September 18, 2016

The last time Crimeans went to the polls, they greeted the referendum that rubber-stamped Russia’s annexation of the peninsula by setting off fireworks, waving flags and dancing in the streets.

But as voters turned out for Russian parliamentary elections, the first since thousands of masked troops seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the euphoria had given way to apathy and resignation common across the country in Sunday’s vote.

Officials urged Crimeans to “put one over Kiev and Washington” by voting, which is widely expected to increase returns for the ruling United Russia party. But even their hopes that half of Crimeans would vote were well below the official turnout of 83 per cent in the 2014 referendum.

Despite sunny weather across the peninsula, officials warned that storms and electricity blackouts would hamper turnout. One local TV channel in the city of Armyansk handed out free smartphones as a reward at polling stations. A monitor in the seaside resort of Yalta posted photos of voters receiving free cinema tickets.

International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which observed the election in the rest of Russia, stayed away from the Crimean poll, leaving the election to be monitored by local party activists and a small number of foreigners who came independently.

Kiev called on the US and EU to step up sanctions against Moscow for holding the election in Crimea. Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said Russia had turned the peninsula into a “concentration camp”. Dozens of protesters clashed with police outside the Russian embassy in Kiev where they hanged Russian president Vladimir Putin in effigy.

Oleksiy Makeev, an adviser to Ukraine’s foreign minister, said Kiev would push for the exclusion of Russia’s entire delegation from the EU’s parliamentary assembly, because “the whole Duma has been contaminated by Crimea”. Recognising the elections in the rest of Russia, he said, “means you agree and legitimise the narrative”. Kiev even denied transit visas to activists from an anti-Putin party who wanted to campaign in Crimea.

The Crimean vote progressed smoothly despite condemnation from the US, EU and Ukraine. “They want us all to be unhappy — they don’t like that we’ve returned home to Russia,” said Natalia Poklonskaya, the United Russia candidate.

But the lack of enthusiasm for the poll pointed to high prices of household goods, frequent electricity blackouts and western sanctions that have left Crimea dependent on Moscow.

“People can’t really see what the economic benefits of joining Russia have been. They’re paving roads and promising to put a brake on prices, but the feeling is, ‘Why didn’t you do it earlier?” said Andrei Brezhnev, an independent parliamentary candidate in Sevastopol who is the grandson of Leonid Brezhnev, the late Soviet dictator. “Still, everyone thinks, ‘Thank God we’re in Russia’.”

Sevastopol, a city of 300,000 and home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, is hosting one of the few races in Russia where an opposition candidate stands a chance against United Russia. Dmitry Belik, the party’s candidate, faces a strong challenge from Oleg Nikolaev, who was pressed by officials to shut down his restaurant after he began a petition to Mr Putin complaining of local authorities’ incompetence.

“We need young promising businessmen to take the city forward,” said Tatiana, a 38-year-old civil servant who did not want to give her last name because she had voted for Mr Nikolaev. “Nobody’s doing anything.”

Others at a Sevastopol polling station said they had voted for United Russia to show support for Mr Putin’s annexation of the peninsula. “It’s very important — there was nothing else we could do,” said Tatiana Sidorova, 58, a tour guide. “Putin will look at this and instil party discipline,” she added.

An activist and a policeman argue during a protest in front of the Russian embassy in Kiev on Sunday © AP

Even voters dissatisfied with United Russia said they were glad to be spared the fate of the war-torn, unrecognised “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. “The Ukrainians turned off water and electricity, like the fascists did,” said Vladimir Boiko, a volunteer monitor for Mr Nikolaev. “Our politicians need to work better, but the main thing is there is no war like in Donbass.”

Mr Brezhnev said Russia’s economic troubles had disappointed Crimeans who voted in the 2014 referendum out of nostalgia for the USSR his grandfather ruled. “Leonid Ilych would come to see the collective farms here, and they were full of apricots. It’s not like what you have now.”

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