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Pride and pressure as Crimea holds first Russia parliament vote

world Updated: Sep 18, 2016 23:32 IST

A woman leaves a polling booth to casts his ballot at a polling station during a Russian parliamentary elections in a village outside Simferopol, Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following the months of unrest that drove out Ukraine's Russia-friendly president.(AP Photo)

Crimea went to the polls Sunday to elect deputies to Russia’s parliament for the first time since the region was annexed by Moscow -- stirring pride in some, but pushing others to protest.

A total of 1,164 polling stations opened across the region, according to its electoral commission, two-and-a-half years after the strategic Black Sea peninsula was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin.

In the regional capital Simferopol, mainly elderly residents flocked to busy polling stations in the city centre.

“I went to vote, and all my relatives and neighbours are going,” said pensioner Valentina. “We are for Russia.”

She said she cast her ballot for Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov because he is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If Putin likes him, then we all like him. We are for Putin, God give him health.”

The new elite that has taken over the peninsula since Russian rule has called for a high turnout in polls to confirm loyalty to the Kremlin as they look to cement their own grip over the region.

But even some of those who welcomed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea said they felt let down by those who subsequently took control.

“Look what they’ve done to Crimea -- food is dearer than in Moscow,” said pensioner Ivan, calling the new leaders “bandits”.

“Medicines are like gold and pensions and wages aren’t enough even for food.”

In the port city of Sevastopol -- the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet -- while some backed the ruling United Russia party, many complained about daily life in the city where the economy has been hit hard by punishing Western sanctions.

“I’m not happy with the prices in the city and the bureaucracy,” said Vladimir, a retired nuclear physicist, adding that he had voted Communist.

‘Don’t want to lose my job’

But elsewhere in Simferopol, polling stations in areas with more minority Crimean Tatars were emptier. Tatars have largely opposed Russia’s takeover, with community leaders calling for a boycott of the polls after Russian authorities closed their governing body and television channel while detaining, searching and prosecuting activists.

Refat Chubarov, the head of the banned Tatars’ Mejlis assembly who lives in exile in Kiev, wrote on Facebook that the polls “held by the occupiers in Crimea are illegal and criminal”.

He urged the Tatars -- who make up around 14 percent of the population -- to “find the strength and courage not to give into scare tactics and blackmail”.

At Simferopol’s Kuibyshevsky market, Crimean Tatar traders said the management had threatened to fire them if they did not vote.

“I’m afraid they’ll take away my work, but how can I go to vote? My children will stop respecting me, my neighbours won’t say hello to me,” said one trader, Muniver.

In the village of Kamenka in north Crimea, teacher Nadzhiye, a Crimean Tatar woman in her mid-30s, said “the school’s administration threatened to fire the Crimean Tatar staff if they don’t come to vote”.

“What can I do? I don’t want to lose my job,” she said.

Another villager, who gave his name as Zeitulla, said it was unthinkable to vote for people he saw as oppressors.

“How can you go and vote for authorities that abduct, intimidate and arrest Crimean Tatars and force their way into our mosques?”

The vote in Crimea has also stirred anger in Ukraine, sparking protests in Kiev.

Several dozen protesters, including some from the nationalist Svoboda party, rallied outside the Russian embassy as it hosted voting for expatriates, clashing with police and would-be voters.

Three people were detained during the demonstration, police told AFP.

Activists carried a figure of Putin on a gallows and trampled a Russian flag.