The Passive-Aggressive Donbas

An opinion poll in Ukraine shows results radically different from the latest referendum

The trouble in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has been rumbling since March. The motley crew of – ″people’s governors″ and self-appointed militia have failed to spark a popular uprising, but Sunday’s referenda show that a combination of alienation and indifference may allow the radical minority to get what it wants.

Crimea, as always, was different. There was a more vocal group wanting union with Russia.  In a national Ukrainian opinion poll taken on February 8-18, 41 percent in Crimea said they wanted to see a united Ukrainian-Russian state. This is a different question to independence or annexation, but given radicalisation by events, this may not be far off the real vote in the Crimean referendum on 16 March. Not the 97 percent who supposedly voted for union with Russia on the official figures. One suppressed Russian report stated the real turnout was only 30-50 percent, with 50-60 percent of those voting for joining Russia.

Support for independence in the Donbas has always been lower than in Crimea. The equivalent figure for Donetsk in the February poll was 33 percent  favouring a united state. Another massive opinion poll conducted throughout eastern and southern Ukraine in April showed little support for separatism, but considerable underlying alienation from the new authorities in Kyiv. Only 31 percent thought that new acting President Turchynov was fully or more-or-less legitimate, and only 14 percent in Donetsk. A larger number, 43 percent, thought the national parliament was legitimate, as it still contained MPs the south and east had voted for in 2012, but that fell to 32 percent in Donetsk.

On the other hand, only 20 percent thought Yanukovych was still the legitimate President (only 10 percent ″fully″), and not much more in Donetsk – 33 percent in total, of which 19 percent ″fully″.  Neither set of figures was overwhelming. Most were agnostic or indifferent to all. A similar duality emerged from a question about what happened on the Maidan in Kyiv: 42 percent in the south and east backed the statement that it was a ″citizens’ protest against corruption and the arbitrary dictatorship of Yanukovych″; 46 percent saw the events as an ″armed coup d’état, organized by the opposition with the help of the West″ (both pretty leading questions). The ratio in Donetsk, however, was 20 percent to 70 percent.

But only 12 percent in the east and south, with 18 percent in Donetsk, supported the ″actions of those who seized local government buildings with arms in your region″. Only 33 percent thought Russia was ″justly defending the rights of Russian-speaking citizens in the south-east″, although that figure rose to 47 percent in Donetsk. Only 15.4 percent in the south and east as a whole supported separatism and union with Russia, and 28.5 percent in Donetsk. A majority of 54.1 percent thought Russia was ‘unlawfully interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine’ – 32.9 percent in Donetsk.

That is all a long way from the results claimed in Sunday’s referenda. In Donetsk separatist leaders asserted that 89 percent backed ‘independence’ (the ballot used the Russian word samostoiatel’nost’  , which actually means independence more in the sense of ″self-reliance″) on a 75 percent turnout. The vote in Luhansk was supposedly a 96 percent ″yes″ on a 75 percent turnout. Opponents stayed at home, so turnout was the more significant figure. In Kyiv, Turchynov claimed it was only 30 percent in Donetsk, and 24 percent in Luhansk.

But, if it wasn’t for the passive-aggressive Donbas, the vote wouldn’t have taken place at all. First, as the ebb and flow of Kyiv’s ″anti-terrorist operation″ has shown, the Donbas is contested territory. The separatists control an archipelago of towns and roads, but not the region as a whole. This was the main reason why many observers thought the referenda might not go ahead. But the local authorities allowed general voting. Perhaps because the famous local oligarchs gave their private support.

Second, in some of the worst local fighting, like in Mariupol, many locals seem to have sided with the rebels. Kyiv does not control the narrative, and there is little sympathy for, and much hostility towards, the national army and police.

The separatist leaders are an ugly mixture of marginal loudmouths, criminals and far right radicals. They may be welcomed into Russia’s arms; or Putin’s strategy may be to build up the separatists’ authority to force Kyiv to negotiate with them. But the local population is allowing the tail to wag the dog.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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