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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Candidates Chase the Youth Vote




YEKATERINBURG, Ural Mountains -- Amid spotlights and clouds of smoke, a jeans-clad Boris Nemtsov runs to the front of the stage at Yekaterinburg's sports complex, raising his hand, index and little finger extended.


It's a gesture anyone familiar with the MTV cartoon "Beavis and Butt-head" would instantly recognize - the salute of the hard-core rock and roll fan.


"And now, the favorite band of the Union of Right Forces - Can you hear me? - the Union of Right Forces' favorite band ... Chaif!" he shouts to the roar of the crowd. "Have