Kyiv, Ukraine – The pro-Russian authorities had no choice but to bus in hundreds of “film extras”.
That is how Ivan Fyodorov, the pro-Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a city in the Russia-occupied southern region of Zaporizhia, described a rally this week backing an upcoming “referendum” to join Russia.
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“They brought ‘film extras’ from other temporarily-occupied areas to Melitopol – 700 people – because they couldn’t even find that many [supporters] among locals,” Fyodorov, who fled the city after it was occupied in early March, wrote on Telegram on Tuesday, using a term that has been a trademark of pro-Kremlin parties and politicians for decades.
Monday’s rally followed an announcement made hours earlier by Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhia, who signed a decree to hold the so-called referendum. He did not specify, however, when it would take place and did not disclose any other significant details such as the wording on the ballots.
To observers, the reason is simple: Moscow, they say, can barely predict – let alone plan – events in the occupied parts of Ukraine because of chaotic administration and a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“I have a feeling that the level of coordination and planning of all of these steps has degraded even in comparison with February” before the invasion began, Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
“Things are totally dysfunctional,” he said.
On August 5, the Meduza.io news website claimed the Kremlin had conducted a series of opinion polls in Zaporizhzhia and its southern neighbour Kherson (also taken over in early March), and found out that only 30 percent of locals would vote to join Russia.
However, in parts of Zaporizhzhia, pro-Russian locals are in control, collaborating with the occupying Russian forces and forcing their opponents into silence.
“They tell the Rashists [a neologism combining “Russian” and “racists”] which of their neighbours served in the military, which left [the occupied areas] for good, so that the Rashists could move in their apartments or loot them,” an elderly woman, who lives in a small Zaporizhzhia town, told Al Jazeera.
She said she is “surrounded” by pro-Russian neighbours and could not provide her name or location because they could “snitch” on her.
But the ground is shaking underneath the feet of Moscow-appointed officials.
Several turncoats have been killed, while the Russian-appointed governor of Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, was reportedly flown to an intensive care hospital in Moscow after being poisoned earlier in August. Saldo’s deputy denied the reports.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces slowly retake parts of Kherson and use high precision, United States-supplied HIMARS missile launchers to destroy ammunition depots and supply centres located dozens of kilometres away from the front lines.
Balitsky’s “referendum” announcement followed a statement by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who said on Sunday that Moscow would lose “any chance” of peace talks with Kyiv or the West should it choose to hold such votes.
The Kremlin promptly argued it had nothing to do with Balitsky’s decree.
“These plans are made by those regions’ residents. It’s not us who is holding the referendums,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.
But his words echoed what Russian President Vladimir Putin said about the “little green men”, or tens of thousands of soldiers in unmarked uniforms, who seized government buildings and military bases in Crimea in early 2014.
They then guarded the March 27, 2014 “referendum” on the Black Sea peninsula’s “reunification” with Russia that has not been recognised by Ukraine or the West.
“Those were local self-defence forces,” Putin told a news conference in March 2014 – only to contradict himself a month later by admitting that the “little green men” were indeed Russian servicemen.
At the time, the central Ukrainian government in Kyiv was new and barely functional after months-long protests overthrew pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Weeks later, thousands of pro-Russian separatists – armed, trained and aided by Russian officers – forced the demoralised and unprepared Ukrainian army out of parts of the rustbelt regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in the country’s east.
“Referendums” were held in Luhansk on April 27 and in Donetsk on May 11 – but the wording on “ballots” implied that the regions would become “independent” instead of being annexed by Moscow.
‘Done for domestic audience’
Both times, the polling took place in schools, government buildings or community centres. Most of the election officials were school teachers or low-level public officials.
The setup looked like almost any other election in the former Soviet Union – with a couple of significant differences.
The number of polling stations was deliberately low – so that the voters would crowd each one. And even with that, election officials would repeat phrases such as, “There were throngs of people just now. They just left! If you could wait a bit, you will see them again!”, as they told this reporter who covered the events in Crimea and Donetsk with a television crew.
Standing next to stern-looking men from “self-defence” units or separatist fighters, who did not say a word, the officials would also say things like, “We are going back to the motherland!”; or “The fascist regime in Kyiv is organising a genocide of Russian-speaking Ukrainians!”; or “Russia will protect your children from gay propaganda!”; or “Your salaries and pensions will be so much higher!”
Most of the voters were elderly people who flocked the polling stations minutes after they opened at 8am. They were staunch Kremlin loyalists who were nostalgic about their Soviet-era youth and relied mostly on Russian television for information.
Andreas Umland, an analyst with the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies, told Al Jazeera the Kremlin today does not have “illusions that somebody outside Russia” would trust the result of such a process.
“It’s mainly done for the domestic audience,” he said, adding the “semblance of legitimacy” would be created by the photos and television footage from a handful of polling stations filled with locals who genuinely want to live in Russia.
“A small percentage of these people in these regions, in Kherson and Zaporizhia, that are actually supporting Russia, will go to the referendums,” he said.
To boost the percentage of favourable votes, some also say pro-Moscow authorities may also use a bag of tricks from Russian elections – from ballot-stuffing to intimidation or petty payments.
“The approach is individual – somebody is afraid of losing their job, somebody – of getting beaten. And those who have nothing to lose will be happy with a bag of buckwheat,” Sergey Bizyukin, an opposition activist and activist from the western Russian city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera.
Bizyukin’s reports about how Roman Putin, the Russian president’s nephew, allegedly tried to pay voters in Ryazan and forced the former to withdraw from regional elections in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, the inevitable international rejection of the results would only strengthen how they are seen in Russia, according to observers.
“Their legitimacy equals absolute zero,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera. “But because of the way the current system of Russia’s statehood is designed, it envisages zero legitimacy in the eyes of the world.”