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How Russia prepares for pseudo-elections in the occupied territories of Ukraine

(August 29, 2023)


Russia plans to hold so-called “elections” to the “legislative bodies” (in other words, occupation governments) in the occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts as well as in 79 municipal districts this coming fall.

The Kremlin’s decision-makers seek to legalize the annexation of Ukrainian territory with the help of so-called “elections”, so they are ready to hold them at any cost even during the martial law that was declared in the occupied territories. For this purpose, Russian officials are amending their own law by inserting contradictory and mutually exclusive norms that are meant to lay the legal groundwork for conducting these “elections” under conditions of active hostilities and the probable loss of captured territories.

However, it should be understood that the “elections” in Russia is just an empty word that has nothing to do with democratic, free, fair and competitive election process. The Russian political elites led by Putin regard the electoral procedure as a mere formality that creates the illusion of democracy and allows them to stay in power for as long as they want.

Russia sees “elections” as a tool to legalize annexation

On June 15, 2023, the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation adopted a resolution to hold “elections” in the occupied territories on September 10, 2023, which is a single national election day in Russia. Although Putin approved a proposal to introduce martial law in these regions starting on October 20, 2022, a few weeks ago the Russian authorities adopted legislative changes that allow for holding elections even when martial law is in effect.

In response, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine adopted a resolution emphasizing the illegitimacy of Russia’s preparations for holding so-called “elections” in the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) of Ukraine. According to the resolution, such actions of Russia not only constitute an offence against state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also serve as irrefutable evidence of crimes committed by the Russian Federation and its political leadership.

Peter Stano, who is the lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, said that Russia’s decision to hold “elections” is yet another attempt to legitimize illegal military control over the occupied Ukrainian territory.

Civil Network OPORA’s lawyer Pavlo Romaniuk holds a similar opinion. He believes that these “elections” are intended to create the illusion of democratic process in the occupied territories, drag the residents of TOT into the electoral space of Russia and weaken their ties with Ukraine. OPORA’s lawyer emphasizes that the conduct of Russian “elections” in the occupied territories doesn’t change anything for Ukraine because these “elections” by no means legalize the annexation of Ukrainian territory according to the norms of international law.

Pavlo Romaniuk went on to add that Ukraine should counteract any attempts to hold illegal elections. Obviously, the best way to do it is to liberate the occupied territories, but while liberation is a work in progress, Ukraine can take other countermeasures, for example: increase diplomatic pressure on Russia and prosecute those who participate in the organization of illegal election process (or make public calls for illegal elections) under Ukrainian law.

Where Russia plans to “elect” new occupation governments

The Russian occupiers want to “elect” the occupation government bodies such as the “Kherson Oblast Duma” (36 members), “Legislative assembly of Zaporizhzhia oblast” (40 members),
“People’s council of the LPR” (50 members) and “People’s council of the DPR” (90 members). In addition, Russia plans to hold “by-election” of people’s deputy to the State Duma in majoritarian electoral district No. 19 situated in the occupied city of Simferopol (Crimea).

Earlier on, the Central Election Commission of Russia appointed four occupation election commissions which, in their turn, formed the territorial election commissions for organizing the process of “expression of the will of the people” at local community level. Furthermore, the Russians formed the election commissions and municipal districts even in non-Russia-controlled areas. For example, the gauleiter of Kherson oblast Volodymyr Saldo announced the creation of “Snigurivka municipal district” despite the fact that Snigurivka territorial community was liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine back in November 2022. The same applies to Kherson city.

The situation in Donetsk oblast is somewhat different. Local occupation authorities decided to hold “elections” in “Krasnyi Lyman municipal district”, but apparently they forgot that the city of Lyman (called as Krasnyi Lyman by Russian occupiers – author’s note) is under the control of Ukrainian government. All the settlements that became part of this municipal district are also beyond the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. “Election” to local municipal assembly can be held remotely: the people will probably cast “votes” at the polling stations physically located in the city of Yenakiieve. This is evidenced by the fact that the powers of Krasnyi Lyman territorial election commission have been transferred to Yenakiieve city election commission.

