The new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, got off to a quick start in her job with a statement on 2 November saying:
I consider today’s ‘presidential and parliamentary elections’ in Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognise it.
These negative comments compare unfavourably to the reaction to parliamentary elections in the rest of Ukraine a week earlier. In a typical response to those, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper commented that:
I would like to congratulate the people of Ukraine for stepping up, for the second time in 2014, to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. Today’s elections represent an important step in the process of strengthening democracy in Ukraine, and its people continue to show resilience, courage and commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous country for themselves.
This contrast displays, I think, a misunderstanding of what political legitimacy is. Simply put, it is ‘the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern. It is a judgment by an individual about the rightfulness of a hierarchy between rule or ruler and its subject and about the subordinate’s obligations toward the rule or ruler. … legitimacy itself is a fundamentally subjective and normative concept: it exists only in the beliefs of an individual about the rightfulness of rule.’ Western leaders are quite entitled to consider one process legitimate and another illegitimate, but it is a mistake for them to think that their personal opinion is an objective fact.
As I have mentioned previously, turnout in the Ukrainian election in those parts of Donbass which are still under Ukrainian government control was only about 30%. By contrast, officials in breakaway Donbass claim a turnout of about 60% in their election. We cannot confirm this figure, but even Western journalists who are not noted for their support for the Ukrainian rebels reported ‘great enthusiasm’ and ‘huge crowd[s]’ at polling booths. Western leaders may view the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics as illegitimate and the government of Ukraine as legitimate, but the people who live in Donbass obviously have a different opinion.
In a post for the CIPS blog some months ago, I remarked that the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk in May should serve as a wake-up call indicating that a large part of the Ukrainian population disliked the government in Kiev and that some political concessions were necessary to prevent the situation from getting worse. Instead, Western and Ukrainian politicians chose to bury their heads in the sand, with disastrous consequences. Denying reality does not make it go away.