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For at least two weeks I have been wondering how I can contribute to this blog, as political topics and the way people are provided with information are not definitely my field of expertise. Over the past few days on several occasions I tried to find an interesting subject or experience to share with you, and in spite of my efforts, I was not able to think about any remarkable fact to describe. Thus, as it usually happens, yesterday evening, as I made a point of concentrating on different matters, I came up with the idea to write about a fact that I could personally witness while I was still living in Donetsk. The fact I am talking about is the “referendum” for the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic hold on May 11th in some major cities of Donbass region.

There are at least three reasons for which I would like to talk about this important event for the future of Ukraine and, to a larger extent, Europe. First of all, as I have already pointed out, I could personally witness the way the “referendum” was carried out. Three Italian journalists asked me to accompany them in some polling stations in Donetsk in order to document the low turnout, to interview electors and to monitor the fairness of the “referendum”. As you can imagine, I agreed. The second reason, which is a direct consequence of the first one, is that after the voting I was really curious about what the most important newspapers of the world had written about this topic. To this extent I decided to read and to compare the way the news was reported, and what I was able to find out should not surprise anyone: most of the authors of the articles that I read were not in Donetsk at the moment of the voting, as a significant percentage of the information provided was completely mystified. If you have a good imagination, to conceive of any kind of irregularity, partisanship, or perhaps of any outstanding low turnout should not be a problem. If you are convincing enough you can even imagine an alien invasion during the voting. What leaves me somewhat perplexed is that people then might believe you. As it will be clear at the end of this article, there is instead a reason for which a lot of the people decided to participate to the voting that day: if we are blind to this thesis, we are missing the core of the issue. Eventually, in my honest opinion, to report about this event, even though it is no longer a topical issue, is extremely important, as its consequences are still a palpable matter.

Before I begin with the description of my witness, I would like to remind you that what I am going to write relies exclusively upon what I saw and nothing more. Probably, what might be misleading for you is the impressions that the facts produced on me. But I am also sure that you will be able to detect them and forgive me for any kind of inaccuracy. Moreover, at this point you have also the right to get acknowledged with what my witness is based on. On May 11th, the day of the “referendum”, we went at about 10 a.m. to Lenin's square, the main square of Donetsk, and interviewed three people about their voting intentions. We also asked those people to show us the way to the most important polling stations in the central neighborhood. At about 10,30 a.m. we moved to the first polling station we were told about. It was a school in Voroshilovskij district not far from Lenin's square. Here we could be able to film and document the low turnout and to interview the president of the station and ten people of different ages and professional background. At about 12,30 p.m. we visited what can be considered the most important polling station in Donetsk, as it was located on the very central Pushkina avenue. Even here we asked for information about the low turnout and interviewed some electors. Eventually, at 16,00 p.m. we moved to a polling station in the suburban Budennovskij neighborhood, as it was rumored that there had been a shooting in the morning. Obviously, the shooting turned out to be nothing more than the product of a very imaginative mind. Nevertheless, we made use of this opportunity to carry out some other interviews and ask people about their voting intentions.

Let's begin our tour then and shift our narration to the present tense in order to make it more vivid. It is 10,30 a.m. of May 11th, the date for which the “government” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic has settled a referendum for the independence from Ukraine of Donbass region. The weather in Donetsk is warm and sunny and Lenin's square seems to be incredibly empty. I simply got used to see it full of shouting children, gossiping parents and chatting young people playing a guitar. Two months ago here there was a huge blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, but today Kiev seems to have lost any political power in this city. By chance we can stop a person and then another, and ask them for their voting intension. In both cases the answer is: “Ja za Rossiju”, i.e. we are for Russia. These are two elder pensioners, who probably do not have any idea about the fact that the “referendum” is not on the annexation of Donbass to Russia. Perhaps they will discover later. Ten more minutes pass and, luckily enough, we meet a middle-aged woman who used to spend some years of her life in Italy and who came back to Donetsk in order to open a restaurant. We introduce ourselves and she invites us to her restaurant, but we kindly refuse. Then she provocatively tells us: “Why don't you go to the polling stations and see what's going on there? Why don't you go to see how many people are democratically expressing their choice?”. This is exactly what we have been waiting for. Then she adds: “Come with me, I will show you”, and she decides to lead us to our first polling station in Voroshilovskij neighborhood not far from Lenin's square. If I understood rightly, she voted for the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic from Ukraine. When we arrive to the polling station I get seriously impressed by the amount of people waiting to express their vote. To be honest I do not have any basis for a comparison, but what I can say is that the queue is very long and it develops for at least twenty meters out of the building which hosts the polling station. They explain me that neither during the presidential elections was registered such an outstanding low turnout. I really find hard to believe to such rumors, but I will make a note of it. Except for the great amount of electors, what positively surprises me is the absence of armed people or soldiers which might prejudice the results of the voting procedure. On the other hand, what I find really odd, is the way the ballot papers look like: they consist in half of a ordinary A4 sheet of paper. They definitely do not seem to be ballot papers. After a small consultation with some electors, we have the opportunity to ask some questions to the president of the polling station. He confirms our impression about the low turnout, but he is not able to provide us with any concrete information: it is still too early for any official data. Instead, he provocatively invites us to film the fairness of the voting procedure and, obviously, we welcome his request. In a few moments it starts to be clear that supposedly all the people who came here, are going to support the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, as we are able to detect some conversations between them. What is not clear instead is the reason: was it really bad with Ukraine? We immediately ask some electors of different ages and professional background, including elder pensioners, middle-aged workers and employees, and even two young students. Surprisingly enough the answers are unanimous: “Kiev hates us. We are afraid of fascists. We cannot forget what happened in Odessa on (May 4th) and Mariupol' (on May 9th) and we would like to avoid for such tragedies to happen here”.

