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Who Is Russia Pushing on Ukraine’s Annexed Territories’ Sham Elections?

IStories and Conflict Intelligence Team analyzed the electoral lists of DPR, LPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts and found Kremlin-linked officials, a mobilized soldier, and people involved in war and corruption crimes

Who Is Russia Pushing on Ukraine’s Annexed Territories’ Sham Elections?
Photo: Reuters

On 8-10 September, the Russian authorities are going to hold the first elections in the annexed Ukrainian territories — in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts and in the so-called LPR and DPR — since the start of the full-scale war. Following their results, parliaments will be formed to carry out lawmaking in the constituent entities. The new deputies will appoint local heads of regions and municipalities — local residents themselves will not elect the executive branch at all. 

Elections in the occupied territories will be held exclusively by party lists. This means that residents of the regions will not vote for specific candidates. The first municipal elections in annexed Crimea in 2014 were held in the same way. The election commissions of the annexed territories did not even intend to publish the name lists of party nominees, explaining this by “considerations of physical security of candidates.”

Although these sham election results are a foregone conclusion and United Russia party members will take the majority of seats in the parliaments, other Russian parties have also nominated candidates. IStories together with the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) analyzed the electoral lists that appeared on the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation website on the eve of the elections — both from the ruling party and those who play the role of scenery. Among them we found Kremlin-linked officials, a mobilized soldier, and people involved in war and corruption crimes.

Archived data on all candidates in an easy-to-analyze form, prepared by CIT and IStories, is available to any researchers at the link (in Russian).

Collaborators and homemakers

Mainly parties try to involve local residents in the elections. 71% of all candidates in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson Oblasts live in the same territory where they are elected. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and Just Russia — For Truth nominate the most local candidates, 89% and 85% respectively. As for United Russia and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), they do not trust locals, having only about half of such candidates (55 and 57%, respectively).

Some candidates have Kherson as their place of residence, even though Ukraine liberated the city back in November 2022. For example, Andrei Kharitonov, director of the Kherson port, Yevhen Maksimov, head of the Yubileyny concert hall in Kherson, and Svitlana Medvedkova, head of the Kherson Oblast Employment Service, are running from United Russia. It is unknown how they perform their labor duties on the territory that Russia does not control.

The Russian authorities are trying to create an illusion of multi-partyism, although it is hard to find someone to nominate in the occupied regions: one third of candidates in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson Oblasts are homemakers, pensioners, students or unemployed with an unclear source of income. 

Most of these featureless candidates run for satellite parties (every fourth candidate is from the LDPR, every second from the CPRF and Just Russia). United Russia has only 3% of homemakers and the unemployed. The ruling party has gathered in its lists almost everyone who agreed to head the so-called military-civilian administrations and work for the occupation authorities.

For example, Galina Danilchenko, the “head” of the Melitopol administration, is nominated from United Russia to the Zaporizhzhya regional Duma — she is number two on the party list after the “head” of the Zaporizhzhya Oblast, Yevhen Balitsky, at whose family enterprise she has worked for many years. Also the self-proclaimed mayor of Berdyansk Oleksandr Saulenko is in the top ten of the party list. In Ukraine, he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison with confiscation of property. Many other participants in the election were also sentenced for collaboration with Russia.

Galina Danilchenko
Galina Danilchenko
Photo: AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Another one from the United Russia electoral list is Roman Batrshin, the appointed head of the Zaporizhzhya regional court, who used to be the head of the Smolensk court and transferred to the occupied region only recently. 

The call of the IStories journalist was answered by a man whose voice is similar to Batrshin’s. “You’re not talking to me. He’s not here,” he said upon hearing a question about the election. In May, Batrshin allegedly survived an assassination attempt.

Some local candidates took an ambiguous position on the war until the very last. For example, the current deputy chairman of the Kherson Oblast government, Vitaliy Buliuk, used to be a Ukrainian patriot and wrote on social networks that “Kherson is Ukraine” back in April 2022, but a month later he joined the occupation authorities. He is called one of the most influential people in the Kherson Oblast. The two Ukrainians, who were found guilty by a Russian court in the attempted assassination of Buliuk, were given stiff sentences of 23 and 24 years in a penal colony.

Vitaliy Buliuk
Vitaliy Buliuk

Moscow’s minions

In addition to the Ukrainians remaining in the occupied territories, 340 Russians from 39 regions, as well as annexed Crimea, are going to participate in the elections to the assemblies of the four occupied territories. Most of them live in the bordering Rostov Oblast (130 people), 30 each in Moscow and Kemerovo Oblast.

