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Zelenskiy says elections could happen under fire if West helps

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy visits Athens

By Nick Starkov

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, responding to calls by a US senator this week to announce elections in 2024, said on Sunday voting could take place during wartime if partners shared the cost, legislators approved, and everyone got to the polls.

Elections cannot currently be held in Ukraine under martial law, which must be extended every 90 days and is next due to expire on Nov. 15, after the normal date in October for parliamentary polls but before presidential elections which would normally be held in March 2024.

Top American legislators visited Kyiv Aug. 23, among them Senator Lindsey Graham, who heaped praise on Kyiv's fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin but said the country needed to show it was different by holding elections in wartime.

Zelenskiy, in a television interview with Natalia Moseichuk, an anchor for the 1+1 Channel, said he had discussed the issue with Graham, including the question of funding and the need to change the law.

"I gave Lindsey a very simple answer very quickly," he said. "He was very pleased with it. As long as our legislators are willing to do it."

He said it cost 5 billion hryvnia ($135 million) to hold elections in peacetime. "I don't know how much is needed in wartime," he said. "So I told him that if the US and Europe provide financial support ..."

He added, "I will not take money from weapons and give it to elections. And this is stipulated by the law."

Zelenskiy said he told Graham that election observers would have to go to the trenches. "I told him: You and I should send observers to the frontlines so that we have legitimate elections for us and for the whole world."

Ukraine would also need help setting up additional voting access for millions of people overseas, especially from the European Union, he said.

"There is a way out," he said. "I am ready for it."

Graham, a Republican, told reporters during a briefing in a bunker with fellow Senators Richard Blumenthal and Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats, that his message to Zelenskiy would be they would fight to keep weapons flowing "so you can win a war that we can't afford to lose."

He added, "But I am also going to tell him this: You've got to do two things at once. We need an election in Ukraine next year. I want to see this country have a free and fair election even while it is under assault."

Zelenskiy said those fighting Russia's invasion would have to be included. "They are defending this democracy today, and not to give them this opportunity because of war - that is unfair. I was against the elections only because of this."

(Reporting by Nick Starkov; Reporting and Writing by Elaine Monaghan in Washington)