‘A referendum is not fair’: Occupied Kherson looks to an uncertain future | Ukraine

“A city ​​with a Russian history,” proclaim billboards across the Ukrainian city of Kherson, which has been occupied by the Russian army since the first days of March. Others display the Russian flag or quotes from Vladimir Putin.

Over the past five months, Moscow has appointed an occupation administration to rule the Kherson region and ordered schools to teach the Russian curriculum. Local people are encouraged to apply for Russian passports to access pensions and other benefits.

The next step in the Kremlin’s plan is a referendum, to add a dubious sense of legality to these facts on the ground and create a pretext to bring Kherson and other occupied parts of southern Ukraine into Russia, using a version Crimea 2014 update. game book.

In a series of telephone interviews, residents of Kherson reported minimal enthusiasm for a referendum and described a nervous and unpredictable atmosphere in the city.

Residents remain uncertain what the next few months might bring: a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive to regain control, a protracted battle that turns the city to rubble, or Russia staging its mock referendum and annexing the territory.

“You must remember that there was never any question in Kherson of a referendum; no one had thought of it before the war. Now it will be a referendum at gunpoint,” said Kostyantyn, who worked in the IT sector before the occupation.

Even those who described themselves as largely apolitical said they strongly opposed voting in a referendum or joining Russia.

“I won’t go to the referendum, of course. I don’t know anyone who will. I’m not a political person and I don’t have strong opinions about politics, but it’s clear to me that a referendum is not fair,” said Svitlana, a former beauty salon worker who now sells groceries on the street to make ends meet.

Russian authorities have used intimidation to crush public opposition to their regime. A series of pro-Ukrainian rallies that took place in March and April died out after Russian soldiers fired stun grenades into the crowds and began detaining the organizers in their homes.

Locals describe the bustling former city of 300,000 as a “ghost town,” with few people going out after 5 p.m. Photograph: Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

At the end of May, the city’s Internet was redirected to Russian servers and all local media were either shut down or stuffed with pro-Russian content.

Now complaints against Russians are reserved for whispered conversations in kitchens. Locals describe the bustling former city of 300,000 as a “ghost town”. The official curfew begins at 10 p.m., but few people go out after five.

Loud protest rallies have been replaced by an underground partisan movement. Posters and flyers placed surreptitiously around the city under cover of darkness threaten those who collaborate with the occupiers with death. In June, a puppet official was killed in a bomb explosion on his way to work.


Others help Ukraine by sharing information. A person the Guardian spoke to said he responded to a Facebook post last March, looking for people living in occupied areas, and now regularly shares information with a contact from Ukraine’s security services.

“I am not involved in any way with underground organizations. I just pass on the information that I see… which factories are working with the occupiers, the troop movements, the Russian banks that I see opening,” he said.

The Kremlin reportedly intends to hold the referendum on September 11. In June, Russian-language media outlet Meduza quoted three sources close to the Kremlin detailing a plan to hold referendums in four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — and then turn them into a new region of Russia.

It is possible that Russia will stagnate, hoping for military victories that will bring the four regions under total control. Ukraine still holds major cities in the Donetsk region, such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, as well as the city of Zaporizhzhia.

According to some reports, however, the ballots are already being printed. In late July, the Russian administration in Kherson invited people to apply as election officials.

In Zaporizhzhia, regional parliament speaker Olena Zhuk said she saw “many signs” that Russians were preparing for a referendum soon in occupied parts of the region. “Let’s start by saying that any referendum would be illegitimate by Ukrainian law, by Russian law, by any law,” she said in a phone interview.

The formal annexation of more Ukrainian territory may not have been in the Kremlin’s war plans from the start. Putin’s goal appears to have been a lightning march to Kyiv and the installation of a pro-Russian puppet government there, which would have kept Ukraine as a nominally independent state in Russia’s orbit.

This plan failed and the focus shifted to annexing larger parts of southern and eastern Ukraine. In the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the Russians have appointed Volodymyr Saldo and Yevhen Balytskiy, former Ukrainian deputies, to head their administrations.

Saldo fell ill a month ago and was reportedly flown to Moscow in a coma, amid rumors of poisoning.

In Zaporizhzhia, Zhuk said she knew Balytskiy personally and was “shocked” that he decided to collaborate. She predicted, however, that the Russians would soon no longer use it. “Nobody likes traitors. It’s a rule of life,” she said.

“These people are sent to the square in the first days to say: ‘Russia will help us. We are all brothers’. But then, in a month or two, when the people have calmed down a bit, other people will come and take the real power.

Further down the chain, the Russians have struggled to find Ukrainian officials to fill the ranks of their occupation administrations, especially when the future is so uncertain.

“Nobody wants to work for the Russians. They know it’s a one-way ticket to hell,” said Kostyantyn, the former computer scientist. Russian television sometimes blurs the faces of officials to ensure that they do not become the target of attacks.

Kyrylo Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration in Kherson, in his office
Kyrylo Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration in Kherson, in his office. Photography: AFP/Getty Images

One of the most visible figures of Russian rule in Kherson is Kyrylo Stremousov, a former anti-vaccine blogger who ran in the 2020 municipal elections and won around 1.5% of the vote.

Although there have been disappearances and reports of torture, the situation in the occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is different from the large-scale terror that Russian forces unleashed in Bucha and other more occupied areas. close to Kyiv last March. Here the Russians tried to launch a kind of “hearts and minds” operation alongside intimidation.

At a recent meeting in a park in the village of Mykilske, Stremousov told a crowd, mostly made up of pensioners, that Russia was there to solve their problems, promising an improvement in the economic situation and also using rhetoric of the Kremlin on so-called “traditional values”. in opposition to the decadent west.

“We want to return to a world where there is a true understanding of the word ‘family’ and not a perverted form of it, where everyone can feel part of a whole,” he said.

The Russians want to open schools on September 1 using the Russian curriculum and have placed ads looking for Russian teachers to “retrain” Ukrainian teachers.

The new administration also renamed Kherson National Technical University, dropping the word “national”, and promised free tuition for anyone of any age who wants to study.

“We are doing everything so that we can open our doors on September 1 and our first students can start their lives in a comfortable environment,” Russian-appointed rector Halyna Raiko said in an interview for a pro TV channel. -Russian to which she appeared visibly nervous and uncomfortable.

While nostalgia for the Soviet period and appeals to conservative social values ​​may work on some of the elderly population, many who remained in Kherson fervently hope that Ukraine will regain control of the city.

“When we hear explosions, everyone rejoices – it means Ukraine is getting closer,” said Olena, a 45-year-old mother, but conceded that the prospect also comes with her own fears.

“We are waiting for the Ukrainian army, but of course we hope that civilians do not die during the liberation. We love our city and don’t want it to become Mariupol,” she said.

There is a fear, however, that if the Kremlin succeeds with its referendum plan and formally annexes the territory, a Ukrainian counteroffensive would become tougher and more dangerous, and a Russian crackdown would be on the cards.

“Everyone knows Russia will tamper with the referendum results,” said a person who runs an anti-Russian Telegram channel from inside Kherson, who asked not to use his name. “They will feel even more empowered and start to rally everyone who voted against.”

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