Donbas Vote Seen As Key Element In The Kremlin's Election Effort

By Aleksandr Isak

There are few indications on the streets of Russian cities that the country is holding parliamentary elections.

There’s the occasional billboard listing the dates -- September 17-19 -- and the occasional canvasser distributing leaflets for state-approved parties. But life is largely going on as normal.

Not so in the chunk of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region that is controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. There, it’s a different story: An apparent rush to get every eligible resident to cast a ballot in a foreign election that Kremlin critics consider rigged to ensure a resounding victory for the ruling party, United Russia.

On September 6, a post on a website of the Moscow-backed separatists who have held part of the Donetsk province since a war against Kyiv erupted in 2014 listed 15 polling stations in Russia’s neighboring Rostov Oblast where a former leader of the Donetsk separatists, Russian citizen Aleksandr Borodai, is on the United Russia ticket.

“Show your Russian passport and vote in the elections,” the text read. It promised that special buses would be provided to take Donbas residents to the border, and another set of buses would transfer them to the polling stations.

The strategy could bring Russia the fruits of a years-long campaign of so-called “passportization” in the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces held by the Russia-backed separatists. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to simplify the processing of Russian passports for residents of the Donbas, sparking harsh criticism from Kyiv and Western governments that accuse Moscow of seeking to further destabilize Ukraine.

Some 14,500 Russian passport holders in the Donbas were able to vote in Russia’s June-July 2020 plebiscite on constitutional changes, including one that allows Putin to run for reelection in 2024 and 2030. Many were bused across the border into the Rostov Oblast to access polling stations there.

In May, the Russian Interior Ministry said that 527,000 residents of the separatist-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces had obtained Russian passports. Those passports usually come without official registration in Russia, since most recipients have no property there, rendering them unable to arrange hotel stays and creating other bureaucratic hurdles.

Nevertheless, a resolution subsequently adopted by Russia’s Central Election Commission in July allowed such people to register and cast votes online in this weekend's elections, handing them one of the fundamental rights enjoyed by full-fledged Russian citizens -- and potentially creating a sizable group of people that can bolster Kremlin-backed parties.

“It’s likely that United Russia will receive the most votes in the Donbas,” Russian political analyst Konstantin Skorkin wrote in a recent column for the English-language Moscow Times. “Inhabitants of the self-proclaimed republics are counting on the Russian authorities alone to resolve their fate, so voting for the ruling party is, for them, akin to investing in their own future: They hope their loyalty will not be forgotten by Moscow.”

Ukraine issued a note of protest after the resolution passed, also citing the involvement in Russian elections of residents of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“The organization of elections on occupied Ukrainian territory and the involvement in them of local residents, on whom Russian citizenship was imposed, puts into question the results of those elections,” the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv said in a statement carried by the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.

According to sources who were granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject and the possibility of consequences, it is this resolution that precipitated the launch of a concerted campaign to get out the vote from residents of the Donbas.

Last week, workers for the separatist authorities who were pressured to register as Russian voters were herded in groups into local “consultation centers” -- where they were instructed on how to use the Russian government services portal to cast their votes online, according to the sources. Such centers were opened in 255 schools in the separatist-held part of the Donetsk region, they said.

Media reports say that some Russian passport holders were promised payouts from the Russian government on par with those apportioned to state workers in line with a recent decree signed by Putin, despite the fact that the decree specified it applied to “Russian citizens living on Russian territory.”

“Here we don’t watch our lying local TV channels. They’re not interesting. We watch Russia!” Tatyana, a kindergarten teacher in the separatist-controlled Donetsk town of Snizhne, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. She cited the various bonuses promised to pensioners and young parents, adding: “And do we get nothing, or what? Are we only useful as voters?”

Even as the territories’ de facto leaders pull out the stops that help get out the vote in the Russian elections, Russia’s mainstream parties have not done much campaigning in the Donbas, possibly to eschew the kind of scandals that electioneering on foreign soil could provoke.

But one grandiose event held by United Russia on September 8 did turn heads.

It was a holiday established by the separatists to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Donbas from Nazi forces in World War II, and a group of Russian lawmakers marked it by ascending to the war monument atop Savur-Mohyla hill near Snizhne along with several veterans of Soviet-era wars, according to images from the event published by United Russia.

Accompanying them was Andrei Turchak, a senior United Russia leader, who announced that the party had planted several dozen trees beside the memorial complex.

“Russia always was, is, and will be together with the people of the Donbas,” he told the gathered crowd, before driving to Donetsk for a meeting with party supporters.

Skorkin summed up the effect this strategy could ultimately have, both for Russia and the separatist republics it backs.

“Moscow is binding the breakaway region to itself ever more closely,” he wrote. “With every Russian passport handed out there, and every vote cast in Russian elections, the chances of resolving the [Donbas] crisis… get slimmer and slimmer.”