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Ukraine on the way to fall apart?

Donetsk regionOn Sunday, May 11 a referendum on independence was held by the separatists in the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine - a next step in the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. That the referendum was held even though Russian President Vladimir Putin called for it to be suspended can also be a sign that the influence of Russia on the rebels is weakening. Is there still time for a peaceful solution?

 

The referendum was organized in a rush. There was no up-to-date electoral register. Voters could even put there names on the voters list while picking up their ballots. Due to the rush, there was no control and double voting was possible. Independent observers were not allowed at polling stations. Journalist who had been in the region gave reports of double voting and fraud. Several people see the referendum as a scam. This accusation was fuelled by the publication of voting results only two hours after polling stations closed. The self-proclaimed governor Pavel Gubarev claimed that turnout was 75% and that nearly 90% voted for independence. That's doubtful.  A limited independent exit poll gave not only a lower number, but showed that not all understood what they where voting for. Some thought they’d voted for independence, while others thought they'd voted for the federalization of Ukraine. Most supporters of the status quo did not vote at all. So even if you give them the advantage of the doubt, this referendum is far from providing any legitimacy for a separation.

 

After the referendum, the leader of the separatists, Denis Pushilin, claimed that this is a clear mandate and that Russia should “absorb” the Donetsk region. He sees no further need for the second referendum that was originally planned for a week later, May 18. The second referendum was supposed to be about going further as an independent state or joining Russia.

Pushilin (source: dailynewsen.com)

The referendum has to be seen as part of the ongoing information war between the different sides. It does not provide a democratic legitimacy for declaring independence of the Donetsk region, but it will be used in the political game to pressure Kiev for further concessions. It is also another step in the separation of the Donetsk region from Ukraine as it makes the divide between the separatists and the unionist and their supporters bigger and deeper.

Despite that Putin had called for a suspension of the referendum, Russia was quick in greeting the results with demands that Kiev has to respond to them quickly. The government in Kiev, the EU and the U.S. all reject the referendum and its outcome as illegitimate.

 

All this does not help, it only contributes to a further escalation. Nevertheless, there is still time for a peaceful solution. There have been some hopeful signs over the last days - e.g. that Russia tried to get the separatists to postpone the referendum and today the government in Kiev finally started today round-table talks. But a real dialogue requires more steps to be taken.

First of all the government in Kiev has to accept that there are serious concerns in the Eastern part of the country. The referendum might be a bogus but it gives also the signal that people in the Eastern parts are concerned and feel not supported by the government in Kiev. Furthermore Kiev has to put federalization of Ukraine as a serious option on the table . And last but not least: no matter what Kiev thinks of the actions of  the separatists, the separatists have to be included in the talks. They are currently not. But there is no solution that does not involve all parties.

On the other hand, more pressure on Russia is needed from the West. Russia has to become serious about finding a solution. Conitnously denoucing the governmennt in Kiev as fascist does not help. And nurturing the sepratists further will only result in them being less inclined to listen to Moscow. But it is not only Kiev that must talk to the separatists - the separatists have to agree to talks as well. This will not be possible without having Russia on board. Only if the talks involve Kiev, the separatists, Russia and the EU - and the OSCE as independent observer - the talks can be seen as serious and only then an agreement for a peaceful solution can be possible. This requires all parties in Ukraine to take a step back and to set aside emotions.

For May 25th presidential elections are scheduled. Talks have to result at least in a democratic and peaceful election that is held in all parts of the country. Otherwise this election will also be only one more step closer to Ukraine falling apart.

 

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