Russia’s ‘elections’ in occupied Ukraine are a charade

Harald Hartvig Jepsen is senior international advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Peter Erben is principal advisor at IFES and senior country director at IFES Ukraine.

On September 10, Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) plans to stage four regional “elections,” 79 municipality “elections” and a “by-election” to the State Duma for “new subjects of the Russian Federation.” But this is yet another of the Kremlin’s faux “elections” running roughshod over the very principle of democracy.

Do not be deceived. There will be nothing free or fair about them — they are being conducted purely for propaganda purposes. The outcomes are preordained as any “election” or “plebiscite” organized by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin: The “election” officers, as well as Russian soldiers, will see to that.

In Putin’s Orwellian doublespeak, “new subjects” refers to Ukrainian territories illegally occupied by Russian forces. Some of these territories have been occupied since 2014, others only more recently, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

With these “elections” Putin hopes to paint Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories as somehow legitimate. No doubt Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his aides will be busy trying to do so.

But this exercise has nothing in common with free and fair democratic elections.

Kremlin propagandists in the West are already condemning Ukraine for suspending its actual elections during war, comparing Kyiv’s suspension with Moscow’s readiness to organize a vote. But countries normally postpone elections when they are under ferocious attack.

And Ukraine’s constitution and laws uphold the sanctity of legitimate elections by prohibiting any such proceedings on its soil when martial law is in effect, as it now is while the country defends itself from Russia’s aggression.

Much like the sham “referenda” held in September 2022, when Russia “officially” annexed territories not even fully under its control, these forthcoming Russian “elections” in occupied territories of Ukraine are totally illegal and illegitimate. This is a matter of Ukrainian and international law:

It is universally recognized and enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) that an occupying power cannot annex occupied territory during ongoing hostilities.

The CEC of Ukraine is the only legal authority that can organize and conduct elections and referenda on Ukrainian sovereign territory.

On October 12, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly rejected the Russian seizure of land by force. An overwhelming majority of nations adopted a resolution calling on countries not to recognize Russia’s claim to four regions of Ukraine, and demanding that Moscow reverse course on its “attempted illegal annexation.”

Elections and referenda are based on the principle of free suffrage. They are not possible without respect for human rights, particularly freedom of expression, the press, movement, assembly and association. Since martial law may restrict or suspend such constitutionally guaranteed rights, genuinely democratic states do not conduct elections or referenda during intense war. For this same reason, Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October this year cannot be held until martial law is lifted. And that, in turn, depends on the outcome of the war.

In contrast, Russia has lifted a similar ban on elections during martial law.

In a brilliant analysis, the Ukrainian election watchdog OPORA recently demonstrated how Russia, unbound by principles, has bent its own law to stage this shoddy spectacle. Putin’s obedient lawmakers have dismantled the last meager remnants of rule of law and democracy in Russia, which has failed to organize any election that experts have considered free and fair since the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine’s post-Soviet record is much better.

Of course, Ella Pamfilova, the chair of Russia’s CEC, is on the European Union’s list of personally sanctioned Russians for her role in staging the annexation “referenda” in 2022, and for “supporting and implementing actions and policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.” And media around the world should acknowledge those sanctions when referencing her.

Ukraine’s CEC is the sole body in charge of organizing elections in Ukrainian territory — not Russia’s. After Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, it stripped election officials in the occupied areas of their powers. And globally, Ukraine’s CEC is rightly leading initiatives to oust Russia, and its ally Belarus, from international associations of electoral management bodies and election officials.

Ukraine’s electoral body has condemned the actions of the CEC of the Russian Federation and the State Duma. Ukrainian citizens under Russian control will face strong coercion to cast ballots, and Ukraine is urging its citizens to boycott as best they can.

The “turnout” and “vote count” on “election day” will, of course, be irrelevant. Not that the Kremlin will see it that way, but everyone else, Western media included, should give short shrift to Russian propaganda.