- Last week, referendums to rejoin Russia were held in the Donetsk People’s Republics (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR), as well as in the liberated territories of Zaporozhye, Kherson and Nikolaev regions (the latter was annexed to Kherson Region).
Based on the results, the ‘For’ option won all four by an overwhelming margin. RT Donbass correspondent Vladislav Ugolny has been watching the sentiment there for the past eight years. He describes how the referendums were carried out, what they meant for local residents, and why their outcome simply couldn’t have been any different.
For those who are sufficiently immersed in the history of the struggle of the Russian residents of Ukraine for unity with their historical homeland, the results of the referendums are not surprising. But it’s also worth noting at the outset that not everyone in these regions participated in the vote.
In 2020, a soldier told his comrades-in-arms that he was only serving in the DPR army for the sake of a good salary by local standards. He said that, at that time, he was ready to dig trenches and stand guard. But in the event of a resumption of active military operations, he would be in Yuzhny, a station from which buses are sent to Russia.
Active hostilities resumed more than six months ago, eventually leading to the second referendum in Donbass. And this warrior took no part in it.
Why? Did he keep her word and run away? No, he died in 2021. He could have said anything: soldiers like to scratch their tongues. But when his comrades-in-arms were attacked by the Ukraine and the wounded had to be evacuated, he volunteered. During the rescue operation, he was killed in action. He did not live to see the fighting escalate, nor did he live to see the new referendum.
There are many such people who are unhappy with what has been happening in Donbass these past eight years, where they have slowly languished as geopolitical hostages, and are also willing to die for their land and identity. It is thanks to them and their resilience that Russia’s military offensive was possible. And these referendums were also made for them.
They all had every reason to hate what was going on. The injured were often retroactively fired to avoid paying for their injuries. And in a betrayal of memory, the names of children killed by Ukrainians in Sloviansk and Konstantinovka, cities not controlled by the DPR, disappeared from the Alley of Angels (a monument honoring Donbass children killed by Ukrainians). By removing these names, it was as if the DPR officials were abandoning the territories and the memory of those who remained under kyiv’s occupation.
In the first years of its independence, the LPR had constant political crises, from which the despised Igor Plotnitsky emerged the winner. Until the much more popular Leonid Pasechnik was overthrown and elected.
The hope of reunification was based on the fact that Russia is a stable state governed by the rule of law, with full-fledged institutions and an established civil society. Living their lives on the front lines of a geopolitical confrontation, the Russians in Donbass dreamed that one day the war would end.
They hoped that Donbass would become a common and peaceful region of Russia, like neighboring Rostov. They hoped to be able to put away their weapons and return to the mines and factories, and be able to teach their children without regular bombing. Or that they could sweep the streets for leaves instead of cleaning blood from the pavement. Joining Russia offered hope and was synonymous with victory. After all, this is the reason the fight started.
Fate decided otherwise and the referendums had to be held during the fighting, with the risk of kyiv bombing the polling stations. Thus, the votes themselves did not become a moment of triumph and victory. But they could not delay any longer, since one of the stated goals of Moscow’s military operation was to restore peace in Donbass.
The only way to protect both Donbass and the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions from the threat of genocide by the Ukrainian state was to incorporate them into the Russian Federation. The raids in the Kharkov region after kyiv seized cities and towns earlier this month, and the refugee convoys, were apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The risk of polling stations being bombed was one of the reasons some locals criticized the referendums. A friend of mine who is now serving in one of the DPR army units refused to participate in the referendum. He justified it by saying that he had expressed his position a long time ago and was now defending it with a gun in his hand.
He also questioned why the entry of the republics into Russia could not have been done simply by decree of the Russian government. Why, he asks, do they ask a question whose answer is already obvious?
Needless to say, this warrior is not a big fan of democracy.
However, his point of view was marginal. Residents of Donbass, despite the risks of terrorist attacks, flocked to the polls. Since the issue was a foregone conclusion, the polling stations became a place to declare one’s position.
The journalists were not told about the choice people made, but about how long they had waited for the opportunity to do so.
The referendum procedures were designed with the usual legal provisions in mind, but the voters themselves effectively abolished the concept of a ‘secret ballot’ by publicly ticking the ‘yes’ box.
“The people of Donbass needed the referendum not to reaffirm their choice, which was made in 2014 and has not changed since then, but to present it to the international community in a more or less accepted framework.”
said a graduate of the political science department of Donetsk National University after the vote. A leg injury prevented him from going to the polling station, but he was able to vote Yes from door to door:
As I stood at the mobile ballot box in my backyard in the rain, listening to the sound of explosions in a neighboring district, I felt joy. Because it is, in any case, a step forward after too much stagnation.
Dmitry, a native of the border town of Yenakievo, Donbass, said: “Of course I waited for the referendum and voted Yes. I can’t imagine our future any other way. In 2015, I was repeatedly offered the opportunity to leave my home region and live in Ukraine so that I would not know what war is like.
“As you can see, I refused. Voting in the referendum was not my biggest contribution, but I was glad I did. I didn’t hesitate for a second, especially when, about 40 minutes later, a HIMARS missile was shot down over the polling station, and shrapnel hit my neighborhood.”
This is how the referendum was held in Donbass. As for the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, the votes were less festive due to increased infiltration by the Ukrainian security services and a higher risk of sabotage. The lack of an eight-year wait was also a factor. However, even there, people hoped that the Kharkov tragedy would not be repeated in their areas.
The referendums that have been held are like a marriage proposal made after eight years of dating. There may be reasons to speculate why it wasn’t done sooner, but the answer is obvious.