TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Russian authorities are holding local elections this weekend in occupied parts of Ukraine in an effort to tighten their grip on territories Moscow illegally annexed a year ago and still does not fully control.
The voting for Russian-installed legislatures in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions has already begun and concludes Sunday. It has been denounced by Kyiv and the West.
“It constitutes a flagrant violation of international law, which Russia continues to disregard,” the Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, said this week.
Kyiv echoed that sentiment, with the parliament saying in a statement that the balloting in areas where Russia “conducts active hostilities” poses a threat to Ukrainian lives. Ukrainian officials have urged other countries not to recognize the results of the vote, which the Foreign Ministry called “fake elections.”
Meanwhile in New York, United Nations leaders, Western nations and Ukraine clashed with Russia over the legality of the vote in a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenca said the elections “have no legal grounds.” U.S. Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood called them ”nothing more than a propaganda stunt.”
British Ambassador Barbara Woodward reiterated that “you can’t hold elections in someone else’s country," and Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, described the vote as "an outright election farce.”
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, defended Moscow’s annexation of the four regions a year ago and insisted that people “are actively and consciously voting for their future together with Russia.”
For Russia — which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago — it is important to go on with the voting to maintain the illusion of normalcy, despite the fact that the Kremlin does not have full control over the annexed regions, political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.
“The Russian authorities are trying hard to pretend that everything is going according to plan, everything is fine. And if everything is going according to plan, then the political process should go according to plan,” said Gallyamov, who worked as a speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin when Putin served as prime minister.
Voters are supposed to elect regional legislatures, which in turn will appoint regional governors. In the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, thousands of candidates are also competing for seats on dozens of local councils.
The balloting is scheduled for the same weekend as other local elections in Russia. Voting for federal and local legislators is also underway in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
In the regions annexed after the full-scale invasion last year, early voting kicked off last week as election officials went door to door or set up makeshift polling stations in public places to attract passersby.
The main contender in the election is United Russia, the Putin-loyal party that dominates Russian politics, although other parties, such as the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, are also on the ballots.
For some residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, large swaths of which have been held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, there is nothing unusual about the vote.
“For the last nine years, we’ve been striving to get closer with Russia, and Russian politicians are well-known to us,” Sergei, a 47-year-old resident of the occupied city of Luhansk, told The Associated Press, asking that his last name be withheld for security reasons. “We’re speaking Russian and have felt like part of Russia for a long time, and these elections only confirm that.”
Some voters in Donetsk shared Sergei’s sentiment, expressing love for Russia and saying they want to be part of it.
The picture appears bleaker in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Local residents and Ukrainian activists say poll workers make house calls accompanied by armed soldiers, and most voters know little about the candidates, up to half of whom reportedly arrived from Russia — including remote regions in Siberia and the far east.
“In most cases, we don’t know these Russian candidates, and we’re not even trying to figure it out,” said Konstantin, who currently lives in the Russian-held part of the Kherson region on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
Using only his first name for safety reasons, Konstantin said in a phone interview that billboards advertising Russian political parties have sprung up along the highways, and сampaign workers have been bused in ahead of the vote.
But “locals understand that these elections don’t influence anything” and “are held for Russian propaganda purposes,” Kostantin said, comparing this year’s vote to the referendums Moscow staged last year in the four partially occupied regions.
Those referendums were designed to put a veneer of democracy on the annexation. Ukraine and the West denounced them as a sham and decried the annexation as illegal.
Weeks after the referendums, Russian troops withdrew from the city of Kherson, the capital of the region of the same name, and areas around it, ceding them back to Ukraine. As a result, Moscow has maintained control of about 70% of the region.
Three other regions are also only partially occupied, and Kyiv's forces have managed to regain more land — albeit slowly and in small chunks — during their summer counteroffensive.
In the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, where the counteroffensive efforts are focused, Moscow-installed authorities declared a holiday on Friday for the voting.
The Russian-appointed governor of the annexed region, Yevgeny Balitsky, noted in a recent statement that 13 front-line cities and villages in the region come under regular shelling, but he expressed hope that despite the difficulties, the United Russia party “will get the result it deserves.”
Ivan Fedorov, Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a Russian-held city in the Zaporizhzhia region, told The Associated Press that local residents are effectively being forced to vote.
“When there’s an armed person standing in front of you, it’s hard to say no,” he said.
There are four different parties on the ballot, the mayor said, but billboards advertise only one — United Russia. “It looks like the Russian authorities know the result (of the election) already,” he said.
The city’s population of 60,000 — down from 149,000 before the war — has been subject to enhanced security in the days leading up to the election, according to Fedorov. Authorities stop people in the streets to check their identification documents and detain anyone who looks suspicious, he said.
“People are intimidated and scared, because everyone understands that an election in an occupied city is like voting in prison,” Fedorov said.
Russian authorities aim to have up to 80% of the population take part in the early voting, according to the Eastern Human Rights Group, a Ukrainian rights group that monitors the vote in the occupied territories.
Poll workers go door to door — to markets, grocery stores and other public places — to get people to cast ballots. Both those who have gotten Russian citizenship and those still holding Ukrainian passports are allowed to vote.
Those who refuse to vote are being detained for three or four hours, the group’s coordinator, Pavlo Lysianskyi, said. The authorities make them “write an explanatory statement, which later becomes grounds for a criminal case against the person.”
Lysianskyi’s group has counted at least 104 cases of Ukrainians being detained in occupied regions for refusing to take part in the vote.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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