Celebrating the third anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sputnik International, the Kremlin-backed international broadcaster, interviewed Natalya Poklonskaya, the current member of the Russian Parliament and former Crimean prosecutor general known for her active pro-Russian position and role in Moscow’s takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula.
In the introduction to its interview, Sputnik said that in the “referendum” held in Crimea under Russian supervision on March 16, 2014, “more than 95 percent of the peninsula’s residents voted in favor of rejoining Russia.” Yet, in the same paragraph, Sputnik said “over 80 percent of Crimeans came out to a referendum hastily organized by weary Crimean authorities.”
The broadcaster gave no explanation for the discrepancy in the numbers.
The March 16, 2014 vote in Crimea asked participants if they wanted to join Russia or restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea's status as a part of Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department dismissed the March 16, 2014 vote in Crimea as an “an illegitimate referendum,” and the European Union also declared that vote illegal.
In its interview with Polonskaya, Sputnik asked her what she thought the outcome would be of a referendum in Crimea were it held today. "I am confident that today, 100 percent of Crimeans would vote to return to Russia,” it quoted her as saying.
Polonskaya’s estimate that “100 percent of Crimeans would vote to return to Russia,” while only an opinion, is nonetheless somewhat misleading, at least judging by publicly available polling data.
For example, polling conducted in Crimea by the Russian polling agency Open Opinion April-June 2016 – more than two years after the “referendum” -- found that 87.5 percent of the respondents approved of the decision to join Russia, while 3 percent disapproved and 10 percent either found it difficult to answer or refused to answer.
Likewise, Evgeniy Kopatko, founder of the Research & Branding Group, a public opinion firm based in Ukraine, told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency in March 2015, a year after Crimea’s “referendum,” that were it held again, the results would be similar to March 2014 -- i.e., 80-90 percent would vote to join Russia.
Still, some analysts, question whether public opinion can accurately be measured in post-annexation Crimea.
“Any opinion poll that is carried out in the Crimea after the annexation smacks of falsehood,” wrote Pavel Kazarin in 2016. “Simply because the Criminal Code has specific articles with which it is possible to punish a respondent for excessive sincerity. And because in any poll, what matters is not what people say, but what they prefer to remain silent about.”
In addition, Open Opinion found in its April-June 2016 polling that only 43 percent of Crimea’s residents considered themselves citizens of the Russian Federation, with the percentage sliding down significantly in the younger age categories.
A final issue is the Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s indigenous people, a majority of whom did not -- and reportedly do not -- recognize Russian authority over their homeland, choosing instead to remain part of Ukraine.
A Muslim minority, the Tatars make up about 12 percent of Crimea’s population. According to their leaders, the Crimean Tatars have been the target of persecution and severe pressure by Russian law enforcement agencies since the peninsula’s annexation.
Also problematic in Polonskaya’s comments to Sputnik was her claim that Crimea was “returned to Russia legally,” implying that the peninsula was somehow wrongfully taken from Russia.
The best refutation of her comments came from President Vladimir Putin, who said in an interview with Germany’s ARD television channel on August 29, 2008: “Crimea is not in any sense a disputed territory. Russia has long ago recognized the borders of today’s Ukraine.”