At about 12 p.m. we decide to move to school number one in Pushkina avenue, hosting the second polling station we have planned to visit. The headquarter of separatists, the previous seat of the regional administration, is not far from here. There emotions are running high as the very well armed militias is ready to respond to any “provocation” from the Ukrainian army. I feel quite uncomfortable here. Nevertheless Donetsk now seems to be awake: the weather is very generous, cars can drive through in spite of the tensioned atmosphere, cafes and restaurants are full of people and foreign journalists. It is almost 12,30 p.m. and we decide to enter into the polling station. The queue is not very long and the voting procedure are flowing surprisingly fast. We are able to interview the president of the station, a middle-aged dressy woman, who explains us that the highest level of turnout was registered at about 11 a.m. and that now people are having their lunch. She adds that according to the last counting around 40% of voters took part in the “referendum” and expressed their choice. Assuming that the counting is reliable, data is quite amazing. Not to say that from the transparent ballot box is clear that almost all the votes are in favour of the independence of Donbass from Ukraine. Again, I wonder what exactly led so many people to vote and to express their intention to be a separate country from Ukraine. Was it so bad? Let's ask for clarification some people. The answers are very similar one another and consist of the same speech about the facts of Odessa and Mariupol'. People must have got very scared with reference to these facts, and probably a one way interpretation of them might have affected their choice. Anyway, it is not time to draw conclusions, let's better move on with our story and shift to another relevant fact. It is rumored that in the morning there was a shooting in a polling station in Budennovskij district. We decide to go there to check.

At 16.00 p.m. we finally succeed in getting there and what we find instead of a tensioned atmosphere, is a remarkable queue of people waiting to express their vote. No armed people and no signs of shooting are detectable. Some elder voters, after having performed their duty, are sitting in the shadow of a tree eating sunflower seeds. As we are able to learn, a shooting episode there was, but not in Budennovskij neighborhood and neither in Donetsk. If I am not wrong it happened in Adveevka, a small city not far from here. We ask people about their choice and the refrain is the same: “we want to live in peace, we do not want to live in a fascist country. We want for our children to live in a tolerant society. What happened in Mariupol' and Odessa can happen even here and we have to protect ourselves”. Again I remain impressed about the recurrence of such words and I am not really able to provide any explanation for them. After having visited the polling station we decide they we have collected enough information and that it is time for a snack.

Let's come now to some conclusions. It is clear that the “referendum” for the independence from Ukraine of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic was a pseudo one, and this for several reasons. First of all because from a legal viewpoint on an international level nobody, including Russia, recognized its validity. Second, a lot of people were unable to vote, as they were not in Donbass during the voting or simply were afraid of expressing their opinion, and the turnout of nearly 75% declared by separatists could not be independently verified. Third, as I have already explained, the ballot papers did not really look like as real ones. On the opposite side, what cannot be denied is that a lot of “normal” and “civilized” people that day expressed their choice in favour of the independence of Donbass from Ukraine and that, at least in Donetsk, they were not under the pressure of any armed militias forcing them to participate to the voting. As many people explained, the facts of Odessa and Mariupol encouraged them to express their choice in favour of the independence. Now the questions are: where these people under the influence of any kind of propaganda or not? What really happened in Mariupol and Odessa and how was this news reported in Donbass? In which way and how these facts could frighten so many people in Donetsk and affect their choice? For these questions up to now I could not be able to find any answer. Assuming, as I do, that the way the facts of Mariupol' and Odessa were reported in Donbass was a decisive factor for people to participate to the “referendum”, it remains unclear how this could happen.

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