If there had been a free and fair referendum, would Crimean residents have voted to secede?

When Crimea will go to Russia, for example, how is it there and who ate our salo… I say, you know, I do not know who ate your salo and when Crimea will join Russia, probably it will never happen.

In this post, I’ll try to give an answer concerning a question I was asked recently: if there had been a free and fair referendum, would Crimean residents have voted to secede?

Firstly, was the Crimean referendum free and fair?

FCO comparison
Table: UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office compare Crimea vs. Scottish referendum (Source: FCO)

No: it’s quite clear that the secession referendum was not free or fair (given among other factors that it was held under military occupation, see table above). Rather it was a legitimacy tool for a result that had already been decided by both the separatist movement in Crimea and the Russian government. Even a branch of the Russian government have disputed the final numbers, with results posted on the Council under the President of the Russian Federation for Civil Society and Human Rights website reporting a much lower turnout (30-50%) and lower support for unification with Russia (50-60%) than Crimean official sources.

Would a majority have voted for annexation?

While it’s easy to assume a majority in Crimea would have voted for Crimea’s annexation by Russia, had there been a free and fair election, I would argue that this is incredibly hard to call. Elsewhere I’ve argued that it would be misleading to assume that a majority of ethnic Russians in Crimea, though comprising a majority according to the 2001 census (~58%), identified with Russia. Rather, I argue that the majority, based on those I interviewed where content to be part of Ukraine.

Beyond identity, the idea of secession and annexation by Russia was also seen by a majority of those I spoke to as unlikely and undesirable. Even among those affiliated to organisations, such as the Russian Community of Crimea (Russkaia Obshchina Kryma) saw secession from Ukraine as something unlikely and undesirable because it would leave to “bloodshed” and a “cataclysm”. That Crimea could secede from Ukraine was therefore seen as highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Opinion polls show this too: there was far greater support, historically, for the status quo option, where Crimea remained an autonomous republic within Ukraine, than there was for Crimea (without the rest of Ukraine) to be part of Russia (chart 1). What’s more, support for this status quo was increasing over time while support for separatism was decreasing.

Status of crimea
Chart 1: What should the status of Crimea be? (Source: IRI)

What is clear therefore was that pre-2014 there was not overwhelming support for the kind of annexation that took place in 2014. There was not was a concern, by the majority, for the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian language compared to other more pressing socioeconomic concerns (chart 2) Nor was there a concern for Crimea to breakaway from Ukraine. Secession was seen as far too costly, unlikely and undesirable.

Chart 2: which three of the following issues are the most important for  Crimea?
Chart 2: Which three of the following issues are the most important for
Crimea? (Source: IRI 2013 & 2009)

Rather, and particularly in Crimea, there was support for Ukraine maintaining a close relationship with Russia, whether in a single state (chart 3) or as part of a Eurasian Customs Union (chart 4). Here the reason, overwhelmingly, seems not to be about identity but about prosperity, given that KIIS opinion polls show a higher support that a Eurasian/Customs Union would provide better chances for jobs and industrial products, than the EU.

Should Ukraine and Russia unite in one state? Source: http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=236&page=1
Chart 2: Should Ukraine and Russia unite in one state? Source: KIIS
EU or Eurasia
Chart 3: Which integration would you choose? (Source for West, Centre, South, East & Ukraine: Research & Branding; Source for Crimea: KIIS)

Euromaidan vs. Eurasian Customs Union

While in Crimea, and eastern Ukraine more generally, there was a preference for maintaining ties with Russia, and this was founded on a largely economic basis, there wasn’t support for dissecting the Ukrainian state and separating from Russia. What happened in 2014 was therefore completely unthinkable and unpredictable, following the departure of Yanukovych. It concerned, I would argue, the relations between Crimean politicians and Kyiv, with a Party of Regions finding itself in tatters.

Without a strong Party of Regions ruling Ukraine from the top down, and ruling Crimea through Donetsk politicians, there was uncertainty about personal livelihoods, corrupt practices and nepotistic networks: what would a new Ukrainian government do to their assets and structures of power? The mass sentiment of everyday Crimeans was not what was at stake here, but rather the opportunity to seize something that, in a newly governed Ukraine, might never be possible again.

