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Hide And Seek: Ukrainians Try To Dodge Annexation Vote Seen As 'Sham'

Women stand outside a polling station during the first day of a referendum on joining Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23.
Women stand outside a polling station during the first day of a referendum on joining Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23.

Halyna, a resident of the Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region, says her sister and parents have no intention of leaving their home the next few days.

It has nothing to do with the intermittent fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the area, COVID-19, or bad weather.

Rather, they are trying to dodge election workers escorted by gun-toting Russian soldiers who are trying to force them to participate in a vote on joining the Russian Federation that contradicts international law and the UN Charter and that they personally view as illegitimate.

"They are trying to avoid leaving their apartment at all," Halyna told RFE/RL on September 23, as the so-called referendum got under way.

Thousands of Ukrainian families like Halyna's are following suit, refusing to answer when election officials knock on their door in a sign of silent protest, according to videos and personal tales posted online.

In one video from Kherson, election workers sandwiched by two soldiers with automatic rifles enter an apartment building and can later be heard knocking on doors before leaving about a minute later without any success.

In another video from Donetsk, an election official walks down a village road calling on people to come out of their homes to vote but gets no response.

Russian-backed officials in four partially occupied Ukrainian regions decided earlier this week to carry out a hastily organized vote on joining Russia as President Vladimir Putin gambles on escalation to stem his military losses.

The voting in Moscow-controlled parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya are expected to run through September 27, with the results to be announced by early October, days before Putin's 70th birthday.

Russia has reportedly blocked people from leaving parts of the occupied territories to prevent them from dodging the vote.

Posts by Ukrainians on various Telegram channels claimed that Russian officials were randomly stopping people at outdoor locations to get them to vote.

One Ukrainian man in the Kherson region was stopped by soldiers while biking from one village to another and forced to fill out the simple questionnaire on annexation, according to one post.

Officials in the occupied regions set up "polling stations" -- mainly older women behind a stand or desk with voting bulletins, pens, and an urn -- outside apartment buildings or in stores and markets in order to catch more people.

Aside from dodging election officials, Ukrainians have shown their resistance to the illegal vote by plastering blue-and-yellow posters in the hallways of apartment buildings with the words "You can't change [the border of] Ukraine with a referendum," and "Stop the referendum." Blue and yellow are the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Traditional polling stations set up at schools and other civic buildings appeared to attract few voters, though Russian media claimed to show several that were busy.

Ukrainian officials claimed the people in those videos were rounded up and bused to a few locations as the Kremlin tries to prove to its own citizens that the election is real.

During Putin's nearly 23-year rule, Russia has rarely held free and fair elections, with forced voting, ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation, outright fraud, and media manipulation common practices.

Russia held a similar illegal vote in 2014 after forcibly seizing Ukraine's Crimea region. Very few countries have accepted the results of the vote.

Oleksandr Starukh, the head of Kyiv's military administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said the Kremlin needed a "pseudo-vote" to justify its recent call for mobilization.

Putin announced a "partial" military mobilization on September 21 amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has dealt his invading forces apparent heavy personnel losses.

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Ukraine's recent combat successes have raised the specter of a potential Russian defeat, something analysts say could finally undermine Putin's grip on power.

Western officials and experts say Putin plans to use the sham referendums to claim Ukraine is invading territory that is part of Russia, allowing Moscow to saber-rattle.

This week, Putin threatened the use of all of Russia's might -- a thinly veiled reference to his nuclear weapons -- in an attempt to frighten Kyiv and its Western backers from further military action.

Tetyana Ihnatchenko, a spokeswoman for the Donetsk civil-military administration, told Current Time that the will of the Ukrainian people will play no role in the vote.

She said the Russian authorities will simply create a result that they will then announce on TV for their domestic audience. "This needs to be clearly understood by us, and it needs to be clearly understood by the whole world. [The outcome] has already been written in the Kremlin," she said.

Russian authorities have the personal and biometric data of many Ukrainians in the occupied areas, enabling them to manipulate the results of the referendum, says Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, a port city in Donetsk.

Russian forces encircled Mariupol in the early days of the invasion and bombarded it for weeks, turning it into rubble and creating a humanitarian crisis.

As it distributed money and food -- some of its stolen from Ukraine -- to the citizens that remained it Mariupol, the Russian authorities collected all their personal data, including even their health problems, he said.

"All this collected data will now be converted" into votes, Andryushchenko said. "The fewer people in Mariupol, the greater the turnout in reality they can show without having to go anywhere."

While a certain percentage of Ukrainians remaining in the city -- especially those of pension age -- will happily vote for annexation, in part because they have been "brainwashed" by Russian propaganda, the majority are against it, Andryushchenko said.

However, they could buckle under pressure, he said, if forced to vote. "There are no options not to tick a box, given that you are essentially voting at gunpoint," he said.

And ticking "no" could lead to threats down the road, he said.

The best thing, officials said, is to stay at home until the vote is over.

"They shouldn't knock down doors and break into homes -- even this will be too much for [Russians]," Yuriy Sobolevskiy, a senior member of Kherson's regional council, told Current Time.

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    Current Time

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    RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service has seen its audience grow significantly since Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022 and is among the most cited media outlets in the country. Its bold, in-depth reporting from the front lines has won many accolades and awards. Its comprehensive coverage also includes award-winning reporting by the Donbas.Realities and Crimea.Realities projects and the Schemes investigative unit.