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“Putin’s elections”: how the Kremlin organizes a high turnout of “voters” in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories

(March 15, 2024)


By Dmytro Bashtovyi, analyst of the Civil Network “OPORA”

Why, in the conditions of hostilities, the involvement of the local population in pseudo-election processes can be qualified as a war crime

On March 15-17, presidential “elections” are held in Russia. “Balloting” has been going on for three weeks in the occupied territories of Ukraine. The current “election campaign” in the TOT (temporarily occupied territories) is accompanied by the mobilization of the local population and the creation of a propaganda image of the people’s love for Putin. The key task of the Kremlin is a high turnout, which should prove high confidence not only in Putin, but also in Russia in general. So, the regime stretched the “balloting” over time and is conducting a large-scale campaign to “encourage” Ukrainians using coercion and intimidation. For example, special “mobile groups” visit every house, which makes it almost impossible to avoid participating in the “balloting” for locals who previously could simply not go to the polling station and thus express their protest against the occupation.

The Kremlin wants to ensure a record turnout 

It is hardly possible to question the totalitarianism of the ideologies and practices that have formed in the Russian Federation under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. His power is based on chauvinism, imperialism and the cult of personality. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, drawing an analogy with fascism, officially and quite rightly characterized Putin’s regime as “ruscism”.

However, it is extremely rare for authoritarian dictatorial regimes to face the truth and recognize themselves as such. On the contrary, they simulate democracy, maintaining the appearance of certain democratic institutions, such as elections in order to make the civilized world thinking well of them. Mostly, such “elections” are purely formal, and the winner is known in advance.

For two decades, the Russian authorities systematically cleared the electoral field.

The Kremlin killed (Boris Nemtsov, Aleksey Navalny) and imprisoned (Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr.) oppositionists; did not allow them to run for the office and forced them to emigrate.

This also happened in 2024, when even the “oppositionist” loyal to the regime, Boris Nadezhdin, was not allowed to participate in the campaign. Presumably, the Kremlin was afraid that he might get too many votes, so it will be more difficult to demonstrate the general love of Russians for Putin. After all, now there is no doubt: Putin will win the “election”, in which, in addition to the current president, politicians loyal to him (who have publicly stated that they do not intend to criticize him) will take part.

However, it is likely that there is something more important for Putin than just winning. He wants to see a high turnout of voters, which will serve as proof of the general support of the population for his political course.

In authoritarian countries, balloting serves as a sign of loyalty to the regime. Therefore, a high voter turnout is absolutely necessary, even if there is no real competition or real program alternatives. “A high turnout, especially in the personalized (presidential) elections, is becoming an almost mandatory attribute, a kind of ‘vote of confidence’ of the regime”, said a research associate at “GCE St. Gallen, New Europe College” (Bucharest), deputy head of the “Detector Media” research center Lesia Bidochko.

In 2018, about 67% of voters voted in the presidential elections in the Russian Federation. This year, the Russians plan to reach 80%. First of all, it is important for Putin to ensure a high turnout among the residents of the occupied territories of Ukraine, which should show the world the “popular support” of the current president, and thus “legalize” the presence of Russians at the TOT.

According to OPORA, presidential elections in the occupied territories can help Russia implement a number of other criminal plans. It is about strengthening passporting; identification of pro-Ukrainian people; integration of the population into the Russian political field and weakening of its connection with Ukraine. Participation in the Russian elections can be used as an argument to convince Ukrainians in the TOT that they are now “tainted” in the eyes of Ukraine, and therefore the current situation has no alternative.

Indeed, “Putin’s elections” is different from the last year’s “elections” when Ukrainians at TOT “voted” for the occupying “legislative bodies” and “deputies of municipal associations”. The current campaign looks more like social mobilization to vote for Putin than pre-election activism.

The campaign of the “candidates” in the occupied territories was limited to outdoor advertising, small cases of street campaigning and distribution of printed products. Putin did not consider it necessary to visit the occupied territories, at most in Donetsk you could take a picture with a large portrait of the dictator. The Communists recognized that it was impossible to conduct a full-fledged campaign in the “new regions” given the specifics of the martial law.

