Indeed, Simpser and Donno find that high-quality election monitoring is correlated with subsequent declines in the rule of law, administrative performance and media freedom.
One reason why election monitors are attractive to pseudo-democrats is that they help legitimate the outcome of elections in the eyes of foreigners. As Emily Beaulieu and Susan Hyde point out, the worst outcome for opponents of a regime is to participate in an election that is rigged but will be internationally certified. They show how this has increased incentives for opposition parties to boycott elections altogether.
The news about election monitoring is not all bad. Daniela Donno shows in her new book that when international actors are willing to enforce findings of fraudulent elections, then they can improve the quality of subsequent elections. However, enforcement is selective and somewhat rare. The prospects for enforcement in this case are not good. It seems like many European governments are quite eager to find a way out of having to impose costly (to both Russian and themselves) sanctions. The guise of a referendum with some kind of international stamp of approval may offer just that.
In this sense, it is somewhat surprising that the Russian government has not taken more efforts to jump through the hoops the international community has constructed for getting an election declared legitimate. They could have delayed the referendum a month or two, invited in the international community, and most likely emerged victorious. Most people would still have questioned the results but it would have offered the European Union a way out of having to impose sanctions.
Instead, they designed a referendum without a no option, on such short notice that adequate administrative preparations are virtually impossible, and with the coercive presence of Russian troops. The analogies with the Scottish referendum are utterly unconvincing. Anyone who argues that this will be a free and fair poll will be rightly ridiculed. There is no guise.
As Alberto Simpser argues in his most recent book, election fraud is not just about winning on election day. A decisive victory is also a way for a government to impress upon the public and the international community that it is in complete control. This referendum is not an attempt to provide a guise of legitimacy to the annexation but to convey an image of Russian strength.
Here’s a summary of our posts on Ukraine and here is the full list of all our previous posts:
Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests