Russian authorities are holding local elections 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 Zaporizhia regions has already begun and concludes Sunday. The elections have been denounced by Kyiv and the West.
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“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 balloting in areas where Russia “conducts active hostilities” poses a threat to Ukrainian lives.
Ukrainian officials have urged other countries not to recognise the results of the vote, which the foreign ministry called “fake elections”.
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, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago.
In the occupied regions, 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 others, such as the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, are also on the ballots.
For some residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, 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 news agency, 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 wanted to be part of it.
Kherson and Zaporizhia
The picture appears bleaker in Kherson and Zaporizhia. Residents and Ukrainian activists said 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 Dnipro 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 before the vote.
But “locals understand that these elections don’t influence anything” and “are held for Russian propaganda purposes,” Konstantin 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 percent 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 counteroffensive this year.