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How does the separatist referendum affect Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election?

May 12, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Separatists in Eastern Ukraine declared they are ready to join Russia in Sunday’s secession referendum, but no government has yet recognized the move. Gwen Ifill talks to Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy for analysis on how it affects Ukraine’s attempts at rebuilding its government and whether there is any chance for negotiation.

GWEN IFILL: For more on Sunday’s voting and what it means for the future of Ukraine, I’m joined by Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Nadia Diuk, vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Steven Pifer, was what happened in Ukraine, in Eastern Ukraine this weekend, was it legal?

STEVEN PIFER, The Brookings Institution: Certainly not by Ukrainian law.

And the referendum is not recognized by anybody, other than perhaps the Russian government. First of all, the basic — the question that was asked was very ambiguous. Were people being asked to vote for independence, to join Russia, or…

GWEN IFILL: What was the question?

STEVEN PIFER: The question was, do you agree on an act of self-standing for Donetsk and Luhansk? But does that mean autonomy within Ukraine?

So, it was a very general question. And I’m not sure people knew what they were voting for.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk, what was your interpretation of what people thought they were voting for?

NADIA DIUK, National Endowment for Democracy: They were voting for some sort of separate state, but, as Steven said, what that separate state is wasn’t very clear.

But I think, in general, the people who voted — and that was by no means the figure that were given by the people in control there — the people were voting their unhappiness with not having — being heard by the Kiev authorities, and also showing that they have been very much influenced by the painting of the Kiev authorities as somehow illegitimate.

GWEN IFILL: We have watched elections like this from here, and we judge turnout or we judge it by international observers who come in and make sure that it’s fair and free. Do we have any way of measuring that in this case?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, by all appearances, this was a referendum organized by the separatists. The separatists ran the vote. There were no credible observers, lots of reports of multiple voting.

The central electoral commission in Ukraine refused to give them updated voters lists, so they were not working off of any new voters lists. So I think there were lots of questions about this. And there’s a big issue here. I suspect that a lot of people who turned out did vote yes, but the biggest figure to question is the turnout figure, because there have been several polls in the last two or three months that have been shown that, even in Eastern Ukraine, 70 percent of the population doesn’t want to leave Ukraine.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. I saw this new poll by Pew which said as much. But we don’t know who they’re polling either. Do we know if this voter fraud — if it’s proven there was multiple voting, that the vote didn’t go as it should have happened, does it make a difference, Nadia Diuk?

NADIA DIUK: Well, it does make a difference because I think that the polls have shown that there are about 30 percent of the people in these two regions that are possibly in support of some kind of separation, but the 70 percent of the people who probably didn’t turn out to vote, who could have been too afraid to turn out to vote, because keep in mind as well That there were a lot of armed people around those polling stations.

And, also, there have been a lot of mysterious kidnappings, beatings-up, so I think there was — fear has been injected into this process in a way that probably was likely to keep people away. Those people haven’t spoken out yet.

And, also, the local elites are not very much in favor of what the separatists are doing. Today, there was — the Party of Regions, which was the party of the former president who was ousted, denounced the poll and denounced the separatists and were going towards saying that there be strong be Donbass within a strong Ukraine.

So, how that plays out still remains to be seen.

GWEN IFILL: Steven Pifer, does this mean that Ukraine itself is tearing apart irrevocably? And what is Russia’s role in that?


Well, this certainly complicates the situation in Ukraine. And, unfortunately, everything that we have seen on the part of Moscow over the last two months, since they annexed Crimea, has been not to try to defuse the crisis, but has been to try to escalate it.

So, for example, you have seen economic pressure on Ukraine, banning of Ukrainian imports into Russia. You have seen a huge raise in the price that Russia charges Ukraine for natural gas. For seven weeks now, there have been military maneuvers and military forces, Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, and over the past month, you have seen these armed seizures of buildings in Eastern Ukraine which, at a minimum, were instigated and planned by the Russians.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

STEVEN PIFER: So they’re not trying to calm the situation down.

GWEN IFILL: Except that we heard Russian President Putin say that he didn’t think this referendum should go ahead and today they didn’t fully recognize the results of it. Is that not calming things down, Nadia Diuk?

NADIA DIUK: Well, remember, just a few weeks ago, President Putin was saying that this whole swathe of land right up to the Moldovan border is called — that was at one point — historical facts are not quite accurate, but it was called Novorossiysk.

So this project, you could call it the Novorossiysk project.

GWEN IFILL: The Russia project.

NADIA DIUK: But the voting that took place yesterday doesn’t bring it anywhere close to joining with Russia or even separating from Ukraine, because all of the other areas, there was no vote there.

GWEN IFILL: The next test appears to be this May 25 presidential election, which Western — the E.U. and the U.S. have said, we don’t want to see Russia get involved in that, or we will then step up sanctions. Do we think that that can still happen, with these two regions having pulled themselves out of the mix?

STEVEN PIFER: I think there is a lot of evidence that the acting government in Ukraine wants to move forward with that election.

I think planning is going ahead, and you will probably have a good election process in western and central Ukraine. The big question mark now is will the separatists and will the Russians allow that vote to take place in Donetsk and Luhansk? And my guess is there is going to be a lot of effort to disrupt that.

The question then becomes, if you can have some polling stations, does that 70 percent of the population who have said that they want to vote in the national election, do they have the opportunity, or are they denied the opportunity, and then you have a situation on May 26 where the Russians are saying, well, people didn’t vote in the Eastern Ukraine, it casts doubt on the election, and then it really denies the Ukrainians the ability to have a more stable and legitimized democratic president?

GWEN IFILL: Is there room, Nadia Diuk, leading up to this May 25 vote for a brokered negotiation of some kind that can bring everybody back to the table or has that moment passed?

NADIA DIUK: Well, I think that was what President Putin was announcing yesterday, that one of his aims actually was for the Kiev government to recognize the separatists as equal negotiating partners.

However, if they are sitting around the table, who else should be representing the 70 percent of people who are not in favor of the local elites, who are clearly sort of trending towards — trending towards Kiev? It makes it a very confused situation, and as well, one has to ask, well, where did the separatists get their legitimacy from? Because they have not actually had elections for people. They just had a vote on the strange question that no one really quite seemed to understand.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there any more pressure to be brought by additional sanctions?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, I think it’s useful that the European Union today provided some additional sanctions, but I think we’re still in the area where the sanctions are a bit too cautious, both in Europe and the United States.

I think there’s evidence to suggest the sanctions are having an impact. Everybody seems to be lowering their projections of growth in the Russian economy. Some are even talking about the economy going into recession. Capital flight appears to be up. So, there are sorts of indications. But the sanctions have not yet succeed in their primary political goal, which is to get Vladimir Putin to change his political course with regards to Ukraine.

I think what is necessary here are more robust sanctions both by Washington and the European Union if we’re going to try to change the approach that the Russians have brought.

GWEN IFILL: Final word on that. Do you think sanctions, additional sanctions are necessary?

NADIA DIUK: Well, Vladimir Putin has also his domestic constituency to take into account. With the level of rhetoric that has been ramped up in the last few weeks, he may be being pushed by his domestic — a lot of this is for people in Russia as well to show that if they try anything like happened on the Maidan, that mayhem and violence and disorder will ensue.

And that’s part of his playbook as well.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy, and Steven Pifer, former ambassador to Ukraine, thank you both very much.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you.

NADIA DIUK: Thank you.