In March 2023, Russian occupiers appointed the chairpersons of the election commissions in the occupied regions. The election commission in Kherson oblast is chaired by Maryna Zakharova, who previously worked in the so-called Ministry of Labor and Social Policy of the DPR and in the administration of the head of the DPR. Galyna Katyushchenko, who is a former member of pro-Russian “Party of Regions” and “Opposition Bloc” party, was appointed chair of the election commission in Zaporizhzhia oblast. Katyushchenko has close ties to the gauleiter of Zaporizhzhia Yevhen Balytskyi. In 2015, she tried to get elected to Melitopol city council but to no avail.

The election commission in Luhansk oblast is chaired by Yelena Kravchenko, who previously served as the head of “Central Election Commission of the LPR”. In 2018, Kravchenko tried to convince the members of the UN Security Council that the “elections” of deputies and head of the “People’s council of the LPR” are compatible with the Minsk agreements, but she wasn’t allowed to attend the meeting. The election commission in Donetsk oblast is chaired by Volodymyr Vysotskyi, who used to perform the duties of chairman of the so-called “Central Election Commission of the DPR”.

The Russian occupiers decreed that the “elections” to occupation government bodies shall be held within a year of the date that they were created. The “elections” are scheduled to take place in 14 municipal districts of Kherson oblast, 16 districts of Zaporizhzhia oblast, 28 districts of Luhansk oblast and 21 districts of Donetsk oblast.

It should be noted that the Russian authorities have introduced legislative amendments that provide for the possibility of entrusting the election commission of any given federal subject with the duty to hold “elections” to self-governing body located in the territory of another federal subject of Russia. For example, the territorial election commission of Donetsk oblast can be entrusted with the duty to hold elections in the occupied city of Henichesk (Kherson oblast) because the city of Kherson, which is the “administrative center of federal subject of Russia” has already been liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. These amendments were introduced due to the fact that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is still in progress, and the Russian occupiers don’t know where will the Armed Forces of Ukraine stop.

Russian “electoral” creativity, the Kremlin’s fears and double standards

Against the background of committed war crimes, Russia never stops trying to convey the impression that it acts in accordance with the provisions of international law and normative legal documents of the Russian Federation. The Russian officials go as far as to say that the so-called “special military operation” is conducted in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter.

Preparation for holding the “elections” in the occupied territories supposedly also conforms to legislation of the Russian Federation, but on May 29, 2023, the State Duma introduced several amendments into the Russian law that lay the legal groundwork for holding a vote under martial law. However, these amendments often contradict each other, and their only aim is to certify the election results in the occupied territories one way or another.

The aforesaid amendments to the “Martial law” of Russia authorize the Central Election Commission to call an election upon consultation with security agencies. Furthermore, the “expression of the will of the people” can take place in the isolated districts rather than the entire territory of federal subject under martial law. In other words, the Russian occupiers had the foresight to provide for the possibility of holding “elections” wherever and whenever they can.

At the same time, Russians forgot to amend the provision of the law that prohibits the activity of political parties and civic organizations, which leads to a conflict of law: there is one norm that imposes a ban on the activity of political parties, and there is another one that allows the parties to participate in the “elections” and nominate lists of candidates. This means that the aggressor state doesn’t care about legislation, which is a clear manifestation of authoritarianism.

Moreover, Russia didn’t lift the restrictions on mass events and freedom of movement in the occupied territories, nor did it abolish military censorship of messages and phone conversations. This doesn’t exactly conform to electoral law of Russia, namely the “Federal law on basic guarantees of electoral rights and the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to participate in a referendum”. According to this law, public event is one of the forms of political agitation. But no one knows how to hold such an event in real life.

