Voting opened Friday on whether Russian-held regions of Ukraine should become part of Russia. Ukrainian officials and their allies condemned the voting referendums. They called the polling an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to annex areas it has occupied over the months of war.
As the balloting got underway, United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Kharkiv region officials said a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izium contained hundreds of bodies. At least 30 of those, they say, display signs of torture.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums in the Luhansk, Kherson, and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions ask residents if they want to be part of Russia. The voting is overseen by Moscow-installed authorities and is scheduled to run through Tuesday. Results are almost certain to go the Kremlin’s way.
Ukraine and the West denounced the referendums as a sham and an illegitimate step toward annexation. A similar vote took place in 2014 before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Most of the world considered that move illegal.
Election officials planned to bring ballots to people’s homes. (Can you imagine casting your private vote under threat of an armed official in your presence?) They set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings, according to Russian-installed officials in the occupied regions.
Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents of the occupied regions could cast votes.
Denis Pushilin is the separatist leader of Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region. He called the referendum taking place there “a historical milestone.”
But Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai accused Russian officials of taking down names of people who voted against becoming part of Russia. In online posts, Haidai also alleged that Russian officials threatened to kick down doors of anyone who didn’t want to vote.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “sham referenda” in his nightly address, in which he switched from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian. He did so to speak directly to Russian citizens.
“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders, and torture of Ukrainians,” Zelenskyy said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose.”
The voting takes place against the backdrop of ongoing fighting in Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian forces exchange fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.
As the referendums got underway, more men in Russia prepared to join the fight in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday. A Russian defense minister says that move could add about 300,000 troops.
In cities across the vast country, men hugged weeping family members before departing for the call-up. Many fear a wider draft might follow. Russian antiwar activists planned to stage protests against the mobilization on Saturday.
But if voting can be manipulated under the pressure of authoritarian officials, one wonders how such protests will be received back at home. In a truly free society, polls and demonstrations are the mean by which citizens democratically elect their leaders and practice freedom of speech. But in authoritarian states, such events are merely false fronts. They try to give an appearance of solidarity when, in truth, they advance anything but unity.
(Women wait to vote in front of a mobile polling station in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on Friday, September 23, 2022. Voting began Friday in four Moscow-held regions of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia. AP)