In the UK, referendums are a pillar of our representative democracy. However, in occupied areas of Ukraine, ‘referendums’ are a dangerous ploy from Russia to not only validate their annexation but manipulate public perception of the war. Although such actions have been dismissed as ‘invalid’ by Western governments, there are implications of this misuse of referendums that spread to western democracy.
After 7 months of war, and recently one of Russia’s largest defeats of the combat so far, it seems that Russia is grabbing at straws for dominance. But make no mistake, these ‘referendums’ could have serious implications for the course of the war. Held in the 4 occupied areas of Ukraine, these ballots could prompt a confrontation between Russia and the NATO alliance, who view the votes as ‘shams’. This is not surprising with the capacity for rigging the results to substantiate their false claim to the territory. So although these referendums’ integrity is no doubt questionable, the effect of their mere existence in these regions is yet to be seen.
This is not the first time that Russia has tried to use illegal referendums to sway public opinion. Similar methods were used before the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as an attempt to justify their pending invasion. It seems as though using a farce of democracy to prevent democracy is a favourite in Russia’s playbook. But they are not the only ones. Questionable referendums are always trying to assert a confident majority that is advantageous to the ones holding it, as seen in the Catalonia independence referendum in 2017.
All this brings into question how productive referendums can be in our society. When so easily manipulated within a martial context, this forces us to look introspectively at our own representative democracy. In reality, UK citizens have no control over when referendums are called or what issues they are on. This illustrates how easy it is for governments to use modes of democracy for their own political gain. Undoubtedly an unsettling thought, but it’s not like we can have a referendum on that.