Phony “elections” in Russia’s phony “republics” in Ukraine: a legitimization of the occupation

Typical picture of the elections in the occupied Donbas: a queue near a polling station to buy half-price vegetables upon presentment by voters of a coupon they received together with ballot papers. Donetsk Oblast, 11 November. Source: Twitter/hochu_dodomu 

Hybrid War, War in the Donbas

On 11 November, phony elections were held once again in the Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. With voters lured in by promises of cheap vegetables, they took place despite condemnation by Western countries and their cautions to refrain from conducting the voting. The results were known in advance, just like at the sham 2014 referendums in Crimea and the Donbas, and at the previous elections in occupied Donbas back in the fall of 2014.

Why was it so important for Russia to hold the fake polling even under the threat of new Western sanctions which may follow?

“Election vegetables”

A number of measures were announced and then taken to attract voters. Among them were “celebrations” on central squares of Luhansk and Donetsk, interactive events, dance and sports shows, contests, lotteries, concerts of Russian pop stars.

No real observers monitored the “elections,” together with random pro-Russian foreigners the occupation authorities were able to find in Luhansk and Donetsk, there were several European far-right politicians:

Bribes promised to the voters at the polling places in both oblasts included lotteries, cheap vegetables, and other consumer goods, free top up cards for mobile the Russian-established mobile operators. In Luhansk, they promised a 100 RUB ($1.50) replenishment, in Donetsk – only 50.

Here are typical reports of Luhanskers on the course of the “elections” on social networks,

“Butter for 48 RUB, eggs for 35 [for 10 pcs allowed per customer], I couldn’t see the chicken prices – a crowd of all pensioners there.”

“In the theatre [at one of the “polling stations”], both sugar and butter were cleaned out, pensioners came before 07:00 to vote and buy sugar, butter, chicken, eggs.”

Luhansk, East End. At phony elections, eggs are sold for 35 RUB [per 10], and sugar for 30 RUB [1kg], it’s cheaper than at open markets, where sugar costs 41-45 RUB, eggs 55″

And this is an account by a resident of Horlivka who witnessed the “voting” at one of the polling stations in her city,

“[On the right on the photo, there is] a queue to a shoe-repair shop [located in the same building as the voting place] to buy vegetables – cabbage for 6 RUB; potatoes, beetroots, carrots all for 7 RUB. And they don’t simply sell it: when you have voted, they give you a voucher for buying, in short, vegetables on food stamps.”

Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, 11 November 2018. Source: Twitter/OlgaGorlovka

People arrive bit by bit (what’s disappointing somewhat), students who are 18+ should call to their academic institutions and report on visiting this trash [event].”

“People carry bags with the vegetables, so if you’re with potatoes then you’ve voted…”

A man from Donetsk wrote at 10:00,

“I’ve visited several so-called “polling stations.” The flow of pensioners is insignificant. There are younger visitors.”

Another Donetsk resident reported some 30 minutes later,

[At a polling station in her microdistrict,] in 5 minutes, 10 people came out, 8 in. There are pensioners, and youth comes too in pairs. That’s it.

Another Donetsker wrote a 11:00,

“I’ve just passed by a school (I can’t recall its number) near the Amstor store on Shevchenka St. The orcs [that’s a local common derogatory term for the Russian military and paramilitary – Zoria] are standing with assault rifles, speakers sit outdoors. A blue paper is stuck featuring the number of the “polling station,” and nobody there.”

At first look, it may seem that a small crowd is going to vote, but this actually is a queue to buy cheap products near the polling station. Yasynuvata, Donetsk Oblast, 11 November 2018.

A resident of occupied Kadiyivka, a city in Luhansk Oblast prior to 2016 known as Stakhanov, visited his polling station and shared his impressions,

“What can I say? I haven’t see so few people at elections before. From the early morning, Soviet music playing at schools, rarely cars by some state officials arrive, no queues or crowds at all there.”

A resident of Khrustalnyi in Luhansk Oblast says not all those voters were so lucky to get the promised bonuses,

“My mother ran to the elections in order to get a free phone top-up card and buy some cheap products, but, alas, she was given only a pocket calendar and ‘have a nice day,’ I laughed aloud.”

A few more reports, including videos recapturing the atmosphere of the event:

To hold or not to hold

Just three months earlier, the “LDNR elections” were open to question.

