Referendum of March 1991

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On March 17, 1991, a referendum was held in the Soviet Union in which voters were asked the following question: "Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?" The referendum was sponsored by the Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who hoped it would make clear that despite rising separatist sentiments in many parts of the USSR, a majority of Soviet citizens wanted the country to remain unified. The six union republics where separatist aspirations were strongestArmenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia (Moldova)boycotted the referendum. However, their populations made up only approximately 7 percent of the total USSR population. Overall turnout was 80.0 percent, and 76.4 percent of those participating voted "yes." In Russia, turnout was 75.4 percent, with 71.3 percent voting "yes," while in Ukraine turnout was 83.5 percent, with 70.2 percent voting "yes" (the lowest percentage among all union republics). In all six republics with traditionally Muslim majorities, well over 90 percent voted "yes."

The results were initially interpreted as a victory for Gorbachev and other defenders of the union. However, the significance of the referendum was undermined by the ambiguity of the question. It was unclear, for example, what was meant by "a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics." In addition, some of the participating republics added supplemental questions to the ballot. In Russia, for example, voters were asked to endorse the establishment of a directly elected Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) president, which was understood as an opportunity to support the leader of the Russian government and Gorbachev's principal rival at the time, Boris Yeltsin. In Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, voters were asked whether they supported their republic's sovereignty as part of a new union, while in Kazakhstan the wording of the referendum was changed by substituting "equal sovereign states" for "equal sovereign republics." In each case, the electorate approved the supplemental questions. Thus the referendum failed to resolve the Soviet Union's crisis of territorial integrity. Nine months later, the USSR passed into history as a legal entity. Nevertheless, in the long term the referendum left a legacy of post-independence resentment in those areas where the electorate had voted in favor of a preserved union; many people felt that the USSR's dissolution had been opposed by the great majority of Soviet voters.

See also: gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; nationalities policies, soviet; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich


Brady, Henry E., and Kaplan, Cynthia S. (1994). "Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union." In Referendums around the World: The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, ed. David Butler and Austin Ranney. Washington, DC: AEI Press.

Walker, Edward W. (2003). Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Breakup of the USSR. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.

Edward W. Walker