Russian elections in Ukraine’s Donbas: Annexing people before annexing territory.

On September 17–19, elections to Russia’s State Duma (lower house of parliament) were unlawfully staged in the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine’s east (Donetsk and Luhansk) as well as in annexed Crimea. Elections to the Russian Duma were also held unlawfully in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia—territories seized from Moldova and Georgia, respectively. The voting demonstrated Moscow’s systematic use of illegal “passportization” of citizens of other countries in territories forcibly seized from those countries. Russia uses mass-passportization as a form of annexing populations without necessarily declaring the annexation of the territory to Russia (see accompanying article in EDM, September 23).

The voting in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) marked the first time that local residents—legally the citizens of Ukraine—voted in Russia’s elections as newly minted citizens of Russia. A test run had been conducted during Russia’s constitutional plebiscite on June 25–July 1, 2020, whose result allowed President Vladimir Putin to run again for two more presidential terms. In that plebiscite, a mere 14,500 Russian-passportized residents were transported from the “DPR-LPR” to Russia’s adjacent Rostov region to cast ballots there.

For the Duma elections, however, a far more elaborate operation was undertaken in this territory. According to interim figures, centralized in Moscow, some 150,000 votes from the “DPR-LPR” had been cast in Russia’s Rostov oblast as of the afternoon of September 19 (TASS, September 19).

Russia has, thus far, conferred its citizenship on 650,000 residents in the “DPR” and “LPR,” according to the Human Rights and Civil Society Development Office Under the Russian Federation’s President (TASS, September 19); or 630,000 citizenships, plus 110,000 applications pending, according to Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (Ukrinform, September 17); or 611,000 citizenships as of mid-August, according to Viktor Vodolatski, a Duma deputy and Cossack chieftain in Rostov oblast, active in the “DPR-LPR” on behalf of the United Russia party of power (Dan-news.info, August 16). Of that number, some 450,000 are estimated to be over 18 years of age and, thus, eligible to vote (Civicmonitoring.org, Newsletter no. 94, August 27–September 15). The number of Russian-passportized residents will undoubtedly continue to grow. The total number of residents remaining in this occupied territory at this time, however, is hard to ascertain.

Related: Russia shuttles residents of occupied Donbas to vote in Duma elections amid accelerated passportization

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly limited the voter turnout from the “DPR-LPR” on September 17–19. Organized transportation was provided gratis for voters to cast ballots in person at 91 polling stations in Russian territory. Technical assistance was made available for online voting at some 400 “information centers” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory.

The heads of the two “people’s republics,” Denis Pushilin in Donetsk and Leonid Pasechnik in Luhansk, using closely similar watchwords, portrayed these elections as: “one more step toward the integration of Donbas with Russia”; “affirming our right to be Russians”; showing that “Russia is our home”; “making us feel a part of the Russian World”; and as “further confirmation that the [two] republics’ integration with Russia is unstoppable, a process that advances with every passing year” (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, September 16, 20; Luhansk Info Tsenter, September 17, 20).

Related: Kremlin’s panic over “smart voting” ends any prospect election will be viewed as legitimate, Pastukhov says

Although the elections were ostensibly a multi-party affair in Russia (with the United Russia party of power attaining a constitutional majority), these elections were a one-party affair in the “DPR-LPR.” United Russia was the sole party visible there during the pre-election campaign, with the support of the local authorities and media. Moscow, however, refrained from deploying the party’s own personnel from Russia to this occupied territory. Instead, it relied on the local “public movements” (embryonic parties) Donetsk Republic, Free Donbas and Peace to Luhansk, as well as local administrative authorities and local media to propagandize for United Russia.

Russia’s Communist Party and the bloc formed by A Just Russia with Patriots For Truth were, each, reduced to the role of “also ran.” The Kremlin has apparently licensed these parties to urge either recognition of the “DPR” and “LPR” by Russia or their merger with Russia. However, they cannot be allowed to make serious inroads into United Russia’s captive electorate in this territory.

Related: The Russian elections and hidden regionalist politics

The secretary of the United Russia party’s General Council, Andrei Turchak, nonetheless signed an agreement with Aleksandr Boroday, the chairperson of the Union of Donbas Volunteers, whereby Boroday runs for a Duma seat on United Russia’s list of candidates from the Rostov oblast. Boroday, a Moscow political operator, was the first “prime minister” of the “DPR” in 2014; and the volunteers’ union he chairs is mostly comprised of Russian combat veterans of the 2014–2015 war against Ukraine. If Boroday is elected to the Duma, he would probably become a “DPR-LPR” voice, alongside Vodolatski’s, in that chamber.

The full returns (voter turnout, political parties’ scores) of elections staged in this territory have yet to be released. The delay suggests that Russian authorities might well be doctoring the returns.

Russia’s staging of these elections in the “DPR-LPR,” along with the mass-scale Russian passportization, make nonsense of the idea of holding local “elections” in this territory as per the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and 2015. Any correct elections were unthinkable in any case under Russian military and political control in this territory. Meanwhile, a large proportion of eligible voters have become citizens of Russia; and they will undoubtedly form the majority of voters if and when local elections are staged in the “DPR-LPR” under the Minsk agreements.

Russia will not any time soon annex the “DPR-LPR” outright, nor officially recognize them, nor award them some kind of status. Staging Russian elections and other political events there demonstrate to the remaining populace there that it belongs to Russia de facto . More current residents will move to Russia as a labor resource amid Russia’s demographic deficit. Russia will continue using passportization to integrate “DPR-LPR” residents individually into Russia’s life through citizenship, employment, social services, and irreversible russification of their national identity. And military-age residents in the “DPR-LPR” will continue filling the ranks of Russia’s proxy forces deployed against Ukraine.

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