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Russia’s Obscene “Referendums”

Sep 24, 2022 | News, Ukraine, Featured

Chernihiv region, occupied by Russia, now de-occupied Photo TS

Timothy Snyder

With Ukraine now on the offensive, Russia announced just a few days ago that it would no longer try to hold “referendums” on the territory it occupies in Ukraine. Then, coinciding with Putin’s speech yesterday, this policy reversed, and now “referendums” are supposedly being held — more or less instantaneously, right now, under conditions of war. People are struggling for a way to speak of this nonsense without using the word “referendum,” which in this context is obviously misleading propaganda, to say the least.

It is best to regard what is happening as a media event. There is not only no legal basis for speaking of a “referendum,” but not even much factual basis for speaking of a “sham referendum.” A sham is shambolic but it does actually exist. What Russia is undertaking is nothing more than a media exercise designed to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine.

It would be illegal to hold referendums during an armed conflict and under the threat of the use of force. And this is reason enough to ignore the media exercise completely. But it is just the surface of the problem. If held, referendums would indeed be illegal. But we should be careful: even when we say “illegal referendum” we are not quite getting to bottom of things. We might convince ourselves that some voting happened with some flaws.

It takes infrastructure to hold an election. That infrastructure is not there. Although we will no doubt see photographs of old ladies holding pieces of paper, it would be wrong for reporters to speak of a “vote.” What is more: even if the Russians actually had voting infrastructure, which they don't; and even if they intended to have people in the occupied territories vote, which they don't; they couldn't do so, since they do not actually control the totality of any of the regions where they will claim that voting is taking place.

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