DONETSK, UKRAINE (AP) – Residents of separatist-controlled regions in Eastern Ukraine with Russian citizenship travel to Russia to vote on constitutional changes that would keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036.
The authorities of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk have organized bus services to polling stations in the neighboring Rostov region of Russia, which is seen by many as part of the widespread efforts to encourage turnout in the controversial plebiscite.
Friday morning, dozens of people gathered at a bus station in Donetsk, a rebel-controlled city in eastern Ukraine, waiting for a bus to Russia. Some voters told The Associated Press that constitutional changes would strengthen the powers of the Russian authorities and bring peace to the separatist region of eastern Ukraine. Others hoped that the changes would allow separatist republics to become part of Russia.
The polls opened in Russia last Thursday for a week-long vote on a slew of constitutional changes put forward by Putin in January. The changes include an amendment to the Russian constitution that allows the 67-year-old Putin, who has ruled Russia for more than two decades, to run for two more six years after his current term ends in 2024.
The Russian authorities have gone to great lengths this month to lure voters to polling stations during the coronavirus outbreak. Allowing residents of Eastern Ukraine to participate is part of this effort, said independent foreign analyst Vladimir Frolov.
“(Russian authorities) are obsessed with the results (of the vote),” and rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine may contribute some “manageable votes,” he said.
More than 220,000 Ukrainians living in areas owned by Russian-backed rebels received Russian passports last year, after Putin signed a decree expediting applications from nationals of residents of the self-proclaimed republics. The action was widely condemned as an attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty that could undermine efforts to end a separatist conflict that has killed more than 14,000 since 2014.
More than 150,000 residents of Eastern Ukraine have expressed a desire to vote in the vote on the constitutional reform, Russian legislator Victor Vodolatsky told Tass news agency last week.
Russia’s borders have been closed since the end of March due to the coronavirus outbreak, but there are procedures to let Russian citizens in, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday, that voters from Eastern Ukraine can go to Russia to travel.
According to separatist officials, there are 12 polling stations in the Rostov region where residents of Eastern Ukraine can vote. The regional election committee confirmed to the AP that polling stations for Russian citizens who were not registered as residents were active throughout the region.
Russian election observers point out that it might be easier to manipulate the vote by having Eastern Ukrainian residents vote in Russia. Non-resident voters are not registered with a specific polling station and with different stations operating in the Rostov region, it will be difficult to verify that they did not vote multiple times at different polls, said Vladimir Yegorov, electoral control coordinator with the independent election watchdog of Golos.
“The vote lasts seven days and a person can, if he wishes, vote multiple times at different polling stations, and there is no way to check it,” said Yegorov.
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