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 in a vote Kyiv and the West have condemned as “fake” and a “propaganda exercise.”
The voting for Russian-installed legislatures in the illegally occupied parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions of Ukraine began on September 8 and concludes on September 10, the same weekend that local elections are being held in Russia. The elections are being held as Ukraine reports advances in its counteroffensive to drive Russian forces out of the occupied territories.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the elections in a statement on September 8, adding that they “will have no legal consequences and will not bring any changes in the international status of Ukrainian territories seized by Russian military forces.”
“Russia’s sham elections in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void,” the statement said.
“These actions of the Russian Federation brutally violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Ukrainian legislation as well as norms and principles of the international law, namely the United Nations Charter…. By conducting fake elections in Ukrainian regions and in Crimea Moscow continues delegitimizing Russia’s legal system,” it added.
In the occupied regions, early voting started a week ago before as election officials went door to door or set up polling stations in public places to attract passersby. The AP quoted local residents and Ukrainian activists saying officials made house visits accompanied by armed soldiers.
Ivan Fyodorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a Russian-held city in the Zaporizhzhia region, told the AP that local residents are being forced to vote.
“When there’s an armed person standing in front of you, it’s hard to say no,” he said.
Russia does not fully control any of the four regions inside Ukraine where the votes are being held. In September 2022 Moscow proclaimed its annexation of the four partially occupied regions after staging referendums that Western nations dismissed and have refused to recognize their results.
Three-quarters of the countries at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2022 condemned Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of the four regions.
Along with Crimea — illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014 — the four regions make up almost one-fifth of Ukraine.
Voters are supposed to elect regional legislatures, which in turn will appoint regional governors.
In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, thousands of candidates are also competing for seats on dozens of local councils. Candidates are all either Russian or pro-Russian, and include governors hand-picked by Moscow, the BBC reported.
Ukraine has vowed to bring to account all officials involved in organizing and conducting the elections, “including the leadership of the Russian Federation, representatives of occupation administrations, and electoral bodies.”
“The Kremlin hopes these pre-determined, fabricated results will strengthen Russia’s illegitimate claims to the parts of Ukraine it occupies, but this is nothing more than a propaganda exercise,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on September 7, adding that the United States “will never recognize” Russia’s claims to any of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
The European Union has also condemned the elections as “illegal,” adding that those involved will be held to account, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, also condemned Russia’s decision to hold elections in the occupied territories.
“Holding local elections in occupied territories only creates an illusion of democracy but clearly violates the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of local public affairs,” Leendert Verbeek, the president of the Congress, said on September 4.
Russia also is holding local elections in more than 20 Russian regions from September 8 to September 10.
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.