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On March 31, Ukraine was supposed to hold presidential elections. On May 20, it will be five years since Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been President of Ukraine. If it were not for martial law, the elections would have taken place, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy would have had to run for office or hand over his powers to his successor.

Detector Media has already given several reasons why it is impossible to hold elections in the middle of hostilities in Ukraine. Here are the arguments why elections should not be held during the hot phase of hostilities, which Detector Media journalist Iryna Semeniuta highlighted:

·       The full-scale war creates security threats for holding and participating in elections. Shelling and hostilities make it impossible to express freedom of will. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel are on the front line and will not be able to vote in the trenches. There are about 8 million Ukrainian refugees abroad. It is impossible to organize voting for them because there are not enough polling stations.

·       The conditions for equal political campaigning are absent. In the occupied territories, people are deprived of political freedoms and are unable to obtain information about candidates. In other regions, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly have been introduced due to martial law.

·       In the event of elections, society will split into supporters of different candidates. And in times of war, we need unity. Russia could exploit the elections to destabilize the country by shelling polling stations and raising questions about their validity. Therefore, it is better to postpone the elections until later.

Also in October, Detector Media analysts examined the way propagandists reacted to the failure to hold the parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which were supposed to take place in late October 2023.

This time, Detector Media analyzed Telegram posts discussing Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his legitimacy as President of Ukraine, published between April 1, 2023, and April 1, 2024. The researcher concludes that reports of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s loss of legitimacy appeared on Telegram only in August 2023. Of the 306 posts, 285 were published on Telegram channels that the data provider, LetsData, classified as the Ukrainian segment of Telegram, 18 as the Moldovan segment, two as the Bulgarian segment, and one as the Romanian segment.

Dynamics of publications about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “illegitimacy” on Telegram

The essence of the reports about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “loss of legitimacy” is as follows:

·       At some point in the first half of 2024, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's term in office will end. He will no longer be considered the legitimate leader of Ukraine.

·       After that, there may be unrest in Ukrainian society. It can be avoided if Volodymyr Zelenskyy steps down as President of Ukraine. But he is allegedly going to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

·       Therefore, the opposition or the former commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, oligarchs, or partners of Ukraine will forcefully remove Volodymyr Zelenskyy from office.

In about two-thirds of cases, it is impossible to identify the source behind this opinion. The authors of the posts either refer to rumors or promote this idea independently.

Occasionally, authors of publications in pro-Russian Telegram channels, in the spirit of the “strawman” propaganda tactic, would present conveniently criticizable statements as being made by Zelenskyy’s supporters or experts. For example, on October 5, a Telegram channel with 131,000 followers shared a quote attributed to Olha Aivazovska, the head of the board of the OPORA civic network: “The planned elections are not necessary for our democracy.” “Wow! This is the first time we hear that elections interfere with democracy,” read a post on the Telegram channel.

For a similar purpose, a pro-Russian Telegram channel with 401,000 subscribers used a quote from Yuriy Kamelchuk, a Servant of the People party member, to make a similar point. On February 22, 2024, on the air of Novyny.Live TV channel, answering a question about the details of the meeting between MPs from the Servant of the People faction and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kamelchuk said, “The president is recognized as legitimate until victory comes.” His words were ridiculed, “The list of idioms ‘when pigs fly’, ‘after a rain on Thursday’, ‘forgot to ask you’ gets another one. Well done!”

Telegram channels that wrote about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s illegitimacy most often from August 1, 2023, to April 1, 2024

However, in most cases, the quotes were used not to ridicule their authors but to reinforce the messages that propaganda wanted to convey. For example, in mid-January, a Telegram channel with 400,000 subscribers that broadcasts propaganda disseminated a message from MP Oleksandr Dubinskyi, a high treason suspect. In this message, Dubinskyi allegedly shared as many as five conspiracy claims that are consistent with Russian propaganda and his charges: The President’s Office is allegedly preparing to remove from power Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk, stepping up its criticism of the then-Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and continuing mobilization. “Bankova Street [President’s Office of Ukraine] wants to show our partners that it is ready to see this through to the end... People in exchange for weapons.” This allegedly accelerates the decline of Ukraine’s population, which “coincides with the increase in the limits on the purchase of land by one person up to 100 thousand hectares.”

Thanks to this “expert”, the propaganda Telegram channel only has to summarize the publication, “In the struggle for power, Zelenskyy’s team will stop at nothing.”

When the “Legitimacy Vacuum” Kicks In

On Telegram, the dates when Volodymyr Zelenskyy should lose his legitimacy started being suggested in November 2023. Perhaps the first to speak on this topic was Oleksandr Dubinskyi on November 10, four days before he was taken into custody.

“Zelenskyy will remain the legitimate president of Ukraine until the end of April 2024 at most. Without elections, Ukraine will face a crisis of power, Dubinskyi said. Namely, President Zelenskyy plans to cancel the elections in order to ‘cement his power’. He notes that, according to the Constitution, the President of Ukraine does not have his powers after his 5-year term ends,” Oleksandr Dubinskyi’s video was shared on a Telegram channel with 117,000 subscribers.

