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Activists Say Crimeans Face Threats, Intimidation Ahead Of Russian Vote

  • Christopher Miller

Billboards near Sevastopol tout party slogans for upcoming Russian parliamentary elections on the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Kyiv has denounced the poll on the territory as illegitimate.

Billboards near Sevastopol tout party slogans for upcoming Russian parliamentary elections on the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Kyiv has denounced the poll on the territory as illegitimate.

KYIV -- Rights groups say the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea are using threats and intimidation to get out the vote in parliamentary elections that Ukraine has denounced as illegitimate because they are being held on territory seized by Moscow.

Russia is holding nationwide elections for the State Duma, its lower parliament house, on September 18. It is the first Duma vote since Russia took control of Crimea in 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum that Kyiv and most of the world say was illegal.

Public sector workers have reported being threatened with dismissal or wage cuts if they do not vote, Olha Skrypnyk, head of the Crimean Human Rights Group, told the Crimean News Agency. She said that heads of municipal departments on the Black Sea peninsula have called meetings to deliver the ultimatums to their subordinates.

Nariman Dzhelalov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people -- which the Russian authorities have branded an extremist organization and banned -- said he has been told of workers at private firms being threatened with layoffs should they decide to skip the vote.

One apparent case of pressure was made public by a Duma candidate in Crimea. On September 3, Oleksandr Talipov shared a photograph of an order sent by authorities in the Crimean city of Feodosia to municipal offices that said that attendance at a September 8 rally in support of the ruling United Russia party was mandatory, and that those unable to attend must write an explanatory note to their superiors.

Within Russia, the use of pressure to get vulnerable groups such as state workers, soldiers, and students to vote -- in some cases specifically for United Russia -- has been widely documented in elections since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

'Illegitimate' Elections

Many members of Crimea's Muslim Tatar minority boycotted the 2014 referendum that enabled Moscow to cast the annexation as the will of the people. Activists say Crimean Tatars and others who opposed the Russian takeover have faced reprisals including being jailed on trumped-up charges and also abduction, torture, and killing.

About 100,000 people have left the region for mainland Ukraine since the annexation, according to SOS Crimea, a Kyiv-based rights group.

Crimean Tatar leaders have called on all Crimeans to boycott the Russian elections, which they say are "illegitimate."

"Boycotting the September 18 elections is a peaceful, nonviolent form of resistance against the Russian invaders, available to and worthy of each honest person…. Boycotting the September 18 elections is our support for political prisoners and their families," said Mejlis chairman Refat Chubarov, who has been barred from Crimea by Russian authorities. "No honest person should come to a polling station on September 18."

The elections have also ignited a war of words between Kyiv and Moscow, whose relations have been severely damaged by Russia's seizure of Crimea and its support for separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 9,500 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. Kyiv and NATO say Russia has sent large numbers of troops and weapons into the region during the war.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Foreign Ministry have urged the international community to condemn what they say will be an "illegitimate" vote, while the Kremlin said it does not care whether other countries recognize the polls or not.

"The Russian elections [in Crimea] will be null and void and illegal. They contravene international laws and the constitution of Ukraine," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa told RFE/RL. She said the ministry was working behind the scenes to get the international community to condemn the elections.

OSCE Observers

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it has observers within Russia’s internationally recognized borders to monitor the elections, but not in Crimea.

Asked whether the European Union would recognize the vote, foreign policy spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters she could only repeat that the "EU has condemned and does not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea…by the Russian Federation, and that we are unwavering in our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine."

She said the EU would base its assessment of the elections on reports from the OSCE observers, some of whom are EU diplomats.

Betsa accused Russia of using the elections to "trick" the international community into legitimizing the annexation of Crimea.

"We do think [holding elections in Crimea] will put under question the legitimacy of the State Duma in general."

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed off Kyiv's criticism, saying that Russia does not care whether foreign governments recognize the elections because, in his words, "Crimea is a Russian territory now."

Russia also plans to open polling stations at its embassy in Kyiv and its consulates in Kharkiv and Lviv for Russians living in those places to vote. Around 150,000 Russian citizens were registered as living in Ukraine in 2014, according to official data, the Kyiv Post reported.

Kyiv said on September 10 that it would not allow those polling stations to open unless Russia canceled the elections in Crimea.

On Sept. 12, Peskov said that Moscow would not bend to that ultimatum "under any circumstances," and Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's Central Electoral Commission, warned that Kyiv's move "could backfire on Ukraine in an unexpected way." She did not elaborate.

Betsa said that, in practice, it would be difficult to prevent voting at the Russian Embassy and consulates.

"There are not so many ways to influence this, legally speaking," Betsa said. "The territory of the embassy is part of the territory of that state."

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