A Kremlin-orchestrated referendum got underway Friday in four occupied regions of Ukraine that sought to make them part of Russia. The move drew condemnation from Kyiv and Western nations who dismissed the votes as a sham and pledged not to recognize their results.
Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia in the east and southeast, representing about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory, was due to run from Friday to Tuesday.
Over 20.5 percent of voters eligible to vote in the Zaporizhzhia region and 15 percent of those in the Kherson region voted on Friday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing local electoral officials.
“In our view, that’s enough for the first day of voting,” the head of Kherson’s Russian-installed election commission, Marina Zakharova, was quoted as saying.
Polling stations were also set up in Moscow, for residents of those regions now living in Russia. Flag-waving government supporters attended rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg in favor of the referendums and the Ukraine war effort.
Serhiy Gaidai, Ukraine’s Luhansk governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, the population was banned from leaving and people were being forced out of homes to vote.
In the town of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees voting was compulsory and anyone refusing to take part would be fired and their names given to security services, he added.
Reuters could not immediately verify reports of coercion.
Ukraine, Western leaders, and the United Nations condemned the votes as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly address that the votes would be “unequivocally condemned” by the world, along with the mobilization Russia began this week, including in Crimea and other areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
“These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, these are crimes against specific people, against a nation,” Zelenskyy said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would step up support for Ukraine in response to the referendums.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal bearing.
The Group of Seven leading industrial democracies said: “We will never recognize these referenda which appear to be a step toward Russian annexation and we will never recognize purported annexation if it occurs.”
Moscow says they offer an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.
“We are coming home!” said Vladimir Rogov, an official of Zaporizhzhia’s Russian-installed administration.
After casting her ballot, Yulia Zodirako, a Donetsk People’s Republic passport holder, said, “I came first of all because we’ve waited for this for eight years, we are Russians, this is our victory.”
Evgeniy Kapustin, whose mother still lives in Luhansk, said, “I really hope for the positive changes with the help of Russia and so I voted for this.”
“I’ve voted to make the quality of life of people there better,” he added.
Reuters contributed to this report.