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Crimea's Technically Flawed Referendum

By David L. Phillips and Carina Perelli

The referendum in Crimea was neither an exercise in democracy, consulting Crimeans on important decisions about their future. Nor was it an effective conflict management tool, distributing power between competing interests. Crimea's referendum was technically flawed. It therefore, lacks credibility based on internationally accepted electoral criteria.

A referendum is typically a solemn act. The people, who are sovereign, are consulted through a process with accepted rules that are widely known, defined and shared by those who are affected by the outcome. Transparency is critical to answering present and future questions such as: Who will represent constituents? What is the fundamental relationship between the governed and those who govern? Should territorial boundaries change?

Elections can also help mitigate conflict. They serve to renegotiate and redistribute power in a society by channeling and transforming the clash of divergent interests into acceptable and peaceful solutions. Rules and procedures are pre-negotiated so they are widely accepted by all parties.

The negotiation and acceptance of rules are critical to a legitimate electoral process. Participants need confidence that the referendum does not establish tyranny of the majority. Disenfranchising or disadvantaging minorities leads to disaffection. Pre-determined outcomes cause resentment. Betraying the aspirations of a significant segment of society can spark violence, rather than foster political dialogue.

When a referendum is properly conducted, both winners and losers accept the outcome. However chastened, losers resign themselves to defeat because of guarantees that their rights will be preserved through constitutional and other means. The state's primary responsibility is human security for all.

The so-called referendum in Crimea was an electoral parody, falling far short of internationally recognized standards for a free and fair vote.

Crimeans were offered only two alternatives: independence or greater autonomy. Maintaining the status quo was not an option.

The question put to vote is usually the subject of lengthy discussions and negotiations among political actors. Rather than a meticulous and inclusive process, Crimea's ballot was organized in just 10 days.

There was no public campaigning to oppose the referendum. The media was controlled and dissenting voices repressed. Crimeans who opposed the referendum were harassed and attacked. Some fled Crimea for their safety.

Large segments of the population were disenfranchised. Crimean authorities rejected Ukraine's registry of voters. The referendum lacked a credible voter list. From the start, it lacked a professional and neutral arbiter.

Identification documents were confiscated by local officials, further eroding integrity of the tally. Voter rolls excluded Tartars living outside Crimea with historic and spiritual claims to their ancestral properties.

We will never know how many voters were excluded -- or included -- in the list of voters. Results indicate that 85 percent of eligible voters participated in a district where ethnic Russians are just 58 percent of the population. Given the boycott of Ukrainians and Tartars, are these numbers credible? What was the basis for official results indicating that 98.6 percent of voters chose independence? The outcome is subject to challenge; percentages are meaningless.

The referendum was a direct violation of the Ukrainian Constitution. Article 73 explicitly requires a nationwide referendum to alter the Ukrainian borders and territory.

National electoral authorities were not allowed to play a role organizing the vote, or to contest its outcome. No national or objective international monitors were allowed to observe conditions of the referendum.

Moreover, the referendum was conducted at gunpoint under the intimidating supervision of Russian troops. It was intended to affirm a pre-determined outcome, manipulated by Russia, to advance its self-interest.

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian poet and political philosopher, once defined elections as "an abuse of statistics." In Crimea's case, it was also an abuse of power. The referendum violated normative standards, undermining the will of Crimeans, as well as the integrity of its sponsors.

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David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Carina Perelli is formerly head of the UN's Electoral Assistance Division.

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