As East Ukrainians Vote in Referendum, Poll Shows Opposition to Secession

In a Pew survey, more than two-thirds of people in eastern Ukraine seek to remain in Ukraine.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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A man votes in the referendum on the status of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk, May 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

Many people were skeptical when Russian President Vladimir Putin called for separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Either way, the leaders of the pro-Russian faction are holding the plebiscite Sunday all the same. They may be disappointed: In a survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine sought to remain in Ukraine.

Leaving aside the West’s suspicions about a vote taking place under the Kremlin’s watchful eye, Ukraine’s military operations in the east and the clashes in the region’s cities don’t enhance the referendum’s credibility.

Pew’s survey in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea was released Thursday; it was based on 1,659 face-to-face interviews with adults in Ukraine from April 5 to April 23, after the Crimean referendum but before the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In Russia, interviews were conducted with 1,000 adults from April 4 to April 20.

According to the poll, 54 percent of Crimeans believe that regions in Ukraine should be allowed to declare independence, and only 12 percent believe that Ukraine’s borders should stay as they are. Around 90 percent support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and 93 percent say Putin is playing a positive role there.

Ninety-one percent say Crimea's referendum results were credible, and 88 percent say Kiev should respect these results. Support for the independent Crimean government, headed by Sergey Aksyonov, topped 80 percent.

In a referendum on March 16, nearly 97 percent of Crimeans supported a breakaway from Ukraine. The unease on the peninsula before that vote may have led to the higher number. Reports of forged ballots may be accurate for some polling stations, but they probably reflect old Soviet habits. Such cheating wasn’t necessary.

The thinking may have been that 70-percent support would be nice, but 90 percent would be nicer. Such a view apparently still afflicts senior officials in Russia’s remote areas. Otherwise it’s hard to understand how Putin received 60-percent support in one region and 90 percent in an adjacent one. To obtain a similar consensus in Donetsk and Slovyansk, separatist leaders will probably need to go heavier on the ballot-box stuffing.

Again, in the Pew survey, 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine expressed a desire to remain in a united Ukraine. This includes 58 percent of Russian speakers. Eighteen percent of the people in this region say they should be allowed to secede, with only 27 percent of the Russian speakers supporting such a move.

Only 30 percent of respondents say relations with Russia are more important than those with the European Union. Thirty-five percent say relations with Russia and the European Union are equally important.

Russian speakers and Russia

Even among Russian speakers, only 42 percent say relations with Russia are more important. Forty-one percent of Russian speakers believe that Russia has a positive influence in Ukraine, 44 percent negative.

Not surprisingly, confidence in the Kiev government among people in eastern Ukraine isn’t great. Only 24 percent believe it has a positive impact on events in Ukraine, compared with 60 percent in western Ukraine. Seventy-one percent of people in the east believe that Ukraine suffers from a lack of leadership.

Ukraine’s planned May 25th presidential election is viewed in eastern Ukraine with as much suspicion as people in the west view elections conducted by pro-Russian forces in the east. In areas where there have been disturbances in recent weeks, only 27 percent of people believe that the balloting will be fair.

Putin’s popularity in western Ukraine has plummeted following the events of recent months; even in eastern Ukraine he’s not that popular, with 28 percent overall support and 43 percent support among Russian speakers. U.S. President Barack Obama is rising in popularity, with a 44 percent approval rating compared with 37 percent in 2011.

In contrast, the number of Ukrainians who distrust Obama has risen to 48 percent from 44 percent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempts to be more moderate vis-a-vis Putin have come with a price – her support among Ukrainians remains at about 50 percent, but opposition to her has doubled to 40 percent.

The European Union, whose attempts to draw in Ukraine and distance it from Putin prompted this year’s crisis, is popular in western Ukraine at 74 percent, compared with 24 percent in the east. The crisis has damaged Ukrainians’ views of their neighbors to the west. In 2002, 63 percent viewed Brussels favorably, dropping to 50 percent in 2009. This number currently stands at 45 percent.

Negative views have risen to 33 percent, from 15 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, the number of Russians who view the West favorably tumbled to 23 percent from 51 percent over the last six months. This is even lower than during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Support for the European Union also dropped — to 39 percent from 63 percent.

The crisis in Ukraine has exacerbated ethnic tensions in the country. Nineteen percent of Ukrainians now support the nationalist Pravy Sektor party. Sixty-six percent of people in western Ukraine believe that Ukrainian should be the only official language, compared with the 73 percent of people in the east who think Russian should be an official language.

Meanwhile, despite (or because of) accusations by both sides that the other side is anti-Semitic, the Jews are popular of late, with a record 87 percent of people expressing positive sentiments about Jews, 20 percentage points more than five years ago.

Armed pro-Russian activist stands guard near ballot boxes during a referendum in Donetsk called by separatists to split from Ukraine, May 11, 2014.Credit: AFP