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Ukraine: Eyewitnesses on the sham referendums

Lilia Rzheutska | Anastasia Shepeleva
September 28, 2022

A record turnout according to the Russian occupiers, a sham according to Ukrainian observers — eyewitnesses told DW how they experienced the so-called referendums in the Russian-occupied regions.

People in a room, soldier in the foreground
Sham 'referendums' were held in Donetsk and other Russian-occupied territories in UkraineImage: AA/picture alliance

The Russian occupiers had people "vote" on the streets, in improvised polling stations and during home visits, according to the locals of Ukraine's Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions in eastern Ukraine, which are partially occupied by Russia. Sham referendums on the territories' accession to the Russian Federation were held there starting September 23. Refusing to participate in the imposed "vote" was life-threatening, residents said, pointing out that the representatives of the so-called "election committees" showed up accompanied by armed Russian military personnel.

"Two women and three Russian soldiers with rifles asked me if I would vote," said a woman who lives in a village near Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region, adding that they remained silent when she asked if she had a choice. "I had to put a cross where they pointed to with the barrel of the gun."

She said that while she didn't want to vote, she did because she feared they might draft her 35-year-old son into the Russian army. "It's a good thing that my husband and son were working in the field at the time. I don't want them to take my son, he's on their list," said the woman, in tears.

Map of sham referendums in eastern Ukraine

Occupiers gather data on locals

The lists pose a threat to people in the occupied territories, said Oleksiy Koschel, chairman of the Voters' Association of Ukraine. The occupiers are building databases because even after six months of occupation, "they have little information about who lives in the occupied territories," he argued, adding that they also collected data during the sham referendums to determine who was pro-Ukrainian, what language people spoke, and which men were of draft age.

Two soldiers on top of a wall with a metal sculpture of a warrior
A demonstration of power: Russian soldiers in occupied KhersonImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

The population does not support the occupiers, Koschel said, pointing out that is why handing out Russian passports and introducing the ruble in the occupied territories failed. The so-called referendums were organized hastily and they were understaffed, according to the chairman of the Voters' Association of Ukraine, who said the "voting" was chaotic. He also said the occupiers resorted to whatever methods they could come up with to falsify the outcome.

'High' voter turnout in empty towns

Five days were scheduled for the so-called "vote." After only three days, the "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics" reported a record turnout of up to 87% — with more than one million participants. "These reports are idiotic and unrealistic, because most of the residents have long since left the occupied territories," Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk military administration, wrote on Telegram, noting that the occupiers even reported a turnout of almost 50% from the destroyed and almost completely abandoned cities in eastern Ukraine including Lysychansk, Sieverodonetsk and Rubishne. "The results were faked," Haidai said.

In Kherson in southern Ukraine, the occupiers were intent on providing the propaganda media with images of a pro-Russian population, said a Kherson local named Hanna. Things didn't quite turn out as planned in the so-called polling stations, however, she said. From 8 a.m. onwards, Soviet songs played, and the organizers and the Russian military waited for the voters. "But no voters came, no lines formed." By 10 a.m., they shut the stations, and went knocking on people's doors — "but no one opened," said Hanna.

People standing around a table in a park-like setting in Luhansk
There was no secret voting in occupied LuhanskImage: Privat

The occupiers also failed to lure people to the "vote" with humanitarian aid. "The only people who came were those over 70 who wished for the Soviet Union to return. Young and middle-aged people ignored this circus," Hanna said, adding that despite terror and persecution, pro-Ukrainian-minded people still live in the city, waiting to be liberated by the Ukrainian army.

An 82-year-old resident of a village near Kherson reported that armed men suggested she vote "to join Russia." When she refused, they told her "'Grandmother, you can get 10,000 rubles (about €180), including food packages. You just have to vote for Russia." In tears, the octogenarian said she doesn't need Russia or handouts — "in February they killed my grandson on the battlefront."

Voters forced, threatened

Russian troops pressured and threatened people during the sham referendums, said Yaroslav Yanushevych, head of Kherson regional military administration. "Collaborators, accompanied by armed occupiers, catch people out on the streets and use threats to force them to vote," Yanushevych wrote on Telegram.

Separatists request annexation from Russia

Residents of the so-called "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics" report that in occupied Luhansk, "polling stations" were set up in the backyards of residential buildings or at entrances to markets. A bus would drive up, a transparent ballot box would be set up right beside it — "there was no secret voting, people marked the ballots on their knees," says a of Luhansk local who also pointed out that people working for local councils were forced to "vote" several times in different places.

"We were told that the more often the same person votes, the better," said a woman who works at an educational institution in Luhansk. She says all employees were told to bring copies of ID cards of students who had left the city so they could vote in their place. That was easy because there were no preexisting voter lists at the site of the "vote," she said. Anyone who refused to participate was threatened with pay cuts or losing their jobs altogether.

'Referendums' designed to isolate residents

According to the Voters' Association of Ukraine and to Opora, a Ukrainian NGO, the Russian occupiers only used lists for the sham referendums that included people who voluntarily accepted Russian aid, still collected their pensions in person at the post office, or were entrepreneurs who paid local taxes. They also used voter lists taken from archives.

An election commission member talks to a patient in a Berdyansk hospital
Patients were strongly encouraged to vote in a hospital in BerdyanskImage: AFP/Getty Images

Opora chair Olga Aivazovska stressed that Russia had organized a fake vote in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

"There is no question of a free and legal expression of will," she said, adding that the sham referendum at gunpoint is meant to blackmail Ukraine's Western partners. The first to suffer from the "vote" will be the people in the occupied territories, she said — they will be completely isolated by Russia, subject to a total mobilizationand forced to accept Russian passports. The terror they are experiencing will only increase, she believes.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.