Briefs

Estonia: 20-26 June 2016

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A Russian-language, pro-Kremlin website in Estonia claims Britain’s recent Brexit vote was “undemocratic” because the results were not binding. It cited the Crimea referendum of 2014 as a positive example how referendum results should be handled. 

Event: On 26 June, Seti.ee—a Russian-language web portal based in the eastern Estonian city of Narva—published a story titled “How referendums broke the illusion of Western democracy” under the pseudonym Koka. A day earlier, Dni.ru—a popular Russian-language news website owned by pro-Kremlin politician and businessman Konstantin Rykov—published a similar article under the same title.

The false fact or narrative: Both articles make two false claims: first, that if a referendum’s results are not legally binding, it means the country sponsoring it is not democratic, and second, that the Crimea referendum was therefore legal. They also falsely assert that the West has double standards of democracy since the Dutch government did not consider its April 2016 referendum on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement to be legally binding; nor did the British government when it came to Brexit. Yet the West does not recognize Crimea’s March 2014 status referendum, in which Moscow implemented the free will of the Crimean people.

Facts on the ground: In a representative democracy, the results of referendums do not necessarily have to be legally binding. The Crimean referendum is internationally considered as illegal, since it was inconsistent with Ukrainian law, and because it took place under a foreign, illegal armed occupation without freedom of speech, media access for the opposition, or credible international monitoring.

Technique:
  • False conclusion. The fact that some referendums’ results are not legally binding does not mean that Western countries are not democratic.
  • False comparison. The Dutch and British referendums earlier this year cannot be compared to the 2014 referendum in Crimea because the first two took place according to national and international standards. The Crimea referendum did not meet those standards; therefore it is untrue that the results of the two European votes were handled undemocratically, invalidating any comparison with the Crimea referendum.

Audience: Seti.ee gets about 2,000 daily visitors; 681 of them viewed this particular article. 

Analysis: The article overlooks the fact that both the Netherlands and the UK held their referendums and handled the results according to their own laws, EU laws and internationally accepted regulations. The Dutch constitution has no provisions on referendums, which means that no referendum can be binding. Its April 2016 referendum on the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement was held according to the Advisory Referendum Act. In Britain’s case, the results of the 23 June vote to leave the EU will be handled under the British constitution, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the European Communities Act of 1972. However, the Crimea referendum was inconsistent with Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitution, which states that “issues of altering the territory of Ukraine are resolved exclusively by an all-Ukrainian referendum.“ In addition, the referendum was held under an illegal Russian armed occupation, with no freedom of expression, no opposition media access and no credible international monitoring—and therefore not in accordance with internationally accepted regulations.

Description of sources: Seti.ee is a Russian-language web portal based in Narva, the third largest city in Estonia. Located in extreme eastern Estonia on the Russian border, Narva is home to about 62,000 people, of which 94 percent are Russian-speakers, 82 percent ethnic Russians, 46.7 percent Estonian citizens, 36.3 percent Russian citizens and 15.3 percent of undefined citizenship. Seti.ee is owned and financed by the Estonian businessman Roman Gribov. It was one of the first web portals in East Estonia geared to a local audience. Most of its content is not original but is based on other channels’ content. Nor does it distinguish between journalists and non-journalists; anyone who has an account can use the web portal to publish an article. Most of its authors write under pseudonyms rather than real names.  

Dni.ru is a Moscow-based, Russian-language news website owned by pro-Kremlin politician and businessman Konstantin Rykov. In 2007, Rykov was elected to the Duma as a candidate for United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rykov reportedly supports Putin via his other websites, Zaputina.ru  and Russia.ru. According to “Russia Today: Atlas for Business and Political Decision Makers,” Rykov is closely tied to the Putin administration and was among key figures to funnel money to United Russia. Freelance journalist Leonid Ragozin says Rykov is dubbed the father of Russian troll culture and has helped to set up several pro-Kremlin news portals and the website of Russia's main TV channel. Since 2002, Rykov has headed the Internet department of state-run TV Channel One. Dni.ru receives about 300,000 unique visitors per day