Early this month during one of those evening sessions when I have been asked to meet diplomats from sovereign missions passing through Odessa so they can empty my head of my thoughts, impression, predictions etc regarding the city and beyond in relation to the current and rapidly unfolding and unraveling situation, the subject of referendums arose – unsurprisingly.
Obviously being an active advocate of democracy I am all in favour of referendums – in theory and in practice – as long as they are carried out with clear and unambiguous language and in circumstances that are free and fair clearly identifying the issues and causal effects of any outcomes publicly.
If they are not, then predicted results can fail to materialise.
This particular diplomat was clearly also not in favour of any referendums being held within Ukraine under the current circumstances.
Needless to say this discussion was occurring at a time when The Kremlin was pushing for a referendum on federalisation (to the point whereby federal oblasts would have control over their own foreign policy) and my opinion on federalising Ukraine in the current environment was well documented. months ago – and the threats I then identified now loom large.
At the time the current Ukrainian authorities were having none of it either – but that then robust stance has now withered.
Nobody will be surprised if at today’s meeting between the US, EU, Ukraine and Russia sees an announcement of a referendum on federalisation – and the wording of that referendum The Kremlin will no doubt want a hand in drafting, either directly or by proxy through its political vassals in Ukraine.
What harm can it do after all? We are consistently told that Ukraine is far more united now after threats and interference by The Kremlin than ever before.
As I like polls that show the questions asked, the methodology employed and a good amount of detail normally omitted by politicians and media alike – and I have written about the care needed with opinion polls before – I will use this poll simply as it is far more transparent than many others recently quoted in the media.
Now firstly it has to be acknowledged that this opinion poll reflects only the mood of the snap-shot in time that it was conducted in – this time last month. Events in Ukraine are currently changing by the hour and that may have an effect on the exact same poll if taken today – hopefully increasing the dark blue segment.
I will crudely add the percentages “Remain a unitary country” together with “Remain a unitary country but without Crimea” together – the result being 74% in favour of unity and dismissive of federalisation.
Those within the political science arena would consider a nation a consolidated democracy if that figure were applied to an opinion poll where no other form of governance was acceptable.
So what could go wrong?
Well we begin with a foundation of 16% who would vote against unity. We then have another 10% “difficult to answer/no answer” whom it would appear are there to be influenced one way or another or simply wouldn’t vote.
However, we are asking the question “what could go wrong?”
Thus, worst case scenario, 26% vote against unity as a base figure. A significant minority – particularly if consolidated in a certain region. Problematic.
The Kremlin propaganda machine also kicks into overdrive once any Ukrainian referendum is formally announced - naturally – pushing the benefits of a federal republic rather than a united republic, without raising the underlying reasons for its preference – The then ease of formal bite-sized chunks presented to it.
We must also acknowledge that votes are bought and sold in Ukraine. There are many poor people. Given the right financial incentive, votes can and will be bought to be cast a certain way. If The Kremlin were to offer $500 per vote – as they are allegedly paying per day for people to act as they are asked in eastern Ukraine currently when seizing buildings – how much will it make available to buy voters in Ukraine when returned control over Ukraine is the prize?
Quite clearly to gain victory or control over Ukraine no matter the cost – either spent or inflicted – seems to be The Kremlin plan. The time scale open ended, the goal set.
So to spend $50 million? $100 million? $200 million? A lot of votes for that money and a lot of people are poor enough to take it. Peanuts in the scheme of things from The Kremlin point of view for the prize on offer.
Next we have to acknowledge that people will be instructed to vote a certain way – or be sacked – by certain employers who will benefit from a federal Ukraine. They may not necessarily have any desire to head into the Russian orbit, but they have a strong desire to keep the regional hierarchical fiefdoms in place, and they may very well be dismantled by a Kyiv leadership if a strongly united Ukraine is behind it.
Thereafter there will be undue pressure at polling stations regardless of observers being present – and should The Kremlin lose this referendum grievously, then having them declared flawed is in its interests – particularly as any referendum vote will occur when voting for a new president – both votes would then be perceived and/or declared flawed.
Then there is the vote count itself. If you can buy, intimidate or unduly influence voters, the same can be said for the vote counters.
The initial 26% of voters against a unified Ukraine now begins to rise – perhaps considerably – and particularly in certain regions and amongst certain demographic groups. Could it add another 10%? Possibly so.
It is a stretch to imagine a complete turnaround to a point where a federalisation vote wins – but does it have to?
If the vote returns a 35% – 40% favouring federalism after all the shenanigans, that is a huge minority – and a minority figure that The Kremlin would use time and time again as justification to continually interfere in Ukrainian affairs either directly or by way of sponsored unrest every time Ukraine strays from the approved Kremlin path.
In short, not only does a unity verses federalism vote not make the matter disappear once it is held, unless it results in 80 – 85% in favour of a unified replublic – it could well make matters worse if it doesn’t.
After all, what percentage of the population are demanding a vote on federalism now and very possibly forcing the issue as Kremlin vassals (wittingly or otherwise)? When/if the vote goes against them, we are to expect them to just accept it and their Kremlin backers too? In a democratic and stable nation naturally we do – but Ukraine is barely democratic, rule of law is hit and miss at best, non-existent at worst, and the nation is certainly unstable in the current circumstances.
Remaining with the worst case scenario, following what would hopefully be a crushing defeat of the federalist idea and an irrefutable united Ukraine be the result, The Kremlin may change its tactics a little – for its goal will not have changed whatsoever.
Military invasion? Perhaps, but perhaps not as likely as other alternatives as economic pressures, scuttling international deals whenever the opportunity arises for Ukraine etc are obvious instruments.
One such alternative, not wanting to be seen to abandon those who support(ed) The Kremlin vision of a Ukrainian future, may see the “organic domestic birth” of entities such as PIRA or ETA in certain regions carrying out acts against infrastructure – or worse – with, of course, denied external assistance. A stable, democratic and secure Ukraine is not in The Kremlin plans unless it is one that is under the control of The Kremlin.
With people as poor as they are, it would perhaps now be a very good idea to begin to offer reasonably large, head turning sums ($1000 or so), to buy back weaponry stolen and/or appropriated during recent incidents and get them off the streets. Of course it doesn’t solve any problems – but it is at least seen to be attempting to solve problems.
So, questions for the day – How much public opinion can be swayed toward federalism by The Kremlin machinery at the expense of a united Ukraine? How large will a significant minority be? How will that significant minority be used by The Kremlin thereafter? What will Ukraine be able to do after the vote that it cannot do now to combat it? How to avoid my scenarios above?
Now I am going to see if the federalist element in Odessa manages to bring the city centre to a standstill at 1600 hours today as they plan, or whether it will be an unmitigated disaster – back tomorrow!