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Crimea, a "referendum" prior to the annexation, 2014
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Just what dictators do Russian-staged ‘referendums’ on Ukrainian soil pursue an illusion of legitimacy

Source: Meduza
Crimea, a "referendum" prior to the annexation, 2014
Crimea, a "referendum" prior to the annexation, 2014
Evgeny Feldman

Today, Russian-organized “referendums” began in several occupied Ukrainian territories. Only a week ago, the once-bruited idea of these “referendums” was officially, and indefinitely, “put on hold.” On Sept. 20, this situation was reversed. The “people’s councils” of the self-proclaimed “DNR” and “LNR,” as well as the “military-civilian administrations” of the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, all announced identical decisions to conduct “referendums.” These are generally understood to be mock procedures, meant to justify Russia’s planned annexation of those parts Ukraine.

In Zaporizhzhia, votes will be collected by special police-accompanied “brigades,” who will visit the households. Yevhen Balytskyi, the Russian-appointed head of the region’s administration, chalked up this plan to safety precautions.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made clear that these “referendums” would have no effect at all on Ukraine’s efforts to regain control of its occupied territories. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged residents not to cooperate with the invaders, and not to take part in Russian-orchestrated “referendums,” adding that that such actions might qualify as “endangering Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability,” punishable by up to five years in prison. “Once again, I strongly advise the residents: do not take a [Russian] passport; do not go to the referendums; do not cooperate with invaders; if possible, leave.”

The West is already in agreement to consider the “cynical” Russian-staged “referendums” on Ukrainian soil entirely fictitious. Their supposed results will make no difference to the current policies of Ukraine’s international partners.

On Sept. 21, Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization in Russia. In his spoken address, he reminded “the collective West” and Ukraine itself of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu then said that Russia plans to draft 300,000 new troops from its current military reserve of 25 million.

Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin suggest that Moscow is not concerned about making the referendums appear legitimate: “there is no such expectation.” What, then, is the purpose of these “referendums”? Our analysis might surprise you.

The Russian law understands a referendum to be “a form of direct expression of the people’s will,” appropriate for deciding major questions on federal and local levels. Of course, the law — even in Russia — makes no provisions for conducting referendums on foreign soil.

A legal referendum is a decision made directly by the voters. This means that the results of a referendum are binding. The government and the people alike must implement whatever has been decided by referendum.

The Russian 2020 constitutional amendment vote, for example, was not a referendum. Those amendments were voted on in both parliament chambers, and then signed by the President. No general vote was necessary — but it took place all the same, clearly for political reasons. A decision had been made — that decision being, first and foremost, a freeze on Putin’s presidential term limit. Still, a demonstration of public support was wanted, and the vote took place. This kind of political process is sometimes referred to as “acclamation” — following the Roman and Byzantine models of greeting a new emperor with cheering and boisterous applause.

A polling station for Russia's 2020 constitutional amendment vote, Tver.
Evgeny Feldman

This brings up a concept often used interchangeably with “referendum,” but actually different — namely, the concept of a plebiscite. In simplest terms, their difference boils down to the fact that a plebiscite’s outcome is not binding — that is, no one is obligated to implement the results of a plebiscite vote. In this way, a plebiscite resembles a special kind of opinion poll.

Both referendums and plebiscites are the tools of a direct democracy — something that is hard to implement, but easy to manipulate.

What dictators like are not referendums but plebiscites. But even a plebiscite must meet certain criteria to be legitimate.

Here, the “referendums” taking place on occupied Ukrainian territories differ even from a typical authoritarian plebiscite. To conduct a so-called “referendum” on the territory of another country violates the principle of state sovereignty, which Putin himself supposedly holds so dear. This, however, did not stop him from annexing the Crimea, also by means of a staged “referendum.” The Crimean “referendum” remains unlawful by international standards, and the Crimean peninsula retains its status of occupied Ukrainian territory. (An earlier issue of our Signal newsletter discussed this in detail.)

Authoritarian regimes like to preserve an appearance of a working democracy. In that setting, plebiscites are a useful instrument of stifling the internal struggles among the elites. They help prevent government coups. They demoralize and fracture the opposition. Consider this list: Bonaparte, Napoleon III, Hitler, Mussolini, Asad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Nazarbayev. What do these figures have in common? They’re all dictators, but that’s not all. All of them carried out plebiscites in their countries. Statistically, every fourth authoritarian leader does just that.