United Russia, the party of power, which will undoubtedly be the leader in the elections, is the least inclined to include local residents of Zaporizhzhya and Kherson Oblasts in the parliaments of these two regions compared to other parties. 48% of United Russia candidates in Zaporizhzhya Oblast and 33% in Kherson Oblast are varangians [as they call officials who have never lived or worked in the region before their appointment] from Russian regions or Crimea, which was annexed back in 2014. For comparison, the CPRF and Just Russia party have 84–91% of local candidates on their lists.

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In both Zaporizhzhya and Kherson Oblasts, United Russia included Kremlin employees in its lists. However, both mostly from among those unknown to the general public. 

For example, Oleg Nesterov, a non-public employee of one of the departments of the presidential administration, is on the list of candidates for the Zaporizhzhya Oblast’s regional legislature. 

There was no mention of his activities in the public domain before the US added him to its sanctions list in December 2022. Nesterov was accused of coordinating an illegal “referendum” on the entry of Zaporizhzhya Oblast into Russia and setting up “filtration centers” in Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine. In particular, according to the USA, Nesterov supervised the filtration of city administration officials and other civilians from Mariupol.

In Kherson Oblast, United Russia nominated another candidate with exactly the same position — “an employee of a structural subdivision of the presidential administration,” Moscow-based Igor Deryugin born in Belarus. As in the case of Nesterov, there is no public mention of Deryugin’s career or activities. According to IStories, Deryugin is a native of the border troops: before the presidential administration, he served in the border guard detachment on Sakhalin (military unit 2067, subordinate to the FSB), and then worked at the Border Academy of the FSB (former military unit 2571). Deryugin’s email and his account in one of the social networks contain the nickname “tiran.”

Igor Deryugin
Igor Deryugin
Photo: social networks

Another federal candidate is State Duma deputy Igor Kastyukevich, who is running as number two on the United Russia list for the elections in Kherson Oblast. Kastyukevich is involved in the deportation of children from Ukraine: in October 2022, he told how he helped take more than 50 children from the Kherson orphanage to Crimea. 

Verstka journalists discovered that at least 14 children from Kherson ended up in the Yelochka orphanage, which was called a “children’s concentration camp” because of the cruel treatment of the children. Later, the occupation authorities themselves confirmed that the children taken from the Kherson orphanage were in Yelochka. According to them, the children are being prepared “to return to their homeland.” 

Renat Karchaa, head of the project office of Rosenergoatom from Moscow, is also running in the top ten of the United Russia list (candidates from the upper part of the list receive mandates in priority order). It was he who conducted a tour of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant for the International Atomic Energy Agency mission in the fall of 2022, where he gestured to the foreign guests to show them that the missile that fell on the territory of the NPP had rotated 180° after the fall — and therefore, according to Karchaa, did not come from the Russian side. 

In the nineties Karchaa headed the Sukhumi Primatology Center of Experimental Medicine, from where he was fired after being accused of plundering property. And in the 2000s, he became the subject of another criminal case: Karchaa drove his car and fatally struck a 16-year-old teenager in the Pskov Oblast.

The LDPR candidate lists are headed by party head and State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky. He is running in all four “new regions”. When asked by IStories about which territory Slutsky would move to if elected, his spokesman said: “Such decisions will be announced following the election results. <...> We have priority in all regions. <...> He has visited all [the four annexed territories], repeatedly. And he plans to visit them further.” Slutsky last made a public visit to the Zaporizhzhya Oblast seven months ago, and to the Kherson Oblast four months ago, before the Ukrainian counteroffensive began.

Leonid Slutsky
Leonid Slutsky
Photo: AP / Scanpix / LETA

Just Russia nominated only one federal actor — Duma deputy Yelena Drapeko — and only for the elections in the DPR.

War participants and mobilized

Those who directly participated in the seizure of Ukrainian territories are also running as candidates. Participants of the war are running for election in both Zaporizhzhya and Kherson Oblasts.

Among them there is 23-year-old mobilized Daniil Basel from Moscow, who worked in Rosgvardia unit before the war and now serves as warrant officer in military unit 95369 (its number corresponds to the 1429th regiment, formed in the fall of 2022 from Moscow and the Moscow Oblast mobilized). After training, this regiment was sent to hold the defense in the occupied Zaporizhzhya Oblast, where Basel is now running for election.