16 thoughts on “If there had been a free and fair referendum, would Crimean residents have voted to secede?

  1. Kim Iannone

    I have lived in Yalta, in Crimea, since July 2014 — about six months. I am frankly puzzled by several of your conclusions.
    * No one has told me anything about being oppressed or duressed by Russian soldiers during the voting process; on the contrary, people have told me that they were afraid of Ukrainian terrorists;
    * your reporting of Crimea interests in leaving Ukraine are selective; you do not mention the wide-spread corruption of Ukrainian government officials nor the campaign of Ukrainianization against Russian speakers. Crimeans bring up these points, without prompting, when the subject turns to “why did Crimea join Russia?”;
    * you mention nothing about the facts, that Crimea has been a part of Russia since 1783, that the major language and culture have been Russian up to the present time; and that Crimea only became Ukrainian in law, if not in practice, in 1992, when Ukraine became an independent country.
    With respect,
    Kim Iannone, Yalta


    1. Thanks for your comments. On third point, international law gives little consideration for previous historical configurations. The point is that Ukraine and Russia mutually agreed their borders in 1997 and Russia reneged on this, breaching Ukraine’s constitution in 2014 and supporting an illegal referendum.
      On the second point, yes I agree that the corruption of the Kyiv authorities under the Party of Regions indicates a serious and chronic legitimacy crisis that encouraged people to believe they were subsidising Kyiv rather than the other way around. However, the idea that this has been ameliorated by present authorities is completely farcical. Party of Regions are still in power in Crimea under a new separatist agenda, with at least 50% of Crimean MPs now having been members of Party of Regions previously (not to mention the questionable crime underbelly of the Russkoe Edinstvo section of the separatists).
      On the first point, I think the idea is that Russian media have vastly overblown the notion of “Ukrainian terrorists” leading to a great degree of fear concerning the realities of Ukraine, which are far removed from the idea of Yanukovych being ousted by a Ukrainian terrorist movement.


      1. Kim

        Hi Eleonor,

        I grant the point regarding the 1977 acceptance of borders. But this problem goes being that agreement. We have a sort of irredentist problem here — a group of people who identified, in language and culture, with the language and culture of another country, from which they were artificially separate, specifically, GenSec Krushchev’s 1954 decision to “give” Krim to Ukraine.

        Regarding international law and the division of Krim from Ukraine, I know of only one case — Czechoslovakia — in which a country peacefully divided into two parts. The fact that Krim left Ukraine without the death of a single person, without any serious military incident, is laudable. This would be a laudable goal for Southwest and Southeast Ukraine.

        You set up a straw man argument when you say that I asserted the issue of corruption has been settled by the replacement of Ukrainian with Russian authorities: I never said that. Having lived off-and-on in Russia since 1993, I am under no illusions that we can expect a pristine legal-administrative environment as we might expect to find in, say, Denmark. But, to paraphrase a common refrain, at least they are our (Russian) corrupt politicians. And yes, many of these people are “left over” from Ukrainian rule — but most of these people are, in fact, ethnic Russians. If you watch the meetings of the GocSoviet, you will note that those who speak, with very few exceptions, speak with native Russian accents, not with Ukrainian accents.

        The issue of Ukrainian terrorists is not overblown, if you consider murder and injury to be important issues. Fifteen Russian journalists have been killed in this war, and it is apparent that Ukrainian forces specifically targeted them. A Russian woman reporter was hit in the face with a chemical just a couple of days ago. Russian tv is full of scenes of apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, which have been damaged or destroyed by Ukrainian fire. Of course, the Ukrainians show their side of the story, which I can watch due to the lack of control by Russian authorities of Internet tv.

        What this situation represents, is a centuries-long cultural problem between Great Russia — including Krim, Southest Ukraine including Harkov, Lugansk, Dnepropetrovsk, Slaviansk, Melitopol, and also the Southwest including Odessa — and Little Russia, Ukraine, the borderland countryside.

        The best solution, on all sides, would be to put in place a voting process, perhaps overseen by the European Union, and let the unhappy people of these regions decide to stay or to leave Ukraine.

        As for Krim, it is gone forever. No sanctions will ever compel the Krimeans to return to Ukraine.




