Ukraine's Secession Referendum Proceeds As Planned — But This Won't Necessarily Be Another Crimea

Pro-Russian separatists in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk held a hastily-organized referendum on secession from Ukraine on Sunday, and early vote counts suggest that it passed overwhelmingly. At least, that’s what the pro-secession activists who held the vote are saying. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, isn’t convinced — perhaps because it confiscated 100,000 “yes” ballots a day before a single vote was even cast.

After seizing several government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian secessionists announced a May 11th referendum on independence from Ukraine. Official results won’t be released for a few days, but the separatists who held the vote sounded confident on Sunday that the referendum would pass.

“We are very happy,” a volunteer at a voting booth told Al Jazeera. “We are freeing ourselves from those fascists running Kiev who do not understand our culture, our heroes and our mentality.”

The story sounds just a tad bit familiar to anyone who saw what happened in Crimea in March: Armed pro-Russian secessionists demand independence; a referendum on secession is held; the referendum passes, and several days later, Russia announces that it’s annexed the region.

However, there was at least one unexpected development this time around as Russian President Vladimir Putin, after masterminding the Crimean annexation, denounced the referendum in Eastern Ukraine and said it should be postponed. Ukraine’s interim president scoffed at that, calling it “hot air,” but it does throw into question how much support Putin will throw behind the secession attempt if Ukraine’s government continues to resist, which it has pledged to do.

Further tarnishing the integrity of the vote was the announcement, one day before voters headed to the polls, that the Ukrainian government confiscated 100,000 referendum ballots that were marked “yes” from armed pro-Russians who reportedly had backing from Moscow.

It’s unclear what happens from here, but considering that Putin also expressed tacit support for the Ukrainian presidential election planned for May 25th, secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk may have a harder time joining Russia than their comrades in Crimea did a couple of months ago.