Crimean elections Russian style

Sudak vote crop.jpg

This Sunday, 14 September, Crimeans go to the polls to confirm Russian sovereignty over their region.


Andrii Ianitskyi
13 September 2014

Back in March of this year, Russia formally annexed Crimea, until then part of Ukraine, with the support of local separatists; and now its army and blanket propaganda machine ensure Moscow’s control of the peninsula. But local government is still in the hands of people elected back in 2010 under Ukrainian law, who can hardly speak on behalf of Russia. The region’s de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov came to power in February thanks to Russia’s armed forces, so he needs to have his right to govern Crimea endorsed by a popular vote.

Local government in Crimea is still in the hands of people elected back in 2010 under Ukrainian law.

Then and now

Under Russian rule, the city of Sevastopol has retained the special status it had in Ukraine. It is home to 16.4% of Crimea’s population (384,000 out of about 2.35m), and also to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Because of this, its elections will take place under different rules to those in the rest of Crimea (now named the Republic of Crimea).

Vladimir Putin formally integrates Crimea into the Russia, flanked by Sergei Aksyonov and Aleksei Chaly.

Vladimir Putin formally integrates Crimea into the Russia, flanked by Sergei Aksyonov and Aleksei Chaly. CC Kremlin.ru

Crimea’s parliament will have fewer members than before – 75 instead of 100, and Sevastopol only 24, where before it had 76. Two thirds of deputies will be elected on the basis of party lists, the remaining third on a ‘first past the post’ basis; and will be elected for five years rather than four as in Ukraine. The Supreme Council of the new Republic of Crimea has been renamed the State Council, and Sevastopol’s City Council, renamed the Legislative Assembly. State Council deputies will elect their head of government from a list of nominees drawn up by the President of Russia, and Sevastopol’s governor will be chosen by Legislative Assembly members, again from a list drawn up by the Russian president. So Crimean’s new rulers cannot even technically be opposed to Vladimir Putin, as he will simply not nominate them.

The ordinary voter won’t notice much difference, apart from the new flag and insignia.

At first glance, there will be no change in the voting process. Schools are usually used as polling stations, and members of local electoral committees are often drawn from their staff – a tried and tested system. So the ordinary voter won’t notice much difference, apart from the new flag and insignia. The head of the electoral committee has even promised to provide ballot papers in the new republic’s three official languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. Sevastopol, on the other hand, has only one recognised language – Russian.

The choices laid out before the voters will, however, be narrower than in the ‘Ukrainian period’. In 2010, Crimea’s residents were able to vote for both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian parties. That option no longer exists. The Russian security services are quick to suppress any pro-Ukrainian activity.

The Mejlis, the traditional representative body of the indigenous Crimean Tatars, has called for a boycott of the 14 September elections, and Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has called the election a crime, whose organisers could face a ten-year prison sentence under Ukrainian law.

No real opposition

There is also no real opposition at these elections: all parties support Putin’s Crimean policies and act as a fig leaf for Russian rule. Nor is there any platform for public debate; the media are firmly under the government’s thumb; and public servants are at the beck and call of United Russia, whose party lists are headed by the leaders of Crimea and Sevastopol.

There is no platform for public debate; the media are firmly under the government’s thumb.

A political scientist working in Crimea told me, anonymously, that the party lists are agreed with Moscow; and local government bodies run regular polls to gauge the public mood. ‘I heard that they were overdoing the United Russia PR’, he said. ‘So now they are busy pushing other parties, so they are seen to be even-handed’.

My acquaintance believes that Crimean election results will be more predictable now, with a majority of seats going to United Russia. Voter turnout will be high, but unlikely to be higher than 70% because of the Tatar boycott. To increase voter numbers, the authorities have even allowed people to present Ukrainian and even Soviet passports as ID at polling stations – the main thing is to have a Crimean address.

It seems that not all residents have yet received their Russian passports, although there are no longer any queues of applicants. The Russian Federal Migration Service says that as of 11 August it had issued 1.6m passports bearing Russia’s two-headed eagle on the cover (an estimated 1.8m people are entitled to vote). Three thousand people have refused Russian passports in writing, and another 17,000 left Crimea after its annexation. The rest either do not want a Russian passport or do not want to officially refuse one. Or, like this writer for instance, they have not actually lived in Crimea for a long time.

Another ploy to increase voter turnout and the right results is the introduction of early voting. This does not exist in Ukraine, but Russians are allowed to cast their vote up to ten days before election day, in exceptional circumstances, such as being away on a work trip or in hospital for an operation on the day.

A women casts an early ballot in the Crimean town of Sudak.

Vote early and vote often. A women casts an early ballot in the Crimean town of Sudak. (c) RIA Novosti/Taras Litvinkenko

It is likely that turnout will be higher in Sevastopol than elsewhere. Armed forces personnel will be voting there, and they are usually putty in the hands of their commanding officers. The naval crew of the guided weapon cruiser ‘Moskva’, for example, has already voted in Sevastopol. The turnout was 98.5%.

