Were the 2014 Referendums in Crimea legitimate?

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According to the official results of the 2014 referendums in Crimea, an overwhelming majority voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. The referendums were condemned internationally as invalid because they wasn’t conducted by Ukraine. So what? Surely the key question is whether the declared results reflect public opinion in Crimea? Let’s find out.

Russia invaded Crimea on Thursday the 27th of February 2014 when gunmen with no insignia on their green uniforms took over government buildings with nary a shot being fired.

Crimea and Sevastopol are two separate political entities on the Crimean peninsula. Referendums took place in on 16th March 2014 in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and in the City of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet since the time of the Czars.

Both Crimea and Sevastopol voted by large majorities to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Let’s look at the history behind these events.

The Tatars (aka Tartars) were the original inhabitants of Crimea.

Who are the Tatars?

The Tatars (or Tartars) were the main inhabitants of Crimea until the end of World War II.

The name was first used to describe nomadic tribes living in north-eastern Mongolia who, unlike their Mongol neighbours, spoke a Turkic language. In the 13th century, many of these clans joined forces with the armies of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and headed west.

The Tatars converted to Sunni Islam in the 14th century. Later in the same century they split up into four independent Khanates. A khanate was a political entity on the Eurasian Steppe ruled by a khan.

Three of the Tatar Khanates were conquered by Russia in the 16th century. The Khan of Tatarstan, one of their Khanates, became part of the elite of the Russian empire. The khanate of Crimea, however, became a vassal state of the Ottoman Turks. It was annexed by Russia in 1783.

The inhabitants of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) when it was set up by the new Soviet government in 1921 consisted mainly of approximately 200,000 Crimean Tatars.

This ASSR was dissolved in 1945 after Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Germans during World War II. They were deported en masse to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In 1956, under Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization programme the Crimean Tatars regained their civil rights but were not allowed to return to Crimea, which had been incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1954. However, as the centralised authority of the Soviet state began to fade in the early 1990s, Crimean Tatars began returning to Crimea.

In the early 21st century, they numbered about 250,000 or about one-eight of the population of Crimea, a country in which they had been the main ethnic group until their exile by Stalin.


The largest city in Crimea, Sevastopol is a major port and a highly strategic naval base on the Black Sea. It was founded in 1783 shortly after Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean Khanate.

The City of Sevastopol along with its surrounding towns and communities has a total area of 864 square kilometres and, in 2021, a population of about 510,000. It is ruled by a City Council as a political entity that is separate from the rest of Crimea. Both entities were part of the Ukrainian SSR after 1954.

In 1991, after Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the USSR, Sevastopol became the main base of the Ukrainian navy … while the Russians were still using it as their Black Sea naval base!

However, the Ukraine navy had few ships of its own and was expecting to get a share of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Tensions ran high.

These began to cool in June 1992 when Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine agreed to divide the former Black Sea fleet between the two countries.

On 28 May 1997, a treaty to partition the fleet was signed. In a separate agreement, Russia obtained a long lease of land, facilities and other resources in Sevastopol and Crimea. Russia kept its naval base, with around 15,000 troops stationed in Sevastopol.

After the fleet and its facilities were divided between Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian Naval Forces, the two navies shared many of the city’s harbours and piers. The headquarters of the Russian fleet remained in Sevastopol … with the HQ of the Ukrainian naval forces also in the city !!

Russian remained the predominant language of the Sevastopol as it did in the rest of Crimea. Local society resisted mild attempts by Kyiv at Ukrainization and remained culturally Russian.

The population of Crimea

According to the Ukrainian population census of 2001, the ethnicity of the population of Crimea (excluding Sevastopol) was: Russian (58.3%), Ukrainian (24.3%), Tatars (12.5%), Belarussians (3.5%) and Others (1.4%).

In Sevastopol, according to the same census, 71.6% were ethnic Russians and 22.4% ethnic Ukrainians.

The census also found that 77% of Crimea’s population were native speakers of Russian and a whopping 94% of Sevastopol were native Russian speakers. It appears that many ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea and most Ukrainians in Sevastopol speak Russian from birth, which suggests that they are culturally Russian.