Furthermore, the electoral law authorizes the use of the Internet, printed and audiovisual materials for campaigning purposes, but the Russian occupiers introduced legislative amendments that prohibit pre-election campaigning on web resources and websites, to which the access was restricted by the decision of federal executive body. It looks as though the Russian social media platform “Vkontakte” is the only place where the electoral subjects will be allowed to conduct their election campaigns. The Russian occupiers also imposed a ban on the propaganda and public display of “Nazi symbols and memorabilia”, which almost certainly applies to everything associated with Ukraine.

Russian legislation guarantees the equality of candidates, including the provision of equal access to print media, television, radio, political advertising location, premises for holding meetings with voters. However, the “Martial law” introduces control and monitoring of the activities of printing companies and mass media that can be used for strengthening national security and defense. Under such conditions, it is highly doubtful that the equality of all electoral subjects will be ensured.

As of the beginning of July 2023, a total of 27 political parties gained the right to nominate candidates in the occupied territories, of which 5 parties even have regional offices in the occupied territories. These include “United Russia”, “A Just Russia – Patriots – For the Truth”, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation and “New People” party. It may be said that there is no need for pre-election campaigning under totalitarian rule and in the absence of alternative political forces. Propaganda videos of “happy” people going to the polling station is all that is necessary.

That’s why the Russians took a creative approach to organizing the voting process. The vote will be held over three days – from September 8 to September 10. The voters can also vote before the scheduled election days in a designated early voting polling station at the premises of the territorial or precinct election commission.

Those people who have the “right to vote” in a certain district but live outside its boundary will be provided with the opportunity to vote at their actual location – this option is available only for voting in elections to the legislative bodies of federal subjects. In theory, it will be possible to vote in the election of deputies to “Kherson oblast Duma” at the polling station located somewhere in Ryazan.

The above-mentioned election commissions, as well as precinct election commissions that were “formed in remote and hard-to-reach areas”, are allowed to produce ballot papers using their own resources. At the same time, they don’t have to comply with ballot paper security requirements (watermark, microfont, guilloche).

Furthermore, the Russian occupiers provided the possibility of “voting” at the adjacent territories of apartment buildings, public areas and “other places”. As we can see, Russians adopted a very “flexible” approach, but apparently they know nothing about secret voting although the secrecy of vote is provided for under Russian law.

The voters will receive “ballot” papers upon presentation of any document containing personal data that was issued by public authorities. Latest amendments to the Russian law on “elections” provided for reducing the duration of election process in half. It remains to be seen how the Russians will put these amendments into practice. In theory, they could hold the “elections” in the occupied territories ahead of schedule (for example, in August) and allot one day for voting rather than two.

Russia fears that Ukraine will liberate the occupied territories. Maybe that’s why the head of the Central Election Commission of Russia Ella Pamfilova is no longer sure that the scheduled “elections” will take place. At the meeting with Putin on July 3, 2023, she admitted the possibility of postponing the “expression of the will of the people” in the occupied territories due to “force majeure”. At the same time, she emphasized that the legislative amendments provide for holding the “elections”. Moreover, these amendments provide the Russian occupiers with an opportunity to elect local government while staying in Russia.

However, as it turns out, all these legislative changes do not apply to the Russian Federation itself. For example, the election commission of Belgorod oblast canceled the election of deputies to Shebekino rayon council due to mass exodus of local residents in the aftermath of hit-and-run raid carried out by the Russian Volunteer Corps. The election of deputies to ‘zemstvo’ assembly in the village of Zhuravlyovka (Belgorod oblast) were canceled even before that.

All the above once again proves that Russia doesn’t care about the residents of the occupied territories. The ill-advised legislative amendments demonstrate the absurdity of Russia’s attempts to fake the democratic processes aimed at strengthening the occupation regime. Russians want to hold the “elections” to create a fake image that misleads everyone into thinking that the local population supports the occupation authorities. The security problem is of minor importance to them. The occupiers don’t need the people, they only need the territories. The Kremlin understands that Ukraine won’t bomb its own population. However, this doesn’t mean that the aggressor state will escape responsibility for its actions.

When will it happen is not so important. What matters most is the end result, and the necessary result will be achieved for sure.

Dmytro Bashtovyi specially for LB.UA

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