However, martial law did not prevent the occupiers from conducting a large-scale campaign that encouraged citizens to vote. Under the slogan “Everyone’s voice is important to us”, the Russians launched the “InformUIK” project: “members of election commissions” together with armed men went around settlements – allegedly to inform about the upcoming presidential “elections”.

Putin will be emotionally hurt if, say, 5% of the residents of the occupied territories will come to the polling stations – this will badly resonate with his theses that the local residents were eagerly waiting for the arrival of Russian troops. Therefore, the “election commissions”, taking into account the experience of sabotaging last year’s “elections” by Ukrainians, recorded the presence of people during door-to-door rounds and held conversations with them about the importance of coming to the “elections”. OPORA has already noted that this also enabled the occupiers to identify people opposed to the Putin regime in order to carry out further repressions against them.

The “informational and explanatory” work of the “election commissions” could also be observed in budget institutions: houses of cultureinstituteslibrariesschoolsvillage councilsmuseumshospitalsmunicipal enterpriseskindergartensenterprises, etc.

They put pressure on Ukrainians in the occupation even through the children whom the occupiers involved in the campaigning. Schoolchildren were forced to write compositions “If I became president” and to solve “electoral” crosswords. Among the children, a contest of sketches of the design of the polling station and various games related to the elections were heldfootball and tennis tournaments were dedicated to “expression of will”.

In addition to coercion and pressure, the Kremlin also uses other methods – propaganda. For example, the TOT residents are ”encouraged” to take part in the campaign “The whole family at the elections” by posting a family photo at the “polling station” on social networks. The Ukrainian resistance emphasizes that such reporting is made mandatory for the employees of budget sector, in particular, employees of “state” institutions of the Luhansk region. Citizens are encouraged to take the “I’m proud of Donbas” quiz at the “polling stations” and receive gifts for it.

The occupiers put up “I’m charging for the elections” stickersorganize car rallies and relays with “elections” branded t-shirts.

As we can see, the Kremlin turns the passive right of the residents of the occupied territories to vote into an obligation, depriving them of their freedom of choice.

Why do the occupiers have 20 days of early voting 

It is simply impossible to organize a transparent and accountable election process in the conditions of the active phase of the war. That is why Russia shifts its own legislation in order to ensure something similar to an election process in the occupied territories. In particular, the deputies of the State Duma made changes to the election laws, as well as to the Law “On Martial Law”, additionally supporting them with the resolutions of the CEC of Russia.

In particular, the “legislators” provided that in hard-to-reach and remote areas, balloting can be held early – 20 days in advance. The Russian CEC argued for such a step by the peculiarities of ensuring security in the territories where martial law has been introduced.

Most of the occupied territories turned out to be “hard-to-reach”, so early voting are held there from February 25, 2024. For example, in the Kherson region it took place in 172 polling stations (almost 75% of the polling stations in the occupied region), and it was provided by mobile groups. On the other hand, in the Zaporizhzhia region, 60 groups visited 94 settlements. The Russian occupiers were able to organize “balloting” with a much smaller number of “commission” members than if they had to run stationary polling stations. This proves once again that the Kremlin has problems with personnel who can be recruited to work at the “elections”.

Moreover, “volunteers” from Russia worked at the polling stations, among who, according to the Ukrainian resistance, were tourers from the “Young Army”, “Volunteers-medics” and “Movement of the First”. In the end, a whole “electoral landing” was brought to the occupied territories – the Russian Guard, private guards from Moscow companies, representatives of the volunteer company “Fighting Brotherhood”.

In order to solve the problem of the destroyed infrastructure necessary for the elections, Russian lawmakers allowed “balloting” in the “household areas, public areas and other places”.  The mobile “commissions” improvised as best they could, using available places in the streets, near shops, in parks, etc. The occupiers also actively used the “balloting at home” option, visiting residents with portable boxes, in particular those that the commissions had previously recorded during the so-called “InformUIK”.