Referendums in Crimea

Over the years, the Crimean people have participated in several referendums on their constitutional position which has changed several times since the early 1990s. They must enjoy them, as turnouts are very high by Western standards and the results suggest a persistent desire for some form of independence.

After a referendum on 20 January 1991, Crimea once again became an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union. A few months later Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

On the 26th of February 1992, the parliament of Crimea changed the name of the peninsula from the Crimean ASSR into the Republic of Crimea. On the 5th of May, it declared Crimea’s independence and picked the 2nd of August for a referendum to approve the declaration. Parliament also passed the first Crimean constitution on the same day.

All this upset Kyiv greatly. So the next day, the 6th of May 1992, the parliament of Crimea amended their constitution to say that Crimea was part of Ukraine. Nevertheless, in spite of this mollification, on the 15th of May the Ukrainian parliament annulled the Crimean declaration of independence and told the Crimean parliament to cancel the referendum. Some hard talking ensued.

A compromise was reached in June 1992, in which Crimea was to be designated an Autonomous Republic, ie a self-governing but integral part of Ukraine. The revised Constitution of Crimea was adopted on the 25th of September 1992. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

In May 1994, the Crimean parliament voted to restore the original constitution of May 1992. Again Kyiv got mighty upset with the upstart Crimeans. In March 1995, the May 1992 Constitution and the post of president was abolished and, from June to September that year, Crimea was ruled directly from Kyiv.

In October 1995, the Crimean parliament adopted a new Constitution which was recognized by Kyiv in April 1996 after significant amendments. It came into effect on 12 January 1999. This constitution was repealed after the referendums in 2014.

The Crimean referendums of 2014

On the 6th of March 2014, under the watchful eyes of the Russian military, Crimea’s parliament and the Sevastopol City Council voted to join the Russian Federation. Referendums were called for March 16th.

Both referendums gave voters two options only:

  • Are you in favour of Crimea and Sevastopol becoming subjects of the Russian Federation?
  • Are you in favour of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution and remaining part of Ukraine?

Voters were not given the option of maintaining the status quo.

The option to restore the 1992 constitution is interesting. Under that constitution Crimea had its own president and constitutional court and controlled its own taxes. It also had full sovereign powers to establish relations with other states.

But at the same time Crimea was not independent of Ukraine … the 1992 Constitution declared Crimea to be a ‘sovereign state’ that ‘enters into the state of Ukraine and defines its relations with Ukraine on the basis of contract and agreements’.

All a bit weird … how can a state be a sovereign within another state? The answer is asymmetrical federalism as invented in Soviet Russia. This bizarre arrangement is typical of the federalism that existed in the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

During his reign over the Socialist Russian Federation, President Boris Yeltsin signed a number of bilateral agreements with ‘sovereign’ states within the Federation that gave them varying degrees of independence from Moscow.

In 1994, for example, Yeltsin signed a treaty with Tatarstan that stated that Tatarstan was ‘united’ with the Russian Federation and had the right to print its own currency, control its finances, and have its own official language.

To recentralise power in Moscow, Vladimir Putin ‘renegotiated’ most of these bilateral relationships when he came to power in 2000.

The official results of the March 16th 2014 referendums in Crimea

The voter turnout in both referendums was very high but not unbelievably so. In Crimea, the turnout was 83 percent and in Sevastopol it was 89 percent. As noted earlier, Crimeans seem to enjoy referendums.

Of those who voted, the official result from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was a 97 percent vote for integration with the Russian Federation. In Sevastopol 97 percent also voted for integration with the Russian Federation.

Following the referendums, the State Council of Crimea and Sevastopol City Council declared their independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation. On the same day, Russia recognized the Republic of Crimea as a sovereign state.

These referendums are not recognized by most countries, mainly due to the presence of Russian soldiers who were there to oversee public buildings and Ukrainian military installations. Sanctions were imposed on Russia by the EU and others in retaliation.