      2. 1. You mean 1997, right?
        2. 1954 is subsumed by 1997. You don’t get to back-track and say something was an arbitrary decision made “illegally” or “arbitrarily” by Khrushchev if you signed up to 1997 border agreements. Then, of course, the irony is that Medvedev said “we” (i.e. current authorities) didn’t sign up to this, but international law does not work like that.
        3. You should read my other research because, before 2014, there was an increasing disconnection between being Russian (culturally) and supporting Russia politically: https://eleanorknott.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/not-all-ethnic-russians-in-crimea-have-a-political-affinity-with-moscow/


      3. Kim


        1954 is not subsumed by 1997 – 1997 is based on 1954.

        Had Krushchev not “given” Krim to Ukraine, there would have been no basis for Ukraine to claim Krim during the 1997 negotiation.

        Again, you resort to a reliance on “international” law. Unfortunately, neither the 1954 decision, nor the 1997 solve the fundamental problem of the cultural conflict between Great Russia and Little Russia.

        I will read your research. But my view is pre-conditioned by the knowledge that Kiev followed an express and repressive policy of Ukrainization. Among other things, in 1992 and in subsequent year, Kiev declared that only the Ukrainian language was official — though Russian had been the main language of Krim since 1783. Kiev changed the language of instruction Krimean universities, including in the Krimean University of the Humanities, the Tavridskiy National University, and other institutions from Ukrainian to Russian — in spite of the fact that the majority of the population, and the majority of students, were Russian speakers.

        It is true that many Ukrainian citizens of Krim, and of Southeast Ukraine, did not want to leave Ukraine, worried about violence and disorder as you have noted. But, note that this past February, over 1000 representatives of the Donbass met in Lugansk to discuss their grievances, primarily: 1) their wish to continue to be able to use and speak Russian, and 2) their wish to have spend their tax dollars locally instead of sending the money to Kiev.

        The result of this peaceful meeting? The Procurator General of Ukraine filed charges against all participants, and started arresting people.


      4. This is not a conflict triggered by bottom-up grievances, reflecting the cultural conflict between “Great Russia” and “Little Russia” as you describe. This interpretation is just naive. It’s about a political game being made by a geopolitical behemoth (Russia) who wants to draw lines in the sand concerning Ukraine’s right to determine its future geopolitical questions: i.e. Europeanisation vs. Eurasian Customs Union. Anything else is just subterfuge to these pragmatic concerns.


      5. Kim

        Hi Eleonor,

        Okay, I have read your article. Here are several issues:

        * the 2001 Census is notorious for having been prejudiced in favor of Ukraine; so, while it may be “outdated”, it is “outdated” in the direction of Ukraine. One example: People were asked to self-identify by largely Urkainian-speaking census-takers, and the census instrument was written in Ukrainian. Second example: Two months ago, I participated in the new census undertaken by the Russian government in Krim. I was identified as Russian-speaking, because I could answer the census-takers questions.
        * you mention the work of two researchers regarding a 1994 “crisis” of the Russian nationalist movement, “from which they have never recovered”. The current December 2014 situation, in Krim and in Southeast Ukraine, proves otherwise.
        * Russian nationalist groups did poorly in the 2010 elections. Granted.




  2. Kim

    Hi Eleonor,

    I have to disagree with you regarding the role of “bottom-up” grievances in triggering the conflict, though I do agree that the “big” game concerning Europeanization vs. Eurasian Customs Union is also being played.

    There is a deep sense of inferiority among many Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were unschooled country peasants buffeted by the kingdoms of Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Austria, and Russia from the 16h Century to the 20th Century. The Ukrainian language — such as it was, because there was no standard — was outlawed in the Russian Empire during the 19th Century, only achieving a modicum of acceptance in 1905. The language did not even have an “official” dictionary, written fully in Ukrainian, until the Bilodid edition published in the 1970s under the auspices of the Communist Party of Ukraine. An official Institute of the Ukrainian Language was founded only in 1991.

    Within the Ukrainian ruling class, from 1991 to the present, have been right-wing nationalists whose fathers and grandfathers allied with the NAZIS in 1941 as a strategy for gaining national independence from the Soviet Union — from Russia. They hate the Russians, and have been at the forefront of the Ukrainization campaign. Many supporters of these people fought on Maidan Square.