Pro-Russian politics 

The political clan based out of the town of Makeyevka, in the Donetsk region, was toppled from power in the Republic of Crimea in February. The ‘Makeyevsk gang’ controlled everything there, from the regional government to the city’s cemetery. They helped former President Viktor Yanukovych rule the peninsula, but did not support Russia. The clan has links with Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov (people in London may have heard of him as the owner of the world's most expensive flat at One Hyde Park), who also did not support Russian annexation.

Other people in favour of Crimea remaining part of Ukraine were also removed from any positions of power, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.

Pro-Russian parties have acquired a disproportionate amount of political heft. For example, the party ‘Russian Unity’ received only 4.02% of the vote in 2010. But now their leader, Sergei Aksyonov, is the head of the Crimean Republic. He is also now heading the United Russia party list.

About 43% of those on this list are former members of the Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovych’s former party. Another 10% are from Russian Unity. 40% did not formerly belong to a party. Among United Russia candidates for the majority seats, 52% were from Party of the Regions, 12% were in Russian Unity, and 24% were formerly without a party.

If United Russia receives a parliamentary majority (and they almost certainly will), the leaders of the Republics will be a mix of pro-Russian activists, former deputies and business people.


United Russia’s main competitor will be the Communists. In Crimea there are over 600,000 pensioners, who are often nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is, despite its name, a conservative party, which calls for a return to ‘the good old days’ and ‘order.’

One ‘communist’ party has their list headed by the grandson of Leonid Brezhnev.

But to make sure the KPRF does not get too many votes, there will be two more ‘communist’ parties taking part in Crimea’s elections. One of them has their party list headed by the grandson of Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei. Leonid Brezhnev held the highest posts in the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982 and is remembered for a high standard of living (largely thanks to high prices for Soviet oil on the world market).

United Russia could also face competition from the nationalist party ‘Rodina.’ Russian propaganda has exploited nationalist ideas to turn Crimea’s ethnic Russians against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. In 2013, for example, Russia’s consul in Crimea, Vladimir Andreyev, made statements attacking the role of the Tatars in the Second World War. This could add several percentage points to Rodina’s result. The former president of Crimea, Yury Meshkov is on their list (he held the post from 1994-95 before it was abolished). Their party list also features Vadim Kolesnichenko, one of the most scandal-plagued pro-Russia politicians of Ukraine, a former Party of the Regions deputy in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) from a majority seat in Sevastopol. Kolesnichenko was co-author of the law on the defence of the Russian language, a law that is still valid in Ukraine. The attempt by Yulia Tymoshenko’s party to annul that law in Febrauary 2014 was a great help to separatists in the peninsula, in getting the support of the local population.

Meanwhile, the party list for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) is being headed by its leader, former Deputy Chair of the State Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Following him in the party list is the pro-Russia Crimean activist Sergei Shuvainikov. The famous Crimean millionaire Aleksandr Faingold is also on the party list. Despite the fact that the party’s name contains the word ‘liberal,’ its leader espouses monarchist and imperialist views. Zhirinovsky is renowned for his outlandish statements and bizarre behaviour. Recently, he proposed naming Russian president Vladimir Putin an emperor, and returning to the old pre-revolutionary hymn, ‘God save the Tsar.’ Zhirinovsky last made Western headlines when he ordered an aide to rape a pregnant journalist. for asking a question he found irritating.

The party ‘A Just Russia’ probably has the least chance of winning seats, as it appears to be the most genuinely oppositionist of the influential parties. One of its Duma members, Ilya Ponomaryov, was the only Duma deputy to vote against the annexation of Crimea (he has since left the country out of fear of being imprisoned).

'A Just Russia' deputy Ilya Ponomaryov, whose statements on Crimea have scuppered his party's chances there. CC Bogomolov.pl

Supporters of a Ukrainian Crimea either will not go to the polls or will go simply to spoil their ballot

The leadership of the party had condemned his statements, and is planning to strip him of his status as a deputy. But his statement has already affected the party’s popularity. Supporters of a Ukrainian Crimea either will not go to the polls or will go simply to spoil their ballot by writing ‘Glory to Ukraine’ on it. Supporters of a Russian Crimea are not going to vote for the party because of Ponomaryov. Perhaps recognising the futility of contesting the vote, this political party’s list is being headed by Sergei Terentyev, a duma deputy from far-away Altai Krai in Siberia. There was one notable local politician in the party – the former head of Crimea’s parliament (1997-1998, 2006-2010) Anatoly Gritsenko. But he left the party earlier this week.


In Sevastopol a different sort of political intrigue has developed. Here the majority of parliamentary seats will be taken by United Russia. But in reality the party has two power centres. The first is the current city head, Sergei Menyailo, the military’s representative, who is influential among the navy and local bureaucrats. The second power centre is the businessman Aleksei Chaly, who headed the pro-Russia demonstrations in February. Chaly is suspected of having links to the Russian FSB. There is currently a public conflict unfolding in Sevastopol between Chaly and Menyailo. At the same time, various powerful groups in Russia are contesting for power over the city, (ie for control of the multi-billion rouble budget flows from Moscow).

Now that Crimea is firmly under Russia’s control, its formal political structures will most likely mirror that of Russia’s State Duma – dominated by United Russia with the other parties competing for scraps; and with the real power operating behind the scenes. 

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