DONETSK, Ukraine — Having lived through a month of pro-Russian separatists storming and seizing government buildings to raise the Russian flag, Donetsk residents will be asked May 11 to answer a single question in a hastily organized referendum.
That question, according to a government official who said he was present at a meeting Tuesday where the wording was agreed on: “Do you support the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic?”
What would a “yes” vote actually mean? Officials admit they aren’t sure. In fact, one noted that more than a desire to join Russia, or be a separate nation, the vote is an attempt to persuade the central government in Kiev to listen to this populous, industrial region. Regional council member Nikolai Zagoruiko said that if the central government would agree to two long-standing demands, the vote might never have to happen.
“If they would agree to make Russian a second official language of Ukraine — so that everyone can understand the state documents they must read and sign — and agree to give Donetsk more local control over the taxes we collect to send to Kiev, so that we can make this a better place to live, we would probably be satisfied,” he said. “In fact, if they did those two things, I’m sure the referendum could be postponed, and eventually forgotten about.”
Analysts and experts on the region have repeatedly said that they think the idea of a referendum is more about having a bargaining chip with the Ukrainian government than a real desire to join Russia. The local legend is that regional business and political leaders helped create the separatist movement hoping it would lead to more local budget control.
“But after creating the monster, they lost control of the monster,” Volodymr Kipen, the head of the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Policy Analysis, told McClatchy this week.
The notion of the region’s union with Russia — a primary goal of pro-separatists — won’t be mentioned on the yet-to-be printed ballots. The possibility of remaining a part of Ukraine after the vote — a primary concern of pro-Ukrainians, who risk beatings during efforts to make their point — also won’t be mentioned on the ballot.
Instead, the provincial officials, ranging from the governor’s office to mayors, administrators to police chiefs, decided Tuesday to ask the region’s 3.2 million registered voters to decide whether they support the area becoming an entity the exact nature of which is unclear even to those who phrased the question.
And, officials admit, they’ll be asking those voters to turn out and make this decision in slightly more than a week through a campaign that will rely mostly on word-of-mouth. For the referendum to be legal, Donetsk voters have to get informational invitations at least seven days beforehand, which means at the latest on Monday. Whether that can be done is in doubt. The invitations had yet to be printed Wednesday. In addition, Thursday, May 1, is a national holiday, and Friday and Saturday are widely considered to be part of a four-day May Day weekend, when little if any work is expected to be done.
“Is this a legitimate referendum?” Zagoruiko said in answer to a question. “It’s as legitimate as having an unelected temporary president in Kiev.”
He was then asked whether the unelected, temporary president in Ukraine was legitimate. “I think not, so the answer to both questions would be no,” he said, and then smiled. “But maybe the answer to both questions would be yes.”
Ukraine, of course, has an unelected, interim president in Oleksandr Turchynov. He replaced the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in February after months of pro-European Union protests in Kiev. Yanukovych is from Donetsk, and the eastern oblast, or province, was always his base of political power.
Zagoruiko, a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, makes the point that Yanukovych hasn’t had much support since his second year in office, or 2011. He said by then it became clear to locals that “their president” was just like other Ukrainian presidents and interested in ruling only as a means to enrich himself.
“Ukraine elects poor men to the presidency,” he said. “But they all leave as very rich men.”
Still, he said, the feelings at the Tuesday meeting where the details of the referendum were hashed out weren’t necessarily anti-Ukraine or pro-Russian.
“I would hope that we can stand with Ukraine,” he said. “We just want more say in how we govern ourselves.”
Not everyone shares that view.
Pro-Russian journalist and writer Yevgeni Yasenov said that despite an emotional attachment to Russia he didn’t think it was the right time to think about seceding and joining that nation.
“We need a clean referendum, not one taking place under the gun,” he said. “We need a referendum with international monitors, a referendum all people can believe in. That is not possible in this climate.”
If the region had such a referendum, he’s convinced, the polls that find that only 27 percent of local residents support joining Russia would be wrong.
“I don’t trust polls,” he said. “I trust what the people discuss on mass transit and in the markets. People here believe in joining Russia.”