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mark mackinnon

There are many familiar elements to the "Donetsk People's Republic" on the day of its referendum on independence from Ukraine. As with Crimea before its own secession and annexation by Russia two months ago, there are checkpoints on the streets, and the ballot boxes are escorted by masked men with guns and an unclear agenda.

But despite what some Western politicians seem to believe, Russia isn't trying to repeat the "Crimea scenario" here in southeastern Ukraine. What's happening in and around Donetsk is much more dangerous than that.

The masked men in Crimea were professionals. Some were ex-members of Ukraine's disbanded Berkut riot police, still wearing their blue uniforms. Others – despite Vladimir Putin's initial denials – were Russian soldiers who had removed their insignia, though not always the Russian license plates on their vehicles.

In other words, there was a higher authority the "little green men" in Crimea were reporting to, a reason they couldn't just do what they pleased. At separatist checkpoints in Donetsk, there's only lawlessness, Kalashnikovs and, often, the smell of too much alcohol. The result has been the kidnappings of journalists, OSCE observers and – briefly this weekend – staff of the Red Cross.

The Kremlin's goal here isn't to snap off another piece of Ukraine and append it to the Russian Federation. The aim is to create an angry new entity that will at once be inside and outside Ukraine, like the lonely breakaway region of Trans-Dniester in neighbouring Moldova (which has hosted Russian "peacekeepers" since 1992).

Russia wants to reinvent Ukraine, and a self-declared Donetsk People's Republic will be one of its tools. With the southeast of the country beyond Kiev's control, how can it ever hope to join the European Union? Why would NATO ever accept a divided Ukraine as a member?

The long-term solution Moscow seeks is something akin to the federalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with one or more pro-Russian republics remaining inside Ukraine, but having veto power over the foreign and defence policies of a weakened government in Kiev.

The Kremlin is unquestionably helping the separatists in the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk. At minimum, the massed Russian troops at Ukraine's border have convinced Kiev to pull back from a full-scale military assault on separatist positions at least once.

But unlike Crimea, the Russians haven't invaded. They've only agitated. Which – combined with the Kiev government's incoherent policies towards the country's Russified east – is pushing Ukraine towards chaos that even the Kremlin might not be able to control.

The Crimean referendum – despite all its flaws – was carried out in a recognizable way. The local government used voter registration lists from previous elections to keep track of who did and didn't have the right to vote. Schools and government buildings were used as polling stations, just as they are in Ukraine's other elections.

I watched voters in Simferopol go to polling stations, find their names on a list, duck behind a curtain to mark their voting papers and then emerge to drop them in sealed ballot boxes.

There were, of course, serious problems with the process, starting with the presence of Russian troops near polling stations, and the absence of any kind of "No" campaign. Physical intimidation – and the sense that it might be unwise to vote against a process that was clearly going to happen anyway – almost certainly helped drive a result that saw 96.8 per cent vote for union with Russia. There's also statistical evidence to support allegations of ballot stuffing.

But at least referendum day had a semblance of order to it. What's taking place in Donetsk and Lugansk on Sunday has no such underpinning. This will be a vote that no one outside the Donetsk People's Republic (and likely only a minority of people inside it) will take seriously.

For starters, it's far from clear what residents of Donetsk and Lugansk are being asked to vote on. While the ballot paper asks a single yes-or-no question – "do you support the act of self-rule for the Donetsk People's Republic?" – the self-declared leaders of the DPR haven't clarified what "self-rule" might mean.

Will they have their own currency, or keep using the Ukrainian hryvnia? Will they eventually seek to join Russia? What if Russia doesn't accept their application? We don't know any of these things, and neither do the leaders of the DPR, or the people they're asking to support them.

There's also the issue of control. Pro-Russian fighters have seized buildings in ten cities around Donetsk oblast (and two more buildings in the city of Lugansk), but arguably only have complete control of two cities, Slavyansk and Horlivka. Where are people in the city of Donetsk supposed to vote, if oblast's official apparatus – which is loyal to Kiev – isn't playing along? How can a free and fair vote be held in the port of Mariupol, when the city is a war zone this weekend?

Separatist supporters can go to the seized buildings, of course, but that will only guarantee 100 per cent support and – unless figures are inflated – a very low overall turnout. Slavyansk and Horlivka will vote to separate from Ukraine, but is that enough of a mandate to declare a Donetsk People's Republic?

Nor, with Ukraine's central election commission refusing to cooperate, is there a master voters' list to keep track of who should and shouldn't be allowed to cast a ballot.

"The creators of this process are in Moscow, but those they hired to organize the referendum don't know how to run a referendum. They don't understand elections," sighed Mikhail Kamchatny, head of Kharkiv branch of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an election-monitoring group. "To organize a referendum, you need time."

But time is one thing Moscow and its allies don't have. This isn't about creating a credible referendum result; this is about destabilizing Ukraine and casting a shadow over its May 25 election, which is supposed to produce the country's first elected president since the February ouster of Viktor Yanukovych.

Moscow sees that uprising as Western-sponsored plot meant to pry Ukraine from its sphere of influence, and still recognizes Mr. Yanukovych – who fled to Russia after the revolution – as the country's legitimate president.

The deadly violence in Slavyansk and Mariupol shows how dangerous a game all sides are now playing. The new Ukrainian government, headed by Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, deserves much of the blame for launching a hit-and-run military operation against the separatists, which has further deepened anti-government anger in eastern Ukraine while retaking little ground.

The Kremlin's preferred model for Ukraine's future is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country where the Serbian minority has an autonomous Srpska Respublika within the Bosnian state.

But Bosnia-Herzegovina had to go through hell to get to the awkward compromise that exists today (the city hall in Sarajevo only reopened this weekend, 22 years after it was destroyed in the civil war). By unleashing old hatreds in Ukraine – turning Russian-speakers against Ukrainian-speakers, Orthodox Christians against Catholics – Mr. Putin and Mr. Turchynov may end up pushing Ukraine into the same inferno.


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