Russia’s Central Election Commission claimed on Sunday that the United Russia party, which staunchly supports President Vladimir Putin, was leading local elections in four Ukrainian regions occupied by Russian troops.
The Kremlin claimed to have annexed the eastern and southern territories late last year, despite not having full military control over them, and the so-called elections have been dismissed as a sham by Ukraine and its allies.
Data on the Commission’s website reportedly shows that the electorate in the war-torn areas – where Ukraine has opened news fronts – had supported United Russia after an initial count.
The polls, also being held across Russia, come ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next year that are expected to extend Putin’s rule until at least 2030.
His opponents are in exile or in prison, and Moscow has criminalized criticism of the conflict in Ukraine and arrested thousands of people for speaking out.
Authorities set up mobile voting booths days before the election in annexed Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia, where Moscow said a polling station was attacked by a Ukrainian drone.
Votes also took place in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian security services said they had compiled a list of “collaborators” who helped organize the election and promised retaliation.
– ‘Living in peace’ –
In Rostov-on-Don, a southwestern city close to the Ukrainian border that came under drone attack this week, two voters told AFP the conflict was their main concern.
“We just want to live in peace with our children,” says 40-year-old Nina Antonova.
“Everyone is worried about this one problem: the war. We have no other worries,” said 84-year-old Anatoli, a retiree who declined to give his last name.
In Moscow, where a mayoral election was taking place, there were very few campaign posters.
Mayor Sergei Sobyanin – a Siberian-born Kremlin loyalist who has been in office since 2010 – has been ubiquitous on television in recent days, opening new regional train routes, a highway and renovated hospitals.
In his thirteen years at the helm of Europe’s largest city, Sobyanin has overseen countless mega-projects that have transformed Moscow’s skyline.
In 2013, he was nearly defeated by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.
Navalny was jailed in 2020 on old fraud charges that his allies said were a pretext to end his political work.
Sobyanin, the easy favorite, is running against the grandson of a veteran communist politician and a little-known candidate from a new party called “New People.”
However, Moscow residents praised Sobyanin in interviews with AFP for modernizing the city.
“Two metro stations were opened yesterday,” 21-year-old student Rukhin Aliyev told AFP.
“Moscow is blooming before our eyes.”
Musician Kirill Lobanov said Sobyanin had done “very well” as mayor, especially “in the last year” marked by the conflict.
Sobyanin has sought in recent months to downplay increasing Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow, which have hit the Kremlin and crashed into the capital’s iconic financial district.
– ‘Major alarm’ –
In the regions bordering Ukraine, which have seen regular attacks from Kiev this summer, voting continued with extra security measures.
The head of the electoral commission, Ella Pamfilova, said the vote was postponed in Shebekino, a district of the Belgorod region hit by shelling, “due to a regime of high alert.”
Observers say one of the few competitive races in Russia’s 11 time zones has occurred in remote Siberia’s Khakassia, where Governor Valentin Konovalov is seeking re-election.
The 35-year-old communist defeated a Kremlin-backed candidate in 2018 after a wave of rare protests in the sparsely populated mountainous region.
In this year’s campaign, he initially faced Moscow-backed candidate Sergei Sokol, who portrayed himself as a Kremlin-decorated “hero” fighting in Ukraine.
Sokol dropped out at the last minute due to health reasons. Konovalov is one of the few regional leaders not supported by the Kremlin who remains in office.