On 6 August, Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported that “DNR head” Zakharchenko’s ruling party “Civil movement Donetsk Republic” proposed to extend the “presidential” and “parliamentarian” terms by one year, from four years to five, shifting the 2018 “regular elections” to 2019. The motivation given was “to give them time to achieve the outlined objectives.”

Later in mid-August 18, days before Zakharchenko’s assassination, the Donetsk News Agency’s website published an article citing an opinion of a local college teacher who urged to abolish holding any election “while the war ongoing,” because “the elections will weaken the Donetsk People’s Republic… the delay is necessary from the military point of view, changing a commander-in-chief amid military actions is an invaluable gift to the enemy [i.e. Ukraine – Zoria].”

By a strange coincidence or following the same instructions, pro-Russian “social activists” in occupied Luhansk came to the same idea at the same time, motivating it just the same. An acting president of a local university proposed delaying the elections to give time to “acting LNR head” Leonid Pasechnik to see the results of his work. “LNR opposition MP” Oleg Koval repeated the same and added the polling should be delayed by one year.

On 20 August, the Russian online newspaper RBC cited its sources saying that the “elections” in both pseudo republics were postponed indefinitely and that the decision was agreed with Moscow.

Days later Zakharchenko died in a bomb explosion on 31 August. A week later, both “republics” returned to the initial plan of holding elections on 11 November. They did it simultaneously, as always when it concerns any political matters. RBC stressed, citing their own sources, that the Kremlin made this decision two days before the “parliaments” of the statelets formally greenlighted the upcoming event.

What the world says

The elections were scheduled and held despite the protests of Ukraine and the warnings of the international community. The West and Ukraine considered them “sham,” “illegal,” and a “mockery.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin made a statement before the elections, saying that the phony elections in the Donbas make no sense to anyone except Russia which legitimizes its occupation this way:

The US Embassy in Ukraine said that staging of the elections stokes conflict, violate the Minsk peace deal signed in 2014 to settle the conflict, and urged Russia to cancel the voting:

While Ukraine takes positive steps to promote peace, Russia is stoking conflict by staging sham “elections.” Residents of eastern Ukraine should boycott these “elections,” which are not in line with either the Minsk agreements or Ukrainian law.

Russia could and should cancel the sham Nov. 11 “elections.” It’s a charade since the Kremlin has already anointed leaders to serve as its proxies in the so-called “DPR” and “LPR.” [DPR and LPR are direct acronyms for Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – Zoria]

The Japanese Foreign Ministry condemned the elections, stressing that neither Ukrainian laws nor the miMinsk agreements regulate them:

The so-called “elections” to be planned on November 11 and announced by “DPR” and “LPR” are not regulated by the Minsk Agreements as well as law and regulations of Ukraine. The Government of Japan considers these elections not legitimate, and such unilateral action should not be taken.

OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Italy’s Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi voiced concern over the “elections” and reminded that they counter the Minsk agreements:

We are extremely concerned by the announcement of “elections” due to be held in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk on 11 November. Such a decision would run counter to the letter and the spirit of the Minsk agreements.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu published a statement on Twitter in which she underlined,

“NATO does not recognise the reported elections on 11 November in the self-proclaimed and unrecognised ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ They run contrary to the letter and spirit of the Minsk Agreements and undermine efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”

Britain said that the “the so-called “elections”… undermine efforts to achieve peace in the region, and they are illegal under Ukrainian law,” and called on Russia to “fully implement its commitments under the Minsk Agreements.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic considered the holding of “so-called ‘elections’ in parts of the Ukrainian territory controlled by non-state entities to be a gross interference into domestic affairs of Ukraine and fundamental violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.”

The sham elections were also condemned by Poland, the EU, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Permanent Council.

On the day of “elections,” the US Department of State once again condemned the event and promised more US and EU sanctions for Russia:

“The United States and the European Union have spoken with one voice against yesterday’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will continue to impose Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia until Moscow fully implements the Minsk agreements and returns control of Crimea to Ukraine,” the statement reads.

What is wrong with the “elections”

The phony elections undermine the Minsk peace process.

No such entities as the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics exist under the Minsk peace agreements. Moreover, the Ukrainian legislature labels them as terrorist organizations. The Minsk accords coined the term certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (ORDLO) to refer to the territories of the parts of two East-Ukrainian oblasts beyond the Ukrainian government’s control.

