Following Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin announced on September 21st his support for referendums that would be held in four of the country’s regions (oblasts) on the question of seceding and joining the Russian Federation. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), which has observed more than 150 elections and referendums in over 70 countries – including Ukraine – condemns the announced referendums, which are illegal under the country’s laws and do not meet international election standards.
“The proposed referendums in Ukraine are both illegal and illegitimate as a reflection of the will of the Ukrainian people, and thus should not be held and must not be accepted by the international community. Rather they are a cynical ploy by Vladimir Putin and his acolytes to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, democracy, territorial integrity and independence”, said NDI President Derek Mitchell.
The Ukrainian Constitution clearly states: 1) any referendum affecting the territorial boundaries of the country must be an “All Ukrainian” referendum involving all of the country’s approximately 35 million registered voters1; 2) consideration of such a referendum requires the signatures of three million registered voters from across the country;2 3) only the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) or the president of the country can initiate an “All Ukrainian referendum”; and 4) such a referendum must be administered by the country’s Central Electoral Commission. None of these conditions have been met and hence the proposed referendums are illegal.
Further, as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (CoE), Ukraine is obligated to conduct all elections and referendums in accordance with international standards. The CoE’s Venice Commission3 provides specific guidance on the conduct of referendums for member states. This includes ensuring: 1) respect for fundamental human rights (as documented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights); 2) voters can freely determine how to vote and cast their votes in secret; 3) freedom of the press and balanced press coverage, in particular by official media; 4) administration by an impartial body; 5) both citizen and international observers can witness all aspects of the process; and 6) an effective system to appeal both decisions and outcomes. None of these structural features are in place in any of the four regions and hence the proposed referendums cannot meet international standards for credible elections.
The results of any such referendums, therefore, cannot be considered legitimate, and the outcome cannot – and would not – reflect the true preferences of the Ukrainian people. NDI calls for the four referendums to be canceled out of respect for the rule of law, international standards of electoral integrity, and the people of Ukraine, as well as an immediate end to Russia’s illegal invasion of the country, and the restoration of its sovereign independence and internationally recognized boundaries.
1 “Issues of altering the territory of Ukraine shall be resolved exclusively by the All-Ukrainian referendum.” Ukrainian Constitution Article 73.
2 Signatures are required from at least two thirds of the country’s 24 oblasts with at least 100,000 from each oblast.
3 Venice Commission “Code of Good Practice on Referendums”
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.