What so many people in the West do not understand is that democratic institutions such as "free elections" and "referendums" can easily be manipulated in authoritarian states to produce whatever result is desirable to the state.
Westerners have not experienced and can barely imagine the types of violations and tricks used. These techniques were widely applied in the Soviet Union and have continued to be honed and perfected in post-Soviet states where dictators and autocrats maintain their grip on the state while displaying the external attributes of democracy to the outside world.
Here is a sample list of election fraud techniques gleaned from the Russian Wikipedia:
- refusal to register certain candidates because they do not meet certain requirements established by by the dominant political power
- creating polling stations that are too tiny or numerous to be properly monitored given limited party funds
- photographing filled in ballots or otherwise breaching voting confidentiality
- falsifying the ratings of candidates and political parties leading up to the election in order to win the support of conformist voting segments who go along with the majority
- buying voters or exerting administrative pressure; threatening to fire employees if they do not vote for a certain party (in organizations or enterprises controlled by party structures or supporters)
- forcing people to vote by absentee ballot, which are more easily falsified
- voters submitting multiple ballots, which requires adding "dead souls" or other nonexistent voters to voter lists in order to keep the numbers of ballots balanced with the number of voters, and somehow getting additional ballots to certain people in advance
- using disappearing ink in regions where people are likely to vote for the "wrong" candidate or party
- putting barely noticeable marks in the boxes for the "correct" candidate that are then picked up by electronic readers
- "carousel" method of buying votes, where a voter is handed a pre-filled out ballot before he enters the polling station; there he receives a fresh ballot and in the booth puts it in his pocket and places the other ballot in the box; outside the polling station he gives the agent the empty ballot and receives his pay
- removal of official observers or blocking their access to polling stations or to entire regions
- falsification of, or deliberate counting mistakes in polling station protocols showing the number of votes for different candidates
- repealing polling results due to various "infringements" in areas where the "wrong" candidates enjoyed popular support
A number of such techniques were documented during the Crimean referendum of March 16. Not to mention that according to Ukraine's constitution such a referendum must be held over the entire country, the referendum took place under Russian military presence with severe anti-Ukraine propaganda, over half of voters did not participate (largely due to the view that the results were predetermined and illegitimate), and the Crimean government had recently come to power under very suspicious circumstances after a seizure of the Crimean Parliament building by masked and unmarked soldiers of "unknown origin."
That is how you get "97% support" for becoming part of Russia in a region where independent polls showed just 41% support three weeks earlier.
Many people in the West have bought into at least some of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow. In post-Soviet rhetoric, it is perfectly normal to call a democratic movement "undemocratic," popular protests "a Western plot," opposition leaders "unpatriotic," supporters of statehood "fascists," the use of force against citizens an "anti-terrorist operation," and someone else's anti-terrorist operation "brutal suppression of peaceful protests."
Westerners are simply not used to this degree of reality distortion and tend to assume that "the truth is somewhere in between" what they hear from different media sources.
Many sympathize with certain statements and stances that Putin has made against western powers, as if he were giving voice to their own gripes. I can assure such people that what Putin means when he says something is not what you mean when you say it. Putin is not a Libertarian or a neoconservative. The political category he represents probably doesn't even exist in your country.
This is reminiscent of those idealistic American communists of the early XX century who "resonated" with the Bolshevik Revolution and the propaganda coming out of the early Soviet Union. They emigrated to Communist Russia to create a better life for themselves in what they thought was a country built upon the very ideals they espoused.
These poor souls were promptly sent off to the camps or otherwise destroyed. What the Bolsheviks had created was not communism "for the people," but a totalitarian state that used communist rhetoric for PR purposes but whose main objective was the preservation of absolute centralized control.
According to political scientists, modern Russia qualifies as an authoritarian state. It just happens to use democratic rhetoric that Westerners think they understand because the words are familiar.
People in the West can often recognize "media spin," but they are largely unaware of more crude forms of information control. In democratic countries with more or less independent media, if you don't like the "spin" on one channel, you just switch the channel.
But imagine there is just one channel, or all the channels show the same thing. How would you know there is a "media spin?" Or what if there is simply complete and utter silence, like in the first few days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster?
Can you imagine that a kind of unofficial state committee would issue instructions to news channels indicating how they were to cover new events? Can you imagine that such facts would be common knowledge among reporters, and yet the public would almost never hear about it? Can you imagine journalists routinely being intimidated, refused access to events, or even beaten, tortured, or killed?
These things are truly difficult to imagine in the West. When thinking about post-Soviet countries which have the appearance of democratic institutions, it is only natural to assume that these institutions work in roughly the same way as those in your home country.
Just think about it: what sort of environment would produce citizens who express the views that "nothing can be changed," "nothing depends on us," "all I can do is just go about my life," and "getting involved in politics just means trouble"?
Hopefully now it is a bit more clear where this political fatalism comes from.