‘Why vote?’: apathy in Ukraine amid so-called referendums | Ukraine

WWith minimal preparation, armed soldiers standing guard and the rumbles of war often heard in the distance, so-called referendums began Friday in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

Residents in the Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions were told to vote on proposals for the four areas to declare independence and then join Russia.

The polls have been widely condemned as illegal in Kiev and the west and appear to be a flimsy attempt to cover the illegal annexation of the regions by Moscow. They were hastily organized after being announced earlier this week and will last until Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia plans to claim the territories after the voting formalities are over, and he threatened on Wednesday that Moscow would be willing to defend its gains with all available means, including nuclear weapons.

In Kiev, officials said the votes would have no effect on the situation on the ground or the Ukrainian military’s ongoing counter-offensive.

“There is no referendum. There is a propaganda exercise called a referendum,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in an interview. “It means nothing. It will be some staged things where there will be Russian television cameras.”

The Guardian spoke to several people in the occupied city of Kherson through secure messaging apps on Thursday and Friday, all of whom reported a lack of activity on the ground.

“I don’t know anyone who plans to vote this weekend. I’m against annexation, but why bother to vote? Everything has already been decided for us – I’m sure they will count the votes as it suits them. It’s all pointless,” says Svitlana, who described herself as a largely apolitical stay-at-home mom.

The speed with which the vote was organized seems to have meant that the occupation authorities have not had time to launch a voting campaign or even pressure people to vote.

“I haven’t seen any campaigns, or billboards, I don’t have any information about where people should vote. There is a rumor that they will be going door to door, but I don’t know,” said another person from Kherson, who asked to remain anonymous, when reached on Friday morning.

He described an increasingly tense atmosphere in the city in recent weeks, especially since the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeastern region of Kharkov. Others described similar feelings.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to get in touch with people in the city. There are now constant searches, telephones are checked. I’m often too afraid to talk about politics with my friends now, afraid of getting them into trouble,” said Olena, a Kherson resident who left the city two weeks ago.

In interviews for Russian media, the Russian-appointed deputy governor of the occupied Kherson region claimed that 198 polling booths had been opened in the region. “Our future is part of one great and united country,” Kirill Stremousov said. Video from Donetsk reportedly showed “mobile voting committees” going from house to house asking people to come into the courtyard to vote, attracting the loudspeaker electorate.

Stremousov falsely claimed that the vote met all international electoral standards.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees the elections, listed a number of reasons why the referenda would not have legal force: they do not meet international standards, they violate Ukrainian law, the areas are not safe, there will be no independent observers and a large part of the population has fled.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum also criticized as illegitimate, and since 2014 has controlled and administered part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as proxy “people’s republics”.

Rumors have it that the Kremlin had been planning votes in eastern Ukraine since the spring, but Moscow hoped to gain full control of the four regions before ordering the referendum. When Ukraine launched its counteroffensive earlier this month, the plans were postponed indefinitely.

“A few weeks ago, we saw all the advisers coming from Russia to organize this referendum flying home, and it seemed they were delaying it,” an intelligence source in Kiev said.

“We think with the counter-offensive they realized that the military situation was not conducive to doing this, but after thinking for a while decided it’s better to do it badly than not at all.”

Ukraine’s recapture of territory where the Russians had promised locals they would be there “forever” has sent shockwaves through the other occupied territories, prompting many to rethink their decisions on cooperation, Ukrainian officials say.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk claimed she heard intercepted phone calls from the occupied territories from people trying to escape previous agreements to work with the Russians after she was shocked by the counteroffensive’s success.

“People massively tried to escape the organization of this referendum. I heard these conversations, they were thinking about running away, how to write a letter of resignation,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of people have left the occupied territories since the invasion, some to Russia and others to Ukraine-controlled territory or Western Europe.

As the occupation has continued, the Russians have cracked down on the dissension among those who remain. In the early days there were massive pro-Ukraine demonstrations in Kherson and other occupied cities, but these were gradually wiped out. In recent weeks there have been more and more reports of house-to-house searches and repression.

“All those who had the chance have left, and those who had to stay behind for various reasons are too afraid to protest. It’s unlikely we’ll see protests like the one I attended at the start of the war. It’s just not safe. The repression has intensified,” said Anzhela Hladka, an advertising executive from Kherson who left the city in April and is now in the Netherlands.

“Last week a friend’s wife called to say that the occupiers had raided their house and taken him. He was against the Russians, but he was not part of the resistance. He was released the next day, but has not been contacted since. I hear these stories all the time,” she said.

In Kiev, Vereshchuk linked the referenda to Russia’s recent decision to mobilize reserves, calling it a “pathetic attempt” by Putin to justify the Russian people’s continued invasion.

“It is up to the internal public to explain why there have been so many losses. I don’t think the average Russian Ivan from Ivanovo really understands why his son died somewhere in a village in the Kherson region,” she said.

There is no doubt that Russia will declare the referendums an overwhelming success, but what happens next is more difficult to predict. Ukrainian officials say they will ignore any Russian claim to the territory, while Western leaders hope Putin’s threats of nuclear strikes are a desperate bluff.

Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and now vice-chairman of the Security Council, said directly in a Telegram message on Thursday that nuclear weapons could be used if the newly annexed areas are threatened. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kiev and the west,” he wrote.

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