“I decided to run for election, because I really liked the region,” Basel told IStories. — “It needs to be developed. There are very good people there, they should be helped. I myself am mobilized, I spent 11 months in Zaporizhzhya, and now I directly perform tasks related to service in Zaporizhzhya Oblast. I saw everything from the inside and I wanted to help, to fix everything.” According to Basel, he was “impressed by the preparedness of our servicemen” and that “the mobilized, despite the fact that they were civilians yesterday, do a lot of feats, so to speak, and stand up for each other.”

23-year-old mobilized Daniil Basel
23-year-old mobilized Daniil Basel
Photo: social networks

Basel, who was nominated by Just Russia, estimates his chances of being elected at 80% and explains: “I think all the candidates nominated by Just Russia and United Russia are very worthy.... And their programs are good…” Talking to IStories, Basel presents his own electoral program as follows: “The first thing is to strengthen and help unprotected segments of the population <...> such categories of citizens as large families, disabled people, combatants, students and also low-income families.” 

When it comes to whether Basel has already had a chance to help Zaporizhzhya locals, he says: “I helped, let's say, with humanitarian aid — my relatives are engaged in it, they brought it.” 

When asked if Basel is worried that his regiment will lose a fellow soldier if he becomes a deputy, Basel replies: “I have full confidence in my fellow soldiers, who are quite professional already. We can say that they are no longer mobilized, but have become regular military men, because during these 11 months they have already seen a lot, learned a lot and know how to do a lot. That's why I am calm.”

United Russia sent several more direct participants in the full-scale invasion to the elections. Igor Cherniy is a native of Zaporizhzhya Oblast who indicated Moscow Oblast as his place of residence. In 2014–2016, he participated in combat operations in Donbass and was awarded the Russian Defense Ministry’s medal “For the return of Crimea,” and has been fighting in Ukraine since April 2022. Now Cherniy is responsible for the patriotic education of young residents of the occupied Kherson Oblast in the local Ministry of Youth Policy and Sports. 

Igor Cherniy
Igor Cherniy
A shot from the video

The second United Russia candidate in Kherson Oblast is Andrei Sabinov from Moscow, who holds the position of deputy commander for logistics in the Don Cossack Brigade, which is under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry. According to Sabinov himself, his brigade participated in combat operations in Kherson Oblast.

In Zaporizhzhya Oblast, United Russia nominated the deputy commander of the same Don brigade, Crimean native Serhiy Yurchenko, who actively helped pro-Russian forces seize the peninsula in the spring of 2014.

No-chance candidates: serial losers and criminals

According to forecasts by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center, United Russia will win the elections in all four occupied territories, and with a level of support that is rare in Russian regions: about 89% of residents will vote for the party in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, 83% in the DPR, and up to 80% in the LPR and Kherson Oblast. Under the proportional electoral system, which is established for elections in these regions, this means that the legislative bodies there will be composed almost exclusively of United Russia members.

This predetermination of the election results, the legality of which is recognized only by the Russian authorities, is also reflected in the lists of candidates from the other parties: 27% of LDPR candidates are pensioners and homemakers with little connection to politics, while in the CPRF and Just Russia their share is close to half.

The lists from the LDPR include several serial candidates — that is, people who have participated in dozens of elections at various levels, but have never been elected. For example, in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast, the LDPR nominated Yuri Kuznetsov, an employee of a Kemerovo concrete production company, who has been trying to become a deputy in his native region since 2018 and has run for election at various levels in Russia 22 times, but has never won. 

His fellow countryman, Konstantin Maksyutov, a warehouse manager of another enterprise from Kemerovo, has been running in Russian elections for 10 years (nominated 16 times), but he has never managed to get a deputy mandate. 

The LDPR also became the only party to nominate a deputy with a criminal record for elections in Zaporizhzhya Oblast, one of the two key territories currently annexed by the Russian authorities. The CPRF and Just Russia even included the same candidate — Nikolai Ryzhechenkov, a urologist from Energodar, in their lists for the elections to Zaporizhzhya regional legislature.

Another specific feature that is noticeable in the lists of candidates for deputies in the annexed territories is the nomination of several married couples or even entire generations of families. Such candidates on party lists are another confirmation of the fact that the main problem for the organizers of the September elections in the occupied territories was to find people willing to participate in them.