In Moscow’s grip, Crimea holds first vote to Russian parliament

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Two-and-a-half years after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine, its residents are gearing up to vote Sunday in their first polls to elect deputies to Russia’s national parliament

In Moscow’s grip, Crimea holds first vote to Russian parliament

In Moscow’s grip, Crimea holds first vote to Russian parliament / Simferopol (Undefined) – 15 September 2016 AFP (Anna MALPAS) Shaded by cypress trees on Crimea’s Black Sea shore, a group of locals watch as folk singers in tall headdresses boom out a patriotic song about Russia with the lyrics: “I have no other motherland.”Two-and-a-half years after Moscow annexed the strategic peninsula from Ukraine, residents are gearing up to vote Sunday in their first polls to elect deputies to Russia’s national parliament. The ballot in Crimea — not recognised by Kiev or the international community — looks set to bind the region still closer to Moscow as the new pro-Kremlin elite cements its grip and opposition is silenced. Andrei Kozenko once worked in the local administration when Ukraine was in charge but now the long-standing pro-Moscow activist is running for the Kremlin’s United Russia party and pushing to get the vote out. “A high turnout shows the level of support for our president Vladimir Putin,” Kozenko, who has been serving as deputy speaker of Crimea’s local parliament, told AFP. “We will strive to tell every resident to come and vote and in this way show our Crimean unity.”In the time since Moscow took over, the situation for ordinary Crimeans has not been easy. – Pummelled by sanctions -The sunbaked peninsula — where mainly Russian visitors pack out the beaches — has been pummelled by biting EU and US sanctions, tourism has been hit and it is largely impossible to pay with Western bank cards.United Russia’s campaign attempts to fire up a sense of defiance among local residents against the punitive measures by the West. On billboards the face of Kremlin-installed regional head Sergei Aksyonov stares down from under the slogan: “We’ll break through any blockades.” Russia’s takeover of Crimea in March 2014 came quick on the heels of the ouster of Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych by protesters in Kiev, as ex-Soviet Ukraine appeared to be hurtling definitively out of Moscow’s grasp.Putin sent out thousands of troops without insignia around the region — where Russian is the primary language and the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet has long been based — before a referendum to join Moscow was staged. Yet after the wave of euphoria among many Crimeans and Russians over the takeover of a region they long viewed as their property, there is little sign of excitement over the upcoming polls. Speaking to residents of ageing Soviet-era apartment blocks, Kozenko faces a barrage of complaints on high tariffs for water on the drought-prone peninsula, poor cellphone coverage and lack of access to reasonable mortgages.- Silenced opposition -But while the pro-Kremlin politicians may be facing gripes from disgruntled locals — they’re not facing much opposition, as Kozenko freely admits. “Thank goodness, today there is no political fighting,” he says, comparing the situation to the rough and tumble contests under Ukrainian rule. Beyond United Russia the only other election posters that are on display are the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party — both loyal to Putin.But any genuine opposition — let alone opponents of Russian rule — have been completely excluded. Since seizing control, Aksyonov’s authorities have harshly suppressed the Crimean Tatar indigenous Muslim group that largely opposed Moscow’s takeover.Leaders of the community, who make up some 14 percent of its population, have called for a boycott of the polls.Outside the Supreme Court in Simferopol, several dozen Crimean Tatars stand in support of the deputy chairman of their banned Mejlis assembly, Ilmi Umerov, who has just spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital.Umerov was subjected to forced testing — slammed by rights groups — and he now faces trial on extremism charges for expressing his view that Crimea is part of Ukraine.”Of course we don’t recognise and won’t participate in the elections to the State Duma,” Umerov told AFP.”On the one hand it’s legitimisation of Russia in Crimea, and on the other hand it’s supporting the authorities who repress our fellow citizens,” said another community leader, Nariman Dzhelyal.- Statue hugging -Pro-Russian officials brush off the criticism and displays of support for Moscow are not hard to find.In the main city of Simferopol a woman hugs a statue of a Russian soldier in full battle dress that was put up this summer to celebrate the Russian troops who took over the Crimea. But those who feel differently are harder to spot. Veteran politician Leonid Grach of a splinter Communist party — who used to head the local parliament under Ukraine — says he is persona non grata and banned from TV.”We were so hopeful, we desired this, we wanted it, but we received the worst option — of corruption,” he says of the Russian takeover and new authorities, which he condemns as “bandits.””On the streets, people don’t show themselves (to be in opposition) in any way,” says Vladimir, an IT specialist who jokes about the Kremlin on Twitter.”You can say this is Ukraine but in essence now everything is controlled by Russia and as we know Russia is largely a police state,” he says, sitting on a bench in a city park.”I don’t plan to vote, of course.”am/del/mt

Tags : parliament, russian, vote, first, holds, Crimea, grip, Moscows

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