The deal calls for pulling out of foreign armed formations from the Ukrainian territory, disarming illegal armed groups, and restoring the Ukrainian control of the state border. These measures would effectively dismantle Russian-run statelets of “DNR” and “LNR.” According to the deal, holding local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation would return the territory under Ukrainian control.

Ukraine fulfilled most of its parts of the deal, passing a bill which would enact the requirements of Minsk to provide a special status for ORDLO in case if Russia withdraws troops and returns Ukraine control of the border. The Rada extends the law every year. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation keeps trying to pose itself as a guarantor of the deal and de-facto ignores all the paragraphs linked to Russia.

Russia approved the winners of the bogus elections in advance, both Pasechnik and Pushilin were acting “heads of republics” months before the polling. The elections were nothing but another mere attempt to show off that the occupied territories are governed by democratically-elected local representatives rather than by Moscow supervisors also knows as “curators.”

The elections is another Russian step to cement the secessionist proto-states, which postpones peace and the reintegration of the territories back into Ukraine.

Why Russia needed elections despite the threat of new sanctions

Russia needs the “LNR” and “DNR” as sore spots of Ukraine to keep it unstable and prevent Ukraine from Euro- and NATO integration, keeping the former Soviet republic in the Russian orbit. The similar pseudo-states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia (in Georgia), Transnistria (in Moldova) have the same functions – they block or delay the European aspirations of Georgia and Moldova.

Russia creates an illusion of a democratic process in the foreign territories to formally distance itself from the fact that it runs all the pseudo-state entities. Thus, any actions of the puppet rulers are referred to as independent by the Russian media and officials.

Otherwise, Russia would have to recognize that it has been controlling the statelets, which is an open secret Russia still denies, paying lip-service to the brokering of peace and resolving of the conflicts in the respective territories.

The elections are meant to legitimize the Russian-installed governments. They are an element of propaganda, first of all, targeted at the local residents, as well as at the audiences all over the world.

Since Russia’s idea behind the “people’s republics” is to return them to Ukraine as Russian-controlled autonomies, such a legitimization of the leaders gives Russia a reason to once again attempt to bring them to the negotiating table with Kyiv for direct talks.

In August, Igor Plotnitsky, the Luhansk leader legitimized via the 2014 “elections” was in exile in Russia following the winter coup in Luhansk. However, his Donetsk counterpart Zakharchenko remained in power.

The intention to postpone the “elections” showed that having one legitimized Zakharchenko was enough for the Kremlin. The fact that the Kremlin supervisors changed their mind on holding the “elections” after the death of Zakharchenko may also be indirect evidence that Zakharchenko’s assassination was the result of infighting rather than a Kremlin plan, and that his death caught Moscow by surprise.

Were the results really foregone?

As the “elections” were announced, the upcoming victories of the Kremlin-approved “acting heads of republics” raised no doubts not only for Ukraine and its western allies but also even for the pro-Russian activists in the occupied territories. Especially when two real rivals of the extremely unpopular Pushilin – Khodakovsky and Gubarev – were prevented from participation in the “DNR elections.” As well, local communists were not allowed to be elected, just as in 2014.

Two days before the sham elections, on 9 November, head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak held a press briefing in Kyiv stating that “The results of fake elections in separatist-held territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been orchestrated in advance by the Kremlin.” Mr. Hrytsak voiced the following figures, referring to the operational data received by the agency from Russia’s presidential administration:

  • A turnout of voters: 70% in both “republics”
  • “Acting DNR head” Pushilin wins with 55%
  • “Acting LNR head” Pasechnik wins with 63%

Making the figures public before the sham elections either made the organizers of the voting to change the plans for figures of the turnouts and approval ratings, or SBU sources had wrong data.

Nevertheless, the results pronounced the next day in Luhansk and Donetsk after the “elections” were the same, but all figures were boosted: 5% was added to the ratings of both “heads” as compared to the SBU prediction. And the turnout of voters was reported 7% higher for “LNR,” and even higher for “DNR” where it was declared higher by 10,1% than SBU’s 70%:

Meanwhile, the SBU estimated that if the figures presented by the “electoral commissions” were real, one person should have voted every 16 seconds from the first to the very last minute that the 408 polling stations were open, which is obviously impossible.
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