Whether the referendums of 2014 were legitimate is not really relevant. The real question is: did the official results of the referendums reflect the opinions of ordinary Crimeans?

The answer is ‘yes’ according to polls conducted by local and reputable international pollsters, such as Gallop, Pew Research and the GfK Group, before and after the voting.

Public opinion polls before the referendums

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies in 2008, six years earlier, 63.8% of Crimeans (76% of ethnic Russians, 55% of ethnic Ukrainians, and 14% of ethnic Crimean Tatars) wanted Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

A poll conducted in the second week of March 2014, just before the referendums on March 16th, by the Crimean Institute of Political and Social Research found that 77% of respondents intended to vote for ‘reunification with Russia’.

The highly reputable GfK Group, Germany’s largest pollster, also conducted a survey of 600 respondents in the second week of March 2014 and found that 70.6% of Crimeans intended to vote to join Russia, 10.8% for restoring the 1992 constitution, and 5.6% did not intend to take part in the referendum.

This poll also showed that if the choices presented in the referendums were wider, 53.8% of them would choose joining Russia and 18.6% would go for a fully independent Crimean state.

Public opinion polls after the referendums

Immediately after the referendums, Gallup, a well-respected international pollster, conducted a survey and reported that 93.6% of ethnic Russians and 68.4% of ethnic Ukrainians living in Crimea believed that the results of the referendums accurately represented the will of the Crimean people.

In May 2014 Pew Research, an American pollster, published the results of a survey that indicated that 88% of Crimeans believed that Kyiv should officially recognize the result of Crimea’s referendums.

In 2014, John O’Loughlin, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Gearóid Ó Tuathail, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus, commissioned the Levada-Center, an independent, sociological research organization in Russia, to carry out a survey of Crimea.

The results were published in openDemocracy, an independent media platform based in the UK, in March 2015. The survey found that the choice to secede from the Ukraine and join Russia was ‘absolutely the right decision’.

In January 2015, Germany’s GfK Group followed-up their pre-referendums survey of voting intentions with a post-referendums survey, to find out how satisfied Crimeans were with the voting results. The survey showed that 82% of Crimeans ‘fully endorsed’ Crimea’s decision to join the Russian Federation.

In November 2017, three years after the referendums, German pollster ZOiS published a survey which reported that 85.3% of Crimeans (excluding Tatars) and 61.8% of Crimean Tatars (excluding other Crimeans) thought that a majority of Crimeans would vote the same as they did in 2014 if the same referendum were held again in 2017.

Another survey in December 2019 by the Levada-Center, again at the behest of Professors John O’Loughlin and Gearóid Ó Tuathail, that asked the same questions as in the 2014 survey, found that 82% of the  population supported Crimea’s union with Russia compared to 86% in 2014. The survey also found that 58% of Tatars now supported Crimea’s accession to Russia compared to 39% in 2014.

Thus, according to opinion polls conducted by reputable pollsters, the majority of inhabitants of Crimea and Sevastopol wanted to leave Ukraine and join with Russia or else have an independent state.

The official results of the referendums on the 16th of March 2014 were definitely in line with public opinion.

There is a final but interesting question that is worth asking.

Why did the Crimeans vote to leave?

The writer of this article could only find one pollster that asked this question. This was ZOiS. Their survey of 2017 mentioned above also asked why Crimea became a part of Russia in 2014.

Among the Crimean population (excluding Tatars) … 32.9% said it was due to Kyiv’s long-time neglect of the region … 25% said it was because of the mobilization of the Crimean population … 24% that it was due to the civil unrest in Kyiv that began in November 2013, and … 17.4% said it was a result of Russia’s actions.

When the same question was asked of Crimean Tatars (excluding all other Crimeans) … 36.3% said that Crimea became a part of Russia as a result of the events in Kyiv in November 2013 … 32.9% said it was due to Kyiv’s neglect of the region over many years … 24% said it happened as a result of Russia’s action, and … 7.8% said it was due to the mobilization of the Crimean population.

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