Voting begins Friday in referendums called in four regions of Ukraine that are occupied by Russian forces and their militia allies.
The votes take place over five days through Sept. 27, and in Donetsk and Kherson regions, in-person voting will only take place on the last day.
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live close to the front lines of the conflict, can be successful or fair. Additionally, because of widespread internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, voting databases are likely out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials have said that about half the pre-war population have left.
The plans have been condemned by both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West as “illegitimate” and “a sham.” The European Union has said it won’t recognize the results and has indicated it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
In Donetsk, the question will only be presented in Russian. The chair of the People’s Council — an unelected body — in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Vladimir Bidyovka, called Russian is the “state language.”
The questions on the ballot vary slightly depending on the region.
- In the Donetsk People’s Republic, the question will be: “Are you in favor of joining of the DPR to the Russian Federation on the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?” The self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic uses the same phrasing.
- In Kherson, the question will be: “Are you in favor of the secession of the Kherson region from state of Ukraine, the formation of an independent state by the Kherson region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?” In occupied Kherson, Marina Zakharova — who chairs the election commission — said about 750,000 are expected to vote.
- And in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, the question is in both Russian and Ukrainian, and it reads: “Do you vote FOR the secession of Zaporizhzhia Oblast from Ukraine, the formation of Zaporizhzhia Oblast as an independent state and its accession to the Russian Federation as a sub-entity of the Russian Federation?”
The Central Election Commission of Russia said it will take part in monitoring the referendums in all four areas.
In both Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes can be brought to them. A video from the Luhansk election commission says, “You can vote directly from home! From 23 to 27 September you can vote at home.”
Ahead of the votes, pro-Russian authorities are trying to enthuse voters. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster being distributed in Luhansk, which read “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by a 1,000-year history,” it says. “For centuries, we were part of the same great country. The break-up of the state was a huge political disaster. … It’s time to restore historical justice.”