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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unpredictable Youth: The Voters Who Can Swing

Second in a series of five articles.


NIZHNY NOVGOROD -- If there is one thing this city's politically diverse college students can agree on, it is the need for a volunteer army.


During a cigarette break on the steps of the Nizhny Novgorod Technical Institute, a group of students all voiced enthusiastic praise for Boris Yeltsin's decision to abolish a conscript army by the year 2000.


"Now all we have to do is lie low for another four years," said Andrei Orlov, a fifth-year engineering student. "It is not that we don't want to fight. It is the lost years that concern us more. Russia can't survive without an army, but it needs a professional army -- not cheap labor for Russian generals to build their dachas."


Nizhny Novgorod, a region which has reflected Russia's voting patterns in past elections, should be a good guide to what is on the political agenda of Russia's youth. But aside from agreeing on their hatred of the draft, Russia's younger voters are an unpredictable electorate. And given that those under 25 account for about 12 percent of votes, they could well swing the balance in June 16 elections.


According to The Moscow Times/CNN poll, about a third of the voters under 30 support Boris Yeltsin, with Communist Gennady Zyuganov, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky scoring about 10 percent each.


The strong support for Yeltsin and Yavlinsky and the below-average support for the communists suggest a pro-reform bias among the young. But this does not sit well with the fact that LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky does much better with them than in other age groups. While many older voters dismiss Zhirinovsky as a clown or a dangerous man, the LDPR leader appeals to the younger generation.


"Zhirinovsky plays on their sense of patriotism and lost national pride," said Yelena Bashkirova, director of the Russian Public Opinion Institute. "They grew up with the idea that they were living in a superpower, and that feeling is gone."


When Anya Pertsova casts her vote, she will do so in search of recapturing that lost pride. "Zhirinovsky is the only realistic candidate who can raise Russia from its knees," said the second-year biology student.


During a recent study break in the university cafeteria -- where voiced-over Flintstones cartoons took precedence over political discourse -- Pertsova and her classmate, Andrei Slepov, agreed that Yeltsin would win regardless of how they cast their votes.


Slepov emphasizes the power of the media campaign behind Yeltsin. Referring to the television coverage of the "Our President is Yeltsin" rock concert tour which made a stop in Nizhny Novgorod, he said, "If you tell someone he is a pig long enough he will start to grunt."


But Slepov does not plan to vote for Yeltsin. "Thing's can't get any worse with Yeltsin," said Slepov. "But they can't get any better, either."


Instead, he said he plans to cast his first vote for Yavlinsky. "He is a strong economist, and we need someone like him to bring national industry up to speed," said Slepov, who is from the town of Dzerzhinsk, where his parents' factory jobs are on shaky ground. "For now my father gets a regular salary, but a lot of his friends are unemployed, and they will all vote for the communists."


But Slepov adds that he would vote for Yeltsin before Zyuganov in a second round of elections. As poll day draws nearer, he says the pressure to vote for Yeltsin increases. "A lot of my friends keep telling me a vote for Yavlinsky is a wasted vote, and that I should support Yeltsin in the first round," said Slepov.


But even if Yeltsin wins over the younger generation, there is no guarantee they will turn out to vote for him. "The older generation will come out to vote no matter what, but students are much more passive," said political analyst Baskhirova.


Rustav Alimfulov, a graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, has no intention of voting. "Both Yeltsin and Zyuganov seem equally far off the mark of a good president," said Alimfulov, 23, during a recent visit to the unemployment office. "And none of the other candidates come any closer."


But apathy was certainly not a concern for Andrei Smirnov, a fifth-year engineering student at Nizhny Novgorod's Technical Institute, a strong Zyuganov supporter who, like the other students, also supports a volunteer army.


Smirnov said he believes the communists are on their way back, and once they succeed, they will bring a definitive end to the war in Chechnya, high-level corruption and unemployment.


"Their program is oriented toward people like me, who don't drive fancy cars and smoke imported cigarettes," said Smirnov. "It will also be easier for us to find work."


Many students are concerned that in the new economic climate their academic education won't help them in the job market, but Smirnov is counting on Zyuganov to make it possible for him to work in his field.


And that is just the beginning, according to this young communist. Once the war is over, all the bandits are arrested, and the professionals are employed, the communists will replace all the directors of enterprises that have been privatized.


"Well, maybe not all. Only those that steal from the people," said Smirnov. "Most of the factory directors live in America anyway. They fly in from Hawaii every few months to hear how badly their workers live."