Explain Ukraine 14:10 20 May 2024

Is Zelensky legitimate? Why Ukraine’s leader cannot be compared to Russia’s dictator

Rubryka explains what is the difference between the legitimacy of the Ukrainian and Russian leaders.

Presidential elections in Ukraine have been a topic of global interest since 2023. Ukrainians were set to cast their vote in the spring of 2024, but the full-scale war Russia unleashed against Ukraine two years prior destroyed these plans. While Western partners wanted to see this essential component of democracy maintained, the Ukrainian government, supported by its free citizens and law, decided against elections.

Zelensky legitimate

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (to the left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (to the right). Photo: Fox News

Russian propaganda took the reports of this decision for a spin, claiming Ukraine is "not democratic" and President Zelenksy is "illegitimate," contrasting him with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who was recently reelected for his fifth term in office. Rubryka explains why the comparison between the president of Ukrainian democracy and Putin's authoritarian regime is unfounded and absurd.

Putin is a dictator

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Satirical illustration commenting on the presidential elections in Russia. Author: Tom Trouw

President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for 24 years, was recently sworn in for his fifth term as Russia's leader. It was not a surprise for anyone when the country announced that Putin, with no credible opposition, won the so-called elections with an overwhelming 87% of votes. Neither Ukraine nor any world democracy recognized the results. The US, which has had five different presidents since Putin's first inauguration, called the election "obviously not free nor fair."

Russia is a dictatorship and has been recognized as one since 2023. The PACE, or Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, adopted the resolution, calling Russia "a de facto dictatorship" and saying member nations "no longer recognize Putin's legitimacy." The organization cited Putin's "extremely long term in office" and the amendments to the Russian Constitution in July 2020, which allowed him to stay in power until 2036.

Freedom House, a non-profit organization that advocates for political freedom and human rights, classified Russia as a Consolidated Authoritarian regime in Nations in Transit 2024, the annual study monitoring the state of democracy in Central Europe to Central Asia. Unsurprisingly, other independent watchdogs, like the international human rights organization Article19, urged the world community to reject the Russian "sham presidential election" results of March 2024.

Zelensky's legitimacy

Zelensky legitimate

President Zelensky, after addressing the Parliament of the United Kingdom in an online conference on March 8, 2022. Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor, was elected Ukrainian leader in 2019 in democratic elections, winning more than 73% of votes in a heated race with then-incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Like the people of Ukraine, Zelensky couldn't have imagined he would have to lead his country three years later in such turbulent times, like a full-scale war, and would become the face of Ukrainian resilience in the eyes of the world community.

So, is Zelensky legitimate?

Zelensky has been in office for five years, holding high public trust and remaining a critical diplomatic figure with solid relationships with Western partners. When spring 2024—the time Ukraine's presidential elections were supposed to be held—approached, the Ukrainian authorities, including Zelensky, considered organizing voting but later decided against it, citing martial law, which prohibits elections, and other significant concerns.

According to political scientist Taras Rad, elections during martial law and full-scale aggression contradict global standards, Ukraine's international obligations, and its Constitution.

"The postponement of parliamentary, presidential, or local elections during the legal regime of martial law is legal, democratic, and legitimate," Rad stated.

Besides being unlawful during the war, elections are a huge security risk for civilians. Ukraine is at war, with all hostilities taking place on its territory and the 3,200-kilometer-long front line, which is shelled and bombed daily by Russian forces. Ukrainian cities and regions far from the front, including their civilian and energy infrastructure, are under regular Russian rocket and drone attacks.

Considering the risks and other factors, like displacement and the lack of funding, Ukrainian citizens do not want elections at the moment. They support the legitimacy of Zelensky and the Ukrainian government, which Ukraine's Constitution and martial legislation already provide. The KIIS poll conducted in October 2023 on the eve of the planned parliamentary elections showed that 81% of the surveyed Ukrainians did not support holding elections during the war, and only 16% said elections should be held.

What's next?

So far, the only thing standing in the way of elections in Ukraine is Russia and its war. While it's ongoing, the answer to the question "Is Zelensky legitimate?" is "Yes." Zelensky and other legitimate Ukrainian leaders are obliged to work as a united unit until the military threat is over. For them, staying in power is the necessity of martial law, while for Putin, it is the ultimate desire and greed. Ukraine will eventually hold democratic elections according to legislation and international standards. Ukrainian citizens, who have proven they have a strong voice, will see that this happens as the prospects of free elections and people in Russia remain grim.


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