Russia launches illegal referendum to annex occupied parts of Ukraine: NPR

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Residents of Russian-occupied places like Melitopol and Kherson arrive in a convoy of cars at the parking lot of a household goods store set up as a makeshift reception center in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.

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Residents of Russian-occupied places like Melitopol and Kherson arrive in a convoy of cars at the parking lot of a household goods store set up as a makeshift reception center in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.

Claire Harbage/NPR

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — A long line of cars pull up in the parking lot of a household goods store converted into a makeshift reception center. People get out of the cars, looking exhausted but relieved, some are crying, many are smiling. Officials stop at each car, checking documents.

This convoy is coming from the south, from places like Melitopol and Kherson, areas that have been occupied by Russia for months now.

“We were waiting, hoping that the Ukrainian army would come and the battle for our city would begin,” said Viktoria Yermoleny, 55, who left Melitopol with her husband and their dog. “But then we heard about the referendum, and we just couldn’t risk it anymore.”

Viktoria and Anatoli Yermoleny left Melitopol with their dog on Thursday after hearing about the referendums.

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Viktoria and Anatoli Yermoleny left Melitopol with their dog on Thursday after hearing about the referendums.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Controversial Russian referendums have started in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – some of which are only partially controlled by Russia. The vote is illegal under Ukrainian and international law and is widely seen as a sham, as it is almost certain to result in Moscow’s favor. But still, it could pave the way for the Kremlin to annex the areas, causing them to join the Russian Federation.

It could also trigger a dramatic escalation in the seven-month war, as Russia could use the referendums to illegitimately assert that any attempt by Ukrainian forces to retake land is an attack on Russia itself. The vote is expected to last five days, until September 27.

“It’s all staged and it’s all fake,” Yermoleny said of the vote, as her husband nodded next to her. She said their neighbors who stayed behind intended to hide if Russian soldiers came to their house to vote them out.

“But that’s not going to help anyway,” she said. “The Russians will just write the numbers they need and be done with it.”

People arrive at a parking lot in Zaporizhzhia from places like Melitopol and Kherson, areas that have been occupied by Russia for months now.

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People arrive at a parking lot in Zaporizhzhia from places like Melitopol and Kherson, areas that have been occupied by Russia for months now.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Russian news outlets confirmed door-to-door voting would be the way most referendums would be conducted. The Kremlin announced the vote so quickly that it did not have time to set up key voting infrastructure, according to Russian news site TASS. Rather than voting electronically, authorities will distribute paper ballots to residents at home.

Ninel Lyssenko, 67, was also fleeing Melitopol. She is from Donetsk and was there when a similar referendum was held in 2014.

“I saw what they did there, and it was all staged,” Lyssenko said. “I mean, what can you do when they come to your house? How can you vote when they have guns?”

A military vehicle drives down a street in Russian-occupied Luhansk under a billboard that reads: ‘With Russia forever, September 27’ on Thursday.

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A military vehicle drives down a street in Russian-occupied Luhansk under a billboard that reads: ‘With Russia forever, September 27’ on Thursday.

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When asked, Lyssenko admitted that there was some support for Russia in the areas where the votes were taking place – mainly among older people who have fond memories of the Soviet Union – but that it was far from a majority, and many are bribed with humanitarian aid. aid or double pensions.

But she said even pro-Russian support was declining dramatically. “With this war, many people realized what Russia really is,” she said.

The referendums are accompanied by the recent announcement by President Vladimir Putin of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russians, which has triggered major demonstrations in Russia.

Pro-referendum rallies are taking place across Russia as voting begins in Ukraine, but local media reports that pro-Kremlin activists, students and pensioners have been bussed to the rallies, sometimes for pay. Voting is also taking place at sites in Russia to accommodate Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border, according to the Kremlin.

In the convoy of cars from Ukrainian territory under Russian control, all the men between the ages of 18 and 35 were reportedly abducted by Russian forces and returned to the occupied areas. Ablamit – who only wanted to give his first name out of fear of his family members back home – said his 34-year-old son was pulled out of their car and told he had to come back, leaving the woman and baby behind. son’s child to continue without him.

“I tried to demand that they tell me why he was fired, and they said it was because he would fight for Ukraine if they let him through,” said Ablamit, 62. .

People in the car convoy from Russian-controlled territory of Ukraine said all the men between the ages of 18 and 35 had been abducted by Russian forces and returned to occupied areas.

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People in the car convoy from Russian-controlled territory of Ukraine said all the men between the ages of 18 and 35 had been abducted by Russian forces and returned to occupied areas.

Claire Harbage/NPR

When asked if he was worried his son would be forced to fight for Russia if the referendum goes through and annexation happens, Ablamit just sighed.

“I haven’t even let myself think about that yet,” he said.

The referendums and impending annexation are also of concern to residents of Ukrainian-held territory, especially given the huge number of internally displaced people. Many have left the areas where voting is currently taking place and are watching, worried about friends and family left behind. Others were separated from their neighbors, considering themselves lucky that the Russian forces had not yet reached them.

Oksana Zelenyuk works at the local convenience store in Maksymivka, a village just across the Dnipro River from Russian-controlled areas. The villagers there are now separated from their friends and family and have not been able to see them for months.

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Oksana Zelenyuk works at the local convenience store in Maksymivka, a village just across the Dnipro River from Russian-controlled areas. The villagers there are now separated from their friends and family and have not been able to see them for months.

Claire Harbage/NPR

In the village of Maksymivka, across the Dnipro River from areas under Russian control, villagers are now separated from friends and family, unable to see them for months. Oksana Zelenyuk, 34, who works at the local convenience store, says virtually everyone in the village knows someone across the river. If annexation happens, she wonders what it might mean for those relationships.

“We are in contact with them all the time, constantly worrying about what life is like for them there,” Zelenyuk said. “This situation is not good for anyone.”

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