The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russian government agency reveals fraudulent nature of the Crimean referendum results

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The Russian government’s claims that the March 16 referendum in Crimea resulted in a 96.7% vote in favor of annexation were always extremely dubious. But now, as Paul Roderick Gregory of Forbes points out, a report by Russia’s official Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights suggests that the real numbers were far different from those previously claimed:

The website of the “President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights” posted a blog that was quickly taken down as if it were toxic radioactive waste. According to the Council’s report about the March referendum to annex Crimea, the turnout was a maximum 30%. And of these, only half voted for annexation – meaning only 15 percent of Crimean citizens voted for annexation.
The fate of Crimea, therefore, was decided by the 15 percent of Crimeans, who voted in favor of unification with Russia (under the watchful eye of Kalashnikov-toting soldiers).

Although the report appears to be absent from the English-Language Council website linked by Forbes, it is still available at the Council’s Russian-language website here. The report states that it is based on interviews with numerous Crimean officials, experts, civil society leaders, and ordinary citizens. Gregory has somewhat misinterpreted the figures there, which nonetheless are far different from those previously claimed by the Russian government. Here is my translation of the relevant passage of the report:

In the opinion of virtually all the experts and citizens interviewed:
– The vast majority of the citizens of Sevastopol voted in favor of unification with Russia in the referendum (50-80%); in Crimea, various data show that 50-60% voted for unification with Russia, with a turnout of 30-50%.

50 to 60% of a 30-50% turnout suggests that only about 15 to 30% of eligible voters actually voted for annexation. Moreover, the low turnout rate, combined with evidence of intimidation and violence by pro-Russia forces, strongly suggests that many opponents of annexation chose not to vote out of fear. This does not definitively prove that annexation lacked majority support. It is possible that a fair vote might still have led to a narrow majority in favor of annexation. Still, the Council report provides further evidence that the official results cannot be trusted and that the real distribution of opinion in Crimea is at least much more evenly divided than Russia claims.

For reasons I outlined here, Russia’s annexation of Crimea would be illegitimate even if it did enjoy the support of a majority of the population. But the possible absence of such support further undermines the already weak moral and legal case for Russia’s actions.

The Council report also discusses a number of troubling developments in Crimea since the Russian occupation began. For example, it states that the new authorities in Crimea have decided to “liquidate” the pro-Ukrainian Kiev Patriarchate Orthodox church in the region, details the persecution of Crimean Tatar groups opposed to Russia rule, and notes that Crimean journalists fear the “numerous restrictions” on freedom of speech and press imposed by Russian law.

It should be noted that the Council has long been one of the few Russian government agencies willing to criticize the government on human rights issues, but more recently many of the more liberal members of Council have resigned or been forced out.