KYIV, Ukraine — In occupied areas of Ukraine where staged referendums have been taking place since Friday, residents said the authorities had used intimidation and propaganda campaigns to influence the vote, all the while making efforts to create a festive atmosphere.
In the southern port city of Kherson, officials in the city center put up a stage, and brought in singers and a vote box. Serhiy, a pensioner living in the occupied city, said in a telephone interview that a dearth of people showed up to vote.
“Very, very few people were there and voted,” he said. Elsewhere, he said, his relatives had been visited by armed soldiers demanding that they vote. Like most residents interviewed, he asked to be identified only by his first name for safety.
Volodymyr Saldo, a Ukrainian who switched sides to become the head of the occupation authority in the Kherson region, said the voting had gone swimmingly and people were turning out with “enthusiasm.” As they voted, he said, “their eyes are burning, shining, and this shows their attitude to this event.” Mr. Saldo said on Monday that enough votes had been cast in favor of joining Russia to call the vote a day early.
Official results from the staged referendums could be announced as soon as Tuesday, and are expected to claim that a majority of residents voted to join Russia, with the Kremlin then formally announcing annexation of the regions as soon as this week.
Russian authorities in the occupied regions have been pledging to offer passports, welfare payments, free medicine and cheaper phone bills. One billboard in Kherson depicted a pregnant woman in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt being hugged by her husband. “Our priority is the family,” the billboard said. “Social guarantees of the Russian Federation.”
One advertised the benefits of Russian citizenship. “A Russian passport is social stability and safety,” it said. Another billboard showed a young girl waving a Russian flag, said, “Russia is here forever.”
Newspapers printed by the occupation authority focused on similar themes. “Kherson will get passports, cheap phone calls and banks,” read a headline in a local edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid, printed for occupied Kherson. “Utility bills will go down,” another headline asserted.
“Medicine will be free.” The newspaper also reported that Mr. Putin had recently signed a decree creating a new holiday in Russia, the “Day of the Family, Love and Loyalty. ”But despite the propaganda, many people did not turn out to vote at polling stations, and soldiers armed with assault rifles tried to compel residents to vote, according to telephone interviews with residents in several occupied towns.
“As the turnout is still low, they went to the hospitals,” said Oleg, a resident of Kherson. “People are in a dependent situation there and it’s difficult for them to refuse to vote.”
Elsewhere in occupied Ukraine, Russian soldiers arrived in residential neighborhoods in a type of large armored car called a Tiger, parked in the streets to form temporary checkpoints, prevented people from leaving and escorted poll workers door to door.
“Two or three soldiers with machine guns accompanied election officials with a ballot box,” said Maria, a resident of Chaplynka, in Kherson region. In Polohy, in the Zaporizka region, soldiers hovered around residents as they filled in ballots.
“They were staying and watching people voting and marking things in their lists,” she said. “Those who declined to vote were told to do so” on a later day.
Serhiy, the pensioner, said he was so frightened of Russia’s secret police, the Federal Security Service, that he had mostly stayed home for days during the referendums, and had no plans to open the door. The billboards promoting the benefits of joining in Russia are “for the idiots,” he said.
“Every day, I’m just waiting to be liberated,” he said.
Anna Lukinova in Kyiv contributed reporting.