The typical result of an authoritarian plebiscite is, predictably, unequivocal victory. According to the Swiss Centre for Research on Direct Democracy, 876 plebiscites were conducted between 1945 and 2005, with autocratic leaders receiving, on average, 70 percent support with 77.3 percent voter turnout. What helps in achieving these results is the toolkit that includes propaganda, censorship, and a variety of manipulations and falsifications in the course of voting.

It might appear that referendums and plebiscites are intended to make a society more democratic, or to consolidate the vote. New research reverses this picture, showing that plebiscites are mainly used to suppress the opposition and freedom of thought. Plebiscites dominated by a conformist majority demoralize the dissidents and the critics of the regime, dampen protest, and assure everyone that nothing can be changed. Following a typical plebiscite, law enforcement systems “tighten the bolts,” and the state becomes more repressive than before.

More on this topic

‘A ritual with a known outcome’ Behind the scenes of the Kremlin’s sham 'referendums'

More on this topic

‘A ritual with a known outcome’ Behind the scenes of the Kremlin’s sham 'referendums'

Political theorists used to think that a plebiscite legitimizes an authoritarian regime. If legitimacy meant nothing more than an absence of organized opposition, that might have been true. Russian political theorists often say that the effect of a plebiscite is to create an illusion of unity. Current research suggests that, in authoritarian states, electoral processes of any kind not so much consolidate the public around a leader as simply lessen the leader’s public disapproval.

What a plebiscite does is affect the dynamics among the ruling elites. A democratic head of state derives political power from her or his electoral success. In authoritarian contexts, state leaders are more interested in strengthening the consensus within the elites. Victories in referendums, too, are aimed primarily at impressing the elites and consolidating the status quo. They can help push through unpopular legislation, and to reduce friction at the top.

As a result, regimes with fractious and competitive elites are the ones that favor plebiscites. When they sense that their stability is under threat, personalist autocracies like Putin’s Russia conduct a “referendum.”

Even in an autocracy, an election must preserve at least an illusion of competition and the presence of alternatives. This is why not only organized opposition but also independent candidates often figure in elections. This makes elections quite inconvenient to dictators and autocrats. The format of a referendum solves that problem. The yes-or-no structure of a referendum effectively leaves the opposition without any means of expressing its true wishes. A referendum leaves the dissidents without a voice.

A Moscow protest against the freeze on Putin's presidential term limit, 2020.
Evgeny Feldman

What are, then, Putin’s motives for conducting the current sham “referendums”? Meduza’s political analyst Andrey Pertsev sees several factors that might play a part. Putin’s first motive, Pertsev thinks, is to legitimize the mobilization, which he sees as the necessary condition for victory in Ukraine. (Being necessary does not make it sufficient.)

Second, Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive under Kharkiv worries the Kremlin and various members of the ruling elite. They fear that the Ukrainian army will regain control in other occupied territories, too. Kyiv will then come back to punish the collaborators, who will see themselves as “left behind” by Russia, disproving the propaganda motto that effectively started the war.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s mid-September summit in Samarkand, Putin understood that China and Turkey cannot be expected to stand by him in the war with Ukraine. A number of state leaders advised him to stop the war as quickly as possible. In that context, the abrupt mobilization and “referendums” may be a reaction to the cool atmosphere at the summit.

It remains mysterious why Putin would go through the motions of the several “referendums,” instead of annexing the regions he wants by force and without preliminaries. Pertsev speculates that Putin does believe — or wants to believe — in the public’s support for his conquest. What illusion of consent is manufactured by means of the state’s budget, institutions, and instruments, is experienced by Putin as real. What’s odd is that he is the master builder of a Potemkin village that deludes him.

Andrey Pertsev expects that the self-proclaimed “LNR” and “DNR” will support the Russian annexation with 80 percent of the “vote.” The percentage of their residents who currently support joining the Russian Federation is unknown; but as of last May, less than a quarter of the population carried Russian passports. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Pertsev thinks, may produce more modest results — 75 percent, perhaps.

Regardless of what numbers might be conjured by the organizers of these “referendums” on Ukrainian territory, what matters is their absolute unlawfulness.

Kremlin is moved by the same motive that inspires authoritarian plebiscites anywhere in the world: to produce an illusion of public consent, and to demoralize those members of Russia’s own elites who do not support the war and the annexations. Putin wants to show them that they’re going against the will of the people.

This article was first published in Signal, Meduza’s Russian-language newsletter on key ideas, concepts, and memes frequently used in connection with Russian politics, power, and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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