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Explainer: How Ukraine's Referendums Broke The Rules

A woman casts her ballot in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in the May 11 referendum called by pro-Russian separatists.
A woman casts her ballot in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in the May 11 referendum called by pro-Russian separatists.
Separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk are claiming success following dual referendums on self-rule held May 11. So far, however, the votes have raised more questions than answers.

Known Knowns:

-- De facto election authorities in both regions claim overwhelming support for self-rule: 89 percent in Donetsk and roughly 96 percent in Luhansk.

-- Kyiv and a number of Western countries, including the United States, have rejected the legitimacy of the votes.

-- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow "respect[s] the expression of will of the people" and urges "civilized" implementation talks between Kyiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

-- The voting did not pass without violence. At least one person was reported killed in the western Donetsk city of Krasnoarmiisk.

Known Unknowns:

-- How many people actually voted. Separatists have claimed at least 70-percent turnout in both regions. Together, Donetsk and Luhansk constitute 15 percent of Ukraine's population, or approximately 6.5 million people. But no precise voter figures have been offered, nor has there been any explanation for how the polling stations' understaffed election commissions were able to tabulate hundreds of thousands of paper ballots so quickly. Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, says turnout was 24 percent in Luhansk, 32 in Donetsk. But again, no specific figures.

Reasons For Doubt:

-- Too easy. Preparations for the referendums took less than a month and, according to separatists, cost less than $1,700.

-- Invisible voters? While separatist and pro-Russian correspondents were reporting crowds and long lines outside polling stations, other journalists in Luhansk and Donetsk documented evidence of low turnout, with some polling stations remaining almost completely empty throughout the day. Elsewhere, separatists failed to meet voter demand. In Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people, organizers opened just eight polling stations, causing long lines and, ultimately, ballot boxes to be placed outside on the pavement unsupervised.

-- Pressure campaigns. Nearly all major polling stations were guarded by men wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons. Many of them cast their votes while carrying their weapons. Some polling stations failed to provide individual booths, forcing voters to mark their ballots in plain view of bystanders. In at least one instance, a man voted "no" but told a reporter he voted "yes," apparently concerned for his personal safety.

-- Voter violations. By Ukrainian law, election commissions in individual polling stations must be staffed by at least nine people. Numerous voter points had as few as three staffers, who openly acknowledged they had no previous experience on election committee work. Some electoral districts had no voting lists, creating the potential for multiple votes and other forms of fraud. At least one man was shown holding multiple ballots and passports, saying he had been "authorized" to vote on behalf of his entire family.

-- Ballot-tampering. In the run-up to the referendum, Ukrainian forces seized a vehicle outside the city of Donetsk carrying armed men transporting weapons and an estimated 100,000 preemptively marked "yes" ballots. Some journalists reported seeing separatists destroying ballots marked with "no" votes. Vasyl Nikitin, a separatist spokesman in Luhansk, claimed members of the Ukrainian National Guard had stolen up to 15,000 ballots, forcing them to print more.

-- Polls indicate otherwise: According to a May 8 survey released by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of eastern Ukrainians want the country to remain united, while just 18 support the idea of secession. The majority holds even when the poll is narrowed to just Russian-speaking easterners -- 58 percent opt for unity, 27 for self-rule.

-- Psychic vision? Ukraine's SBU security service last week released an audio recording of what it said was a phone conversation between a Russian ultranationalist, Aleksandr Barkashov, and the head of a separatist Donbass group, Dmytro Boitsov. Boitsov purportedly expressed concern that the regions couldn't pull off a successful referendum without military backup; Barkashov responded by saying, "Just write whatever you want. Write 99 percent! What, are you going to actually walk around and collect papers?"

Why We'll Never Know For Sure:

-- Few impartial witnesses. No international election observers, not even Russian ones, were present during the referendums. A number of journalists reported being harassed and even beaten outside polling stations; in some instances, photographers were forbidden to enter voter stations.

What Residents Of Eastern Ukraine May Be Asking Themselves Today:

-- What they were voting for. The paper ballots asked voters if they supported the "act of self-rule." However, voters interviewed by RFE/RL appeared to have different interpretations of what that entailed. Some said self-rule meant integration with Russia. Others said it meant remaining part of Ukraine, but with greater autonomy, a la Crimea, pre-annexation. Still others believed they were voting for independence from both Ukraine and Russia.

-- What happens next. Various self-declared separatist authorities have already declared contradictory intentions to: form governing bodies and military authorities; remain within either a "unitarian" or "federative" Ukraine; eject Ukrainian troops as "foreign" interlopers; or hold a second round of referendums on joining Russia. Some separatists have also accused Kyiv of seeking to "annex" pro-Ukrainian districts within Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

-- And after that? Possible long-term scenarios include the regions becoming frozen conflict regions with parallel Ukrainian and separatist structures, or Moscow stirring violence as a pretext to finally cross the border with peacekeeping troops.