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Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine begin illegal referendums


Voting began in parts of occupied Ukraine at 8 o'clock local time. The Russian news agency TASS says they began their plan to formally annex parts of their neighbor.


Four separate referendums cover four Russian-occupied areas. This kind of voting, shifting the allegiance of territory under military occupation, violates international law and, of course, also Ukrainian law.

MARTÍNEZ: Independent observers are not on hand for the voting Russia describes. But NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been talking to people leaving the occupied areas. Kat, where are you, and what did you see?

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey. Yeah. So yesterday I was in the city of Zaporizhzhia. I was in this giant parking lot that's been set up for months now as a staging area for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine. And this long line of cars pulled in. It was a convoy full of people, and officials started checking their documents. These people were mostly coming from cities like Melitopol and parts of the Kherson region down south. Those have both been under Russian occupation for months.

MARTÍNEZ: What are they telling you?

LONSDORF: Every person I talked to said that they finally made the decision to leave as soon as they heard about these referendums. I talked to one older couple named Anatoli and Viktoria Yermoleny.

VIKTORIA YERMOLENY: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: So they told me that they had been waiting, hoping that Ukraine would be able to retake their city. But they said that this referendum was the last straw. They had to leave. They did say that their neighbor stayed behind, and their neighbor's plan was to hide if Russian soldiers come to their home to try to get them to vote.

MARTÍNEZ: Russian soldiers coming to their home - is that something people are worried about there?

LONSDORF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's what most people said they expected to happen. And Russian news outlets have reported that that's how they are in fact doing this voting, paper ballots door to door. I talked to one woman, 67-year-old Ninel Lysenko. She's from Melitopol. And she told me that she's originally from Donetsk, and she was living there when the referendums happened before in 2014.

NINEL LYSENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She told me they were staged, that Russia went to houses, essentially forcing people to vote. She asked me, how can you really vote when they have guns?

MARTÍNEZ: So it's fair to say, I think, that the people you've talked to don't have any trust in this vote, which helps explain why they're leaving. But is there any support at all for the referendum, for actually becoming a part of Russia?

LONSDORF: Yeah, I did ask people if they knew of support in the areas they were coming from, and many told me, yeah, of course there are people who support this. But they said it's mainly older people, you know, people who have maybe fond memories of the Soviet Union or have been bribed with humanitarian aid or extra pension money. And, you know, the people I was talking to were quick to point out that that kind of support has dropped dramatically, especially after people have been bombed and occupied for the last few months.

MARTÍNEZ: And it's all part of a larger move by Russia. They passed new laws and are now mobilizing hundreds of thousands of men. How do these referenda fit in with all that?

LONSDORF: Yeah, it's still a little unclear, but this could give Russia an argument that these areas are Russian soil, meaning that they would say that any attempt from Ukraine to take these areas back is an attack on Russia itself. Now, to be clear, almost every nation has said they don't recognize these referendums, and neither does Ukraine, obviously. But that won't stop Russia from claiming it. And one more worrying thing - people yesterday told me that all men ages 18 to 35 in their convoy were stopped by Russian soldiers, sent back to the occupied territory. One father I talked to said that this happened to his 34-year-old son that morning. I asked him if he was worried that his son would be mobilized to fight for Russia, and he just sighed and said he hadn't even let himself think about that yet.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine - Kat, thanks.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.