Russia has completed widely condemned regional and municipal elections, including in four eastern regions it annexed from Ukraine, providing strong support for President Vladimir Putin.
The week-long election, which ended on Sunday, took place amid criticism of voter fraud and Ukraine’s effort to regain its territory.
The Council of Europe, Europe’s largest rights group, called the election a flagrant violation of international law, while Kiev and its allies said it was an illegal attempt to tighten Moscow’s grip on regions in southern and eastern Ukraine.
State-run news agencies reported that data published by Moscow and agency officials showed that voters in Ukraine’s war-torn regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson supported Putin’s United Russia party with more than 70 percent of the vote in each region.
Detailed voting numbers were not immediately released.
All but a few of Russia’s allies recognize these regions as part of Ukraine.
The results mean that Moscow’s handpicked governors in the regions, a mix of veteran separatist leaders and junior local politicians loyal to Russia, win full terms.
None of the four regions is fully under the control of the Russian army.
Ukraine, which in June began a grueling counter-offensive to liberate its territory, has slowly begun to regain territory in the Zaporizhzhya region, and has also announced some advances in Donetsk around the devastated city of Bakhmut.
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and leader of the United Russia party, thanked all voters who came to cast their votes in the annexed regions.
“We value the votes of all voters, but perhaps the people who live in our new areas…their votes are absolutely important for our party,” he was quoted as saying by TASS news agency. “This is not just a mandate of confidence…to some extent, this is truly an act of civic courage and our party should approach it that way.”
Across Russia, United Russia won every regional gubernatorial race in which it competed. However, in voting areas, electoral competition was limited as authorities prevented strong candidates, including some from Russia’s main opposition Communist Party, from running in the elections.
All significant legal political forces in Russia, including the patchwork of opposition parties that provide a semblance of competition at the ballot box, are broadly loyal to Putin and his 18-month-old war in Ukraine.
“Elections are not real”
Cases of voter fraud in many parts of Russia showed that “this is not a real election,” said Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chair of Golos, a voter rights group that the Russian government has designated as a “foreign agent.”
Andreychuk said his organization received reports of opposition candidates being arrested, their cars being vandalized, and, in one case, military conscription papers being presented to election observers.
“They are doing absolutely unimaginable things,” he added.
But the Kremlin said the elections were free and fair in Russia, and that opinion polls and numerous election victories show that Putin is the most popular politician in the country.
Among the regional leaders re-elected was Moscow’s powerful mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin.
With almost no opposition, preliminary results showed that Sobyanin received more than 75 percent of the votes in the Russian capital, which is considered among the most opposition-leaning areas in the country.
In 2013, Sobyanin was almost defeated by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. The opposition politician, who was imprisoned in 2020 on old fraud charges that his allies say was a pretext to end his political career, refused to vote from behind bars.
Before the election, Muscovites praised Sobyanin for modernizing Europe’s largest city. The Kremlin loyalist – in office since 2010 – has presided over several mega projects that have changed Moscow’s skyline.
“Moscow is thriving before our eyes,” 21-year-old student Rukhin Aliyev told Agence France-Presse.
Musician Kirill Lobanov said Sobyanin had performed “very well” as mayor, especially “in the past year” which was marked by conflict.
Kremlin critics say elections in Moscow are easily rigged because of the capital’s electronic voting system, which they say is impossible to audit.
Similar systems have been introduced in several other Russian regions.
Observers say one of the few competitive races in Russia’s 11 time zones took place in Siberia’s remote Khakassia region, 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-honored “hero” who fought in Ukraine.
Sokol withdrew from the study at the last minute for health reasons.
Konovalov is one of the few regional leaders not supported by the Kremlin who remains in office.
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