In February, Telegram channels were already quoting Dubinskyi from publications in Russian pro-government publications, claiming that Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s powers “expire on the night of May 20-21, 2024.” The same date of the beginning of Zelenskyy’s supposed “legitimacy vacuum” was also shared by a pro-Russian Telegram channel with 135,000 subscribers, attributed to blogger Karl Volokh.

Meanwhile, in February, another pro-Russian Telegram channel with 40,000 subscribers called March 31, 2024, the date of Zelenskyy’s “loss of legitimacy.” This is the day when the first round of the Ukraine presidential election would have occurred.

By February, Ukrainian society had already been informed that a propaganda campaign was underway to promote claims about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “legitimacy vacuum.” In particular, the acting head of the Center for Countering Disinformation, Andriy Shapovalov, described it on the air of the United News telethon. The media and social media users later shared his words.

How to Stop the “Legitimacy Vacuum”

In February 2023, Telegram channels also began claiming that the “legitimacy vacuum” could be stopped by holding presidential elections in Ukraine. However, these statements had little to do with any genuine intention to hold legitimate elections. After all, to hold the first round of the presidential election on March 31, as required by Article 76 of the Electoral Code of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine would have to publish a decision on holding the election 100 days before the voting date. Whereas in February, fewer than 60 days were left before the deadline. The main message spread by pro-Russian Telegram channels about the presidential elections was that they should take place because the Constitution of Ukraine does not prohibit holding them. The most cited people credited with this opinion by pro-Russian Telegram channels were lawyer and former MP Valeriy Karpuntsov, former MP Ihor Mosiychuk, MP Dmytro Razumkov, and former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.

What Happens if the “Legitimacy Vacuum” Persists

Propaganda Telegram channels present Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “legitimacy vacuum” as a time when only bad things can happen to Ukraine. The bad things include the return of Yanukovych-era officials or exchanged Russian sympathizers to power.

“They launched a powerful propaganda campaign: Azarov in Izvestiya, Medvedchuk speaking for himself about Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal, and so on. These people are once again repenting for having missed the ‘coup d’état’ in 2014 and blaming the ‘old’ Ukrainian politicians who remained in Kyiv and are now competing for power after Zelenskyy. And on the surface of this propaganda of the ‘former,’ there is a signal to the Kremlin — ‘give us another chance in Kyiv’,” a pro-Russian Telegram channel with almost 20 thousand subscribers said in a post.

In October 2023, another Telegram channel with 26,000 subscribers prophesied that the legitimacy of the government in Ukraine would decide whether its allies would support it, and “if everything remains in the same format next year, we will have to fight at least until the 2030s.”

With similar posts, the propagandists “mirrored” the accusations of the Ukrainian authorities of preparing a “special operation” to change the government in Ukraine and declared Ukraine’s allies or Ukrainians “guilty.”

“And if the feeling that things in the country are going in the wrong direction continues to grow, many will turn their eyes to Zaluzhnyi. Especially since after his dismissal, it is the president who becomes the main person responsible for everything in the public mind,” said a Telegram channel with 264,000 subscribers on February 12.

On January 17, the same Telegram channel mentioned the “disposal of anticorruption activists and critics of Zelenskyy at the frontline” as one of the bad possibilities. On February 19, the channel called for the replacement of Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal with the head of the President’s Office, Andriy Yermak:

“Zelenskyy has a plan to put the most reliable person and a key member of his team (i.e., Yermak) as prime minister in order to avoid the possibility of using the position of prime minister to undermine the president’s power through the issue of ‘illegitimacy’.”

The message about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “legitimacy vacuum” is just one of the propaganda messages promoted by the Russians. They continue to use it as long as it yields results. If necessary, they will switch to another message that will have a greater impact on Ukrainian society. After all, Russian propaganda uses various narratives alongside each other. For example, the message about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “legitimacy vacuum” is followed by the sentence, “Formally, Yanukovych is still president,” as posted on a Telegram channel with 142,000 subscribers, which posts were included in the sample for this text.

Answers of KIIS respondents to the question, “In May 2024, President Zelenskyy’s 5-year term of office expires. The Constitution does not give a clear answer on how to deal with this during a war. What do you think would be more appropriate?” in February 2024

According to a February 20, 2024 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 70% of Ukrainians support the idea that Volodymyr Zelenskyy should remain in office until the end of martial law. The presidential election should be held immediately afterward. A tenth of respondents backed the opinion that Volodymyr Zelenskyy should resign. Almost the same proportion stands for amendments to the law that would allow presidential elections to be held during martial law. This suggests that more than two-thirds of Ukrainians will consider Volodymyr Zelenskyy legitimate even when his term in office comes to an end. This means that Zelenskyy has no problems with legitimacy as far as public opinion is concerned. Society continues to entrust him with responsibility for the state of affairs in the country.

Collage by Nataliya Lobach

NGO “Detector Media” has been working for our readers for over 20 years. In times of elections, revolutions, pandemics and war, we continue to fight for quality journalism. Our experts develop media literacy of the audience, advocate for the rights of journalists, and refute Russian disinformation.

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