Another important aspect was the extension of early voting in time. It was carried out in several stages, each of which took place over several days. This is how the occupiers tried to mask the problems with the number of voters: if the balloting took place on the same day, Kremlin “journalists” would be left to photograph empty premises and some collaborators at the polling stations.

It is worth emphasizing one more observation. All early “balloting” took place with media coverage and concerts, which made it look more like a performance than a manifestation of citizens’ will. Instead, the occupation regime is trying to hand it over to the international community as a “proof” of love and support of the Russian authorities.

There is also an institute of “independent observers” for this purpose. You can become one of them by representing candidates, parties or the “Public Chamber” – a structure that “controls” the activities of authorities in Russia. It is interesting that it was this chamber that proposed expanding the practice of “introducing the names of heroes to election committees”. Indeed, there are already “election commissions” named after the “Motorola hero” and the first leader of the “DPR” Zakharchenko.

These “observers” will accompany their “colleagues” from other countries to make sure that “the process is legitimate and transparent” – and to help legitimize the elections in the TOT. After “Putin’s elections”, we should expect complimentary comments from “observers” from Brazil, Belarus, Venezuela and other countries that are direct allies of the aggressor or have a neutral position regarding the Russian invasion.

Window of opportunities for abuse: servicemen and changing voting location 

Another feature of the current “election campaign” in the TOT is the voting of the Russian servicemen. Under the guise of a desire to ensure the constitutional right of Russian citizens, the Kremlin will be able to significantly increase turnout in the occupied territories through the votes of servicemen.

Balloting by the occupying forces became possible thanks to a number of legislative changes. In particular, a “polling station” on the territory of a military unit can be formed by its commander from among military personnel. Control of the activities of such a polling station is not defined, which creates conditions for falsification of results and/or controlled voting. In the presence of technical capabilities, such commissions were allowed to produce ballot papers independently.

Moreover, the occupying forces “self-organize” to vote directly at their positions, including the dugouts. In particular, this is how the servicemen of the 6 separate Guards Motorized Rifle Lysychansk Cossack Brigade and the 150 Motorized Rifle Division of the Southern Army Group “voted”.

Another option for servicemen voting was the visit of advanced positions by mobile commissions. However, apart from unfounded statements, there is no confirmation of this. Instead, the propaganda talked a lot about the servicemen balloting in the rear areas. Mobile and stationary “polling stations” were used for this during the early voting.

An important point in ensuring the “right to vote” of the servicemen is changing the voting location – a procedure that gives the occupiers even more opportunities to abuse the data on the number of people who will “vote” at “Putin’s elections”. According to Russian legislation, in order to change the voting location, it is necessary to submit an application to the point of reception of applications, which are territorial and precinct election commissions and MFC (service provision center), or through the electronic portal of state and municipal services.

The application for voting at the place of temporary stay can be submitted no later than three days before the “voting” day, and for the servicemen – on the day preceding the “voting” day. Voters who cannot apply on their own need only apply in writing or through third parties orally to the “electoral commissions” so that they accept the application.

When the “commissioner” receives an application, he should, if technically possible, check whether this voter has not changed the voting location before. For the sake of objectivity, it should be said that the so-called “PEC” should report and transfer data to the “TEC”, but there are also opportunities to delay and change the method of submitting applications, which ultimately makes this procedure a huge field for abuse.

Prolonged procedure close to the “voting” day, possibility of multiple changes of voting location by one voter and falsification of applications, addition of “dead souls” to the electoral lists, who could be discovered during the rounds of “InformUIK”, will enable the occupying authorities to maximize the turnout by confirming it with false documents.

Thus, the entire election process in the occupied territories has nothing to do with the democratic process. “Putin’s elections” is not a free expression of citizens’ will, but an illusion of support for the Russian regime in the temporarily occupied territories. In the conditions of hostilities, the involvement of the local population in pseudo-election processes can be qualified as a war crime. This “campaign”, like the previous organized “elections”, will not change anything for Ukraine, but will only multiply the numerous list of crimes of Putin’s regime, for which he will answer sooner or later.

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