SIMFEROPOL, Crimea – On March 16, as Crimeans voted in a referendum on joining Russia, a convoy of Russian minibuses and cars drew up to the center of Lytvynenkove, a village about 15 miles northeast of the peninsular capital.
Members of the local self-defense committee of Crimean Tatars, the Muslim minority group who were exiled under Stalin but returned here when Communist rule collapsed, watched with trepidation as about 50 men, some in track suits and others in military uniform, got out of the vehicles.
But the passengers hadn’t come to bully the local Tatar population, which had announced a boycott. Instead, they headed into the local polling station.
The two white vans and the several cars were registered in Krasnodar, Russia. The men’s accents were Russian, and so, from their appearance, were they – those in uniform were Don Cossacks, a famed fighting force that served the czars and now, experts say, has become a sort of Pretorian guard for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Political tourists” traveling by the van-load from one polling station to the next have been a feature of Ukrainian elections going back more than a decade – locals call it “carousel voting” – but this was the first time that anyone had heard of foreigners getting into the act, a Tatar organizer said.
Tatar observers alerted their counterparts in nearby villages, and the convoy next turned up in Zuya, just three miles south. Later that afternoon, the scene repeated itself later in Petrove, a few miles further down the road, said Zair Smedlyayev, head of central election commission of the Tatar’s Kurultai, an unofficial council, who fielded many of the calls from Tatar observers in the provinces that day.
The “Cossack Carousel” vote is but one of many tales that add to deep doubt about the validity of the snap secession referendum, which took place only nine days after it was announced.
The United States and its European allies have said from the beginning that the referendum was illegal and that its results would not be accepted.
But until now no one has examined the conduct of the referendum or the accuracy of Putin’s claim that more than 82 percent of the electorate took part and that 96 percent of them favored joining Russia, a result some U.S. politicians seem to accept.
On Sunday, U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, indicated she viewed the referendum as legitimate.
“The Crimea is dominantly Russian; a referendum was passed,” she said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union. “That, I think, has been done,” adding later, “I get the Crimea thing.”
But there are many reasons to doubt that the referendum was conducted fairly and that the result was what Putin announced.
A reporter for the local Tatar ATR television station said he was able to register and vote in four separate polling stations. In Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, initial results spoke of a 123 percent turnout.
Putin’s claim of 96 percent favoring secession out of an 82 percent turnout also appears to be mathematically impossible. Both the local Ukrainian community and the Tatars, who make up just under 30 percent of the 2.2 million residents of Crimea, organized a boycott. Even with defections, and there were some, both the alleged turnout and margin of victory would be impossible without many pro-Russian voters casting ballots multiple times.