Kyiv, Ukraine – In occupied areas of Ukraine where referendums have been held in phases since Friday, residents said authorities used intimidation and propaganda campaigns to influence the vote, while at the same time making efforts to create a festive atmosphere.
In the southern port city of Kherson, officials in the city center set up a stage, brought in singers and a ballot box. Sarhi, a retiree who lives in the occupied city, said in a phone interview that few people showed up to vote.
“There were very few people and they voted,” he said. Elsewhere, he said, armed soldiers visited his relatives, demanding the vote. Like most residents interviewed, he requested that his identity be used only by his first name for safety’s sake.
Volodymyr Saldo, a Ukrainian who changed his position to become head of the occupying power in the Kherson region, said the vote went quietly and people were coming out “with enthusiasm”. As they voted, he said, “Their eyes are burning and sparkling, and this is indicative of their attitude towards this event.” Mr Saldo said on Monday that enough votes had been cast in favor of joining Russia to call for a vote a day earlier.
Official results of the interim referendums could be announced as soon as Tuesday and are expected to claim that the majority of the population voted to join Russia, with the Kremlin then officially announcing the annexation of the regions as soon as this week.
Russian authorities in the occupied territories pledged to provide passports, welfare payments, free medicine and cheap phone bills. One billboard in Kherson depicts a pregnant woman in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt being embraced by her husband. “Our priority is family,” the billboard said. Social guarantees of the Russian Federation.
Someone announced the benefits of Russian citizenship. “The Russian passport is social stability and security,” she said. Another billboard showed a little girl waving a Russian flag saying, “Russia is here forever.”
Newspapers printed by the occupying power focused on similar topics. “Kherson will get passports, cheap phone calls and banks,” says a headline in a local edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Russian tabloid, printed for occupied Kherson. “Utility bills will be reduced,” another headline confirmed.
“Medicine will be free.” The newspaper also reported that Mr. Putin recently signed a decree creating a new holiday in Russia, “Day of Family, Love and Loyalty. But despite the publicity, not many people showed up to vote at polling stations, and soldiers armed with assault rifles tried to force the population to vote, according to For telephone interviews with residents of several occupied towns.
“Since turnout is still low, they have gone to hospitals,” said Oleg, a Kherson resident. “People are in a subordinate position there and it’s hard for them to refuse to vote.”
Elsewhere in occupied Ukraine, Russian soldiers arrived in residential neighborhoods in a type of large armored car called a tiger, parked in the streets to form makeshift checkpoints, prevented people from leaving and escorted polling officials door-to-door.
“Two or three soldiers with machine guns escorted election officials to a ballot box,” said Maria, a resident of Chaplinka in Kherson region. In Polohi, in the Zaporizhia region, soldiers hovered around the population as they filled out ballot papers.
“They would stay and watch people vote and mark things on their lists,” she said. “Those who refused to vote were told to do so” a day later.
Serhiy, who is retired, said he was so afraid of Russia’s secret police, the Federal Security Service, that he stayed home for days during the referendums, and had no plans to open the door. He said billboards promoting the benefits of joining Russia are for “idiots”.
“Every day, I just wait for him to break free,” he said.
Anna Lukinova in Kyiv contributed to this report.
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