Roger MOORHOUSE: History keeps repeating itself. Another Soviet sham referendum

Roger MOORHOUSE: History keeps repeating itself. Another Soviet sham referendum

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British historian and Germanist specialising in the history of modern Central Europe, with particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the Second World War. He is the author of “First to Fight: The Polish War 1939”.

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For those of us with a sharp sense of history, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been full of painful resonances.  From the forced deportations of countless women and children to the Russian interior, to the executions of those that would resist, hands tied and cast into a sandy grave, the grim adherence of Putin’s forces to the Soviet playbook has sometimes appeared slavish in the extreme – writes Roger MOORHOUSE

.This week, however, another chapter in that shameful reenactment has played out in Russian-occupied Ukraine – the farce of Putin’s sham referenda.  On 20 September, Russian occupation authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”, as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, called for referenda to the held on their incorporation into the Russian Federation.  Accordingly, this week has seen numerous reports of inhabitants being forced to vote at gunpoint, with those voting the “wrong way” being threatened with conscription.

Of course, the international community has hurried to condemn the proposed referenda as contrary to international law, and criticism has even been forthcoming from those, such as Serbia and China, who have thus far contrived to maintain cordial relations with the Kremlin.  As I write, Russian officials have just announced the “preliminary results” of the referenda: 98% pro-Russian vote in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia and 97% in Kherson.  Though “international observers” have been predictably effusive in their praise for the transparency of the operation, it is highly unlikely that the outside world will be fooled.  As Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said: “Canada and the G7 will never recognise the outcome.”

In such circumstances, one has to ask oneself what Putin’s intention can be.  And, in answering that, history can provide some useful precedents.  The most immediate precedent, of course, is the Crimean Referendum of 2014, by which Vladimir Putin sought to lend retrospective justification to his seizure of the territory.  Then, as now, an impressive 97% of citizens are claimed to have voted for incorporation into the Russian Federation.  The UN, meanwhile, declared the result invalid. 

Earlier examples are similarly instructive.  In October 1939, only a month after the Red Army invasion, Soviet officials in the occupied eastern zones of Poland staged rigged elections to new “constituent assemblies” for the annexed territories of “Western Ukraine” and “Western Byelorussia”.  Those elections, of course, were carried out with a closed list of communist candidates, as well as systematic voter intimidation, and they duly returned assemblies which – with one voice – petitioned the Supreme Soviet in Moscow to demand incorporation in the Soviet Union, which was granted in mid-November 1939. 

A similar scenario played out the following year in the Baltic States, then occupied by Red Army troops and under increasing Soviet pressure.  After the installation of “Moscow-friendly” governments that summer, elections were called – again, with “approved” lists of candidates, widespread voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.  One Lithuanian electoral precinct even achieved the remarkable feat of a voter turnout of 122%. 

The results, of course, were preordained, to the extent that they were even accidentally announced in Moscow before the polls had closed: 97.2% of the Latvian electorate voted for the approved list, along with 99.2% of Lithuanians and 92.8% of Estonians.  With compliant “people’s parliaments” thus installed in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, the Baltic States all voted themselves out of existence, petitioning Moscow for accession to the USSR as constituent republics.  It was nothing less than a controlled political demolition. 

Then, as now, the purpose of all of this was to lend a spurious democratic gloss to brute force.  The same sham democracy applied to the Soviet Union as a whole.  Readers will be well aware that, in the Soviet Union, the citizen’s right to vote was enshrined in the constitution, although they most usually were obliged to vote for a single, approved candidate, who was the obedient servant of the Communist Party rather than his electorate.  And after all, as Stalin is alleged to have said: “those who vote decide nothing; those who count the vote decide everything.”

Genuine democracy it most certainly wasn’t, therefore, just as it is not a genuine exercise in its contemporary outings in occupied eastern Ukraine.  So, what’s the purpose of this elaborate charade?  In short, it is a cynical propaganda game, a ruse to sow doubt in the minds of the Kremlin’s opponents and to give its supporters – both at home and abroad – something to defend, however implausible it might be.  Far from trivial, it is an essential weapon in Moscow’s long-standing hybrid war against the west; a way of concealing the truth, muddying the waters and manipulating world opinion.

So far, so conventional.  But there is also a crucial difference between contemporary events and those of eight decades ago.  Whereas the Soviet “elections” in eastern Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-40 were called from a position of strength, to lend faux-legitimacy to a political fait accompli, the modern referenda called by Putin’s minions appear to be an act of desperation; an attempt to halt the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive and intimidate Kiev’s western allies.

With his armies failing on the battlefield, Putin is being forced increasingly to rely on threats and bluster to forestall a wholesale Russian collapse.  His most trusted weapon in that fight, thus far, has been to threaten a nuclear response to any Western action that could be construed as an “escalation”.  Thus far, apart from the skittish Germans, such bluster has hardly had any braking effect on Western support for Ukraine.  But with this new gamble, he will be hoping that he can succeed in halting the Ukrainian advance. 

After calling these sham referenda in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, Putin will almost certainly seek to incorporate those territories directly into the Russian Federation, thereby unilaterally making them Russian territory.  That done, he can then effectively pose as the victim, claiming that further Ukrainian counter-attacks into the occupied Donbas are attacks on Russia itself, to which he will claim to be honour-bound to respond.  The intention, as always, is to manipulate public opinion – to speak to the gullible at home and the “useful idiots” abroad – and to spin a spurious narrative of Russian innocence and victimhood, which – he will hope – will finally break Western support for Ukraine for fear of the consequences.  With the Ukrainian advance thus halted, he can effectively “freeze” the conflict and regroup for another later attack, while painting his actions as a success for the home front; a “liberation” of the Russian speakers of the Donbas. 

.There appears to be no doubt that the international community will refuse to recognise the referenda results and the resulting Russian annexation, but whether such steadfastness will persist with the nuclear sabre-rattling that will undoubtedly follow is another matter.  We can only hope. 

Roger Moorhouse

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