05/12/2014 02:25 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Beware of the Putin-Rendum


In early November, every four years, Americans go to the polls to elect a president. This is an integral part of a checks-and-balances system on which America is built, but much of the world doesn't have that luxury. Such simplicity, predictability, and basic guarantee of voice to the ordinary citizens, those are the things many people crave, but few have access to. This year we -- the Ukrainians -- have fought for our dignity, for our right to self-determination, for our right to responsible government. And the elections, which are scheduled for May 25, are far more than an opportunity to choose a president. It is an anchor on which our future hinges.

Our country is populated by many nationalities, but ethnic violence was never a problem at a scale where it claimed lives, until it was exported from the North. We've surrendered our nuclear arsenal, third largest in the world, in exchange for security guarantees. Unthinkably, Russia, a party to this agreement, which had pledged to protect our territorial integrity, has instead violated it. In such dire circumstances, our leaders and our military have shown incomparable restraint. The aggressor, not a nation defending its land, fired the first shot that took a life of our officer. To the dismay of many Ukrainians in Crimea who felt betrayed, we called back the troops and prevented escalation of violence on the peninsula at the expense of losing our territory, even if only temporarily. The U.S. and the UK were parties to the security agreement as well, and it must be said, that had we chosen to shoot back at the Russian troops, the policy choices for our allies would've been much more stark.

A peaceful nation, we want good relations with all of our neighbors. Our interim president, our prime minister, and our minister of foreign affairs have reached out to their counterparts in Moscow on many occasions, but to no avail. If Kremlin genuinely wished us well, it would have supported our desire to end this transition period and move forward as a nation led by a popularly elected president. In other words, the hope for peace and security at this very difficult time rests on the elections. On May 25, we aren't just choosing a leader, we are trying to close a page in a chapter of our history when our country was run by "crooks and thieves" and treated as a pawn in our neighbors' geopolitical games.

As much as the goal of the presidential election is inclusion, de-escalation of violence and healing of societal divisions that have been created during the era of kleptocratic governments and aggravated by Russia's meddling, the goal of the sham poll, which is expected to take place in a few towns of Eastern Ukraine, is the exact opposite. The use of the word "referendum" to describe what was scheduled for May 11 is not just a misnomer, but an insult to the democratic act this term is meant to convey. I would suggest we all use a new term, putin-rendum, to avoid the confusion and call a spade a spade. As was the case in Crimea, the illegitimacy of the putin-rendum goes far beyond the absence of legal grounds for it. The objective of this sham poll is the root of the problem. A putin-rendum does not aspire to determine the will of the people. Its goal is to create another lie-based argument for Kremlin to spin. The world will surely be able to decipher the ploy, when they look at the data by Pew Research: ponder the hostage-taking of the OSCE international observers and other terrorist tactics used by the pro-Kremlin militants; and consider Saturday's incident where separatists in possession of 100,000 ballots already marked "in favor of secession" were captured.

With the cynicism and duplicity of the May 7 statement, Mr. Putin has outdone himself. This was the window of opportunity to condemn the violence, in line with the commitment Kremlin made in Geneva, and at the very least, create an appearance of goodwill. Russia's president, however, chose to focus on a putin-rendum trying to legitimize this farce by reference. I hope no one will fall into this trap again validating a sham-poll by the use of Putin's terminology for it. May 25 is when all of Ukraine will exercise its basic democratic right, and I call on our friends in Russia and around the world to focus on a real vote, and not at today's circus.