    Ukrainians who do not like Russians call them Khuilo. (Russians who do not like Ukrainians call they Huhli.) This past June, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine was caught on camera referring to Vladimir Putin as a Khuilo.

    During Ukrainization in the Crimea, Ukrainian was mandated as the language of government, the languages of the universities were changed from Russian to Ukrainian in spite of the fact that the majorities of the faculties and student bodies were Russian, and countless acts of theft, fraud, and favoritism were practiced by Ukrainian officials and their cronies.

    The economies of Russia and Ukraine have followed very different courses since the break-up of the Soviet Union. According to a Forbes magazine report a few weeks ago, from 1999 to 2013 under Putin per capita income in Russia grew from $1,320 to $14,800 — an eleven-fold increase. Whereas, in Crimea per capita income has been stagnant, and in 2013 was perhaps $2,800 to $3,500 depending on your source.

    Had there not been a repressive Ukrainization process, had Crimean Russians been allowed to live and study using Russian, had there not been widespread anti-Russian corruption, had the Ukraine not been an abject economic failure, Crimea would never have left Ukraine. Crimeans care very little about whether they are part of a European-led union or a Russian-led union.

    Had Putin invaded and taken an unwilling region — say, had Putin invaded Estonia — there WOULD have been a war. At the present time, in Crimea, there is no war, there are no street demonstrations, there is no Ukrainian underground, there is nothing.




    1. I’m just going to focus on your second to last paragraph and try to address some of the counterfactuals:

      1. “Had there not been a repressive Ukrainization process,” yes a number that I interviewed did identify themselves as victims of “Ukrainianization” but this was a small subset of those I interviewed who identified as ethnic Russian. Most that I interviewed who identified as ethnic Russian, did not see Ukrainization policies as brutal or affecting their everyday life. For these people, the biggest sense of discrimination came from the fact they had to watch films at the cinema in Ukrainian, but to quote my respondent this wasn’t a “strangulation of Russian culture […] just a bad law”.

      2. “had Crimean Russians been allowed to live and study using Russian” at least at TNU there was no restriction to speak and study in Russian. Students and teachers never mentioned they felt restricted in this. Several celebrated their ability and comfort to study in Russian compared to elsewhere in Ukraine.

      3. “had there not been widespread anti-Russian corruption” – I don’t understand why the corruption should be “anti-Russian”?

      4. “had the Ukraine not been an abject economic failure, Crimea would never have left Ukraine.” yes and no: I get that Ukraine has and continues to have economic difficulties and these were felt severely in Crimea too, but Russia’s economic prospects also look fairly bleak right now. However what I fail to understand is why Ukraine’s economic health is a concern of Russia.

      5. “Crimeans care very little about whether they are part of a European-led union or a Russian-led union.” On this, I absolutely agree with you, but Russia cares.

      Lastly, you may be interested in my comments policy: https://eleanorknott.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/a-comments-policy/


      1. Kim

        Hi Eleonor,

        Your focus on my penultimate paragraph is useful.

        Point 5, we agree that Krimeans cared little about having an association with the European Union or a Russian-led union.

        Therefore, the “big game” issue was not and is not an issue for Krimeans. They left Ukraine for other reasons.

        Point 1: You said a “small subset” of respondants reported being repressed by Ukrainization policies — how small? Statistically significant?

        Why, in the biggest Russian-speaking city in Krim, in Simferopol, did people had to watch films in Ukrainian? Why should the majority — Russian speakers — have to watch movies in the minority language? in a country where supposedly there was democracy and a free market?

        Point 2: At TNU I was told told, that until 2014 students had to submit their final theses in Ukrainian, that the history department taught Ukrainian history, and not Russian history, etc. True?

        I am not against a university following a minority interest. In my home town of Los Angeles, there is a Jewish American University, a Hispanic American University, etc. and these institutions have particular interests that they follow. But TNU was the major university of Krim, not a “minority” university.

        Point 3: There are charges currently being investigated by the Krimean Prosecutor General regarding Ukrainian (“Kiev”) theft from Russians of farms, vineyards, office buildings, land, and other property; hence, “anti-Russian”.

        Point 4: As of March of this soon-to-be-passed year, Russia was in fine economic health, with per capita four or five times levels in Krim. Current December 2014 conditions are irrelevant to a discussion as to why Krimeans decided to leave Ukraine nine months ago.

        I will read your comments policy.




      2. But we go round in circles: it is the big game argument. The referendum was a “potemkin” show put there to validate an outcome that had already been decided by bigger interests.


      3. Kim

        No, we are face-to-face with a basic disagreement:

        You say that the big game is what led to Krim’s leaving Ukraine, and that the referendum was a Potemkin show.

        I say, that the leaving of Krim could not have been accomplished unless most Krimeans wanted to leave; that’s why I gave the hypothetical of Putin invading, say, Estonia. There were no large pre-referendum pro-Ukraine demonstrations in Krim. There is no evidence now of a repressed pro-Ukraine minority — not even graffiti.

        The “big-game” argument does not account for the millions of people who turned against Ukraine in Krim and in the Donbass. Most of these people were not and are not Russian soldiers hiding in civilian dress.

        And the Krimean Soviet, which voted for holding the referendum, were all elected in 2010 — they were elected in Ukraine.

        I do agree with you, that the referendum was Potemkinesque. It was rushed. The figures are suspect. I would have preferred that some mediation had taken place to allow a more considered, fair referendum. But how could this have been done? What organization could have mediated between Ukraine and the Krimeans? That was not possible in the atmosphere of March 2014.

        When Timoshenko lost, she appealed to the Ukrainian Supreme Court on the grounds of fraud. That court threw the case out.

        And then Timoshenko said that she and her party would never accept Yanukovych as president. In other words, the Ukrainian nationalists refused to accept the results of an election which the OSCE said in their post-election report was “transparent and fair.”

        This is the starting point of the Maidan: the Maidan was a militant movement to oust a democratically elected, Russia-leaning President.

        Krim voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovych. Their candidate of choice was driven out of power by violence and death threats against him, his family, and against the people around him.

        And, “big game”: Note that the US spent millions, perhaps billions, of dollars and ran sub rosa operations against Vanukovych. Russians in Krim understood this.


      4. There certainly were protests in the days preceding the referendum but in climate of intense fear, buttressed by the “polite” but intimidating little green men, this was hardly an environment to protest. Many of those I know who have opposed the annexation have just left, knowing they couldn’t face living in a Russian Crimea, and went to Kyiv or the west.

        Your explanation also completely leaves out the role of the pro-Russian groups, like Russkoe Edinstvo, who fostered ties wiht the Russian state and yet only received 4% in local parliamentary elections (2010). The real coup was in Simferopol, when masked men raided the parliament, not Kyiv.


      5. Kim

        Well, the “climate-of-fear” and “little green men” argument works both ways: Maidan. The anti-referendum demonstations in Krim were minor, as in “minority”.

        Some pro-Russian groups did badly in the 2010 elections (but after all, Yanukovych was elected). Did they do badly only because people did not share their more-extreme views? Or did they lack compelling candidates?

        Or, in 2010, did people simply accept “reality” — that they were living in Ukraine, and could not foresee a Russian future?

        Could peoples’ views have changed after the Maidan got started, after Yanukovych was driven from power?

        I think so. I think that there could have been a radical change from the election of 2010, which was relatively peaceful and “transparent and fair”, to the Winter and Spring of 2014, when the President had been driven from power by threats and violence, the delegates to the Donetsk meeting in February were indicted and under warrant of arrest, and the “hot” part of the conflict began in earnest in the Donbass (and in Odesa).


      6. Kim

        And let me cede a point to you re: “little green men”.
        Certainly, the take-over of the Krim-Ukraine border, the occupation of the Soviet by armed men, and the open engagements between Ukrainian and Russian security forces, demonstrate that the “big game” was being played.

        Perhaps our disagreement could be resolved, by saying that Russian government tipped the balance in Krim.


      7. Kim

        Hi Eleonor,

        I have read your Comments policy. I hope that you feel, that I have behaved myself. I have tried not to use deprecating language, and to avoid ad hominem attacks.

        I also read the English-language link which you provided to Mister Putin’s “State-of-the-Union” speech. I watched his speech live on tv. There is a lot of context, of connotation which a Russian audience would understand but which would be entirely lost to an Anglo-only audience.




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