Real referenda: Putin’s worst nightmare

  The unintentional hilarity of Russian comments on the Scottish referendum – and what it reveals.


Some of the Russian comments on the Scottish referendum result have been unintentionally hilarious. Observers basically complained that the count was conducted in the open, in one case in an “aircraft hangar”, rather than safe behind closed doors. Experts from the Donetsk People’s Republic spotted obvious falsification.

Apart from providing some welcome light relief after such a fraught campaign, this tells us three important things.

First, the Kremlin was locked into expecting a ‘yes’. Russia’s view of Europe sees only a dysfunctional EU and sick nation-states being overthrown from below. Russia claims to be a conservative power, but not in the nineteenth century Concert of Europe-sense with the Tsar standing firm with other rulers. Modern Russia stands for the opposite – the Kremlin hides behind the Russia Today logo of ‘Question More’ to promote any minority force that challenges existing power structures. Matryoshka separatism suits Russian realpolitik in northern, western and southern Europe just as much as in eastern Europe.

Second, Russia’s propaganda methods stand ever more starkly exposed. Official Russian ‘comment’ is never informed opinion. It has nothing to do with what actually happened. Russia is not interested in a great free debate ending in a turnout of 84.5 percent, because it does not understand the process. But we don’t understand the Russian process either, as it not just divorced from, but needs no connection with reality. The point is simply to throw an opinion out into the echo chamber and see what happens.

Third, you will always find truth in the mirror. The Russians doth protest too much. Fraud is what they do, so it is what they claim to spot. So, by protesting so loudly and inappropriately, they only shine a light on themselves.

So now the boot should be on the other foot. Russia has been trying to compare what was happening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine with what was happening in Scotland. It’s all the same; all part of the same process. Well, it’s not. The West should indeed talk about Scotland to Russia, but in order to emphasise what a real referendum looks like. The Crimean ‘referendum’ should not slip into official discourse as some kind of fait accompli. The two referenda in the Donbas in May have no relevance to the current situation; they did not establish the rebels as some kind of legitimate power.

Russia can’t even remember its own fraud. The Crimean Tatars are now being targeted for their disloyalty, after boycotting both the ‘referendum’ in March and local Crimean elections in September. Except the official Kremlin line was that 83.1 percent voted in March, and 96.7 percent voted ‘yes’.

Russia’s promotion of separatism should not be measured by the so-called ‘Kosovo precedent’, but by the ‘Scottish precedent’. This is what real democracy looks like.

Andrew Wilson’s new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West is published by Yale University Press on 5 October.


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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