Ukrainian officials say residents of Russian-occupied areas are ignoring the referendums organized by local Kremlin-backed authorities, but they acknowledged that in some instances, residents are being forced to vote.
The referendums, called on Tuesday in four parts of Ukraine under Russian control, have been widely denounced by western governments as a sham and are being conducted with few or no international observers beyond delegations from Russia.
“There is no referendum as such. It is imitation. Local residents are ignoring it. Some people are simply forced to vote. There were buses of people brought it from Crimea to cast ballots,” Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian Defense Intelligence official, told CNN.
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said it had uncovered documents showing that the Russian-backed separatist-held Donetsk People’s Republic planned to expand the electorate by involving teenagers younger than 18 in the vote.
In order to enhance control over the “turnout,” Donetsk officials decided that minors should be accompanied to the polling stations by their parents, guardians or representatives of so-called orphanages, SBU added.
Pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas have been enthusiastically pushing the referendums as a historic change.
“Today is a day that happens in history once every few centuries. I personally knew it would happen, always. I always felt I was part of a huge family called Russia. Dreams have come true,” Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed head of the Kherson region administration, said on his Telegram channel.
As he cast his ballot, Saldo said he was sure that as part of the Russian Federation, “our Kherson region and most importantly its people will be protected. Protected in every way.”
The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, also cast his vote, saying, “I feel a sense of awe and confidence that what we have fought for so long is finally coming true. This is Homecoming. Return to the great Russia. History is being made today.”
The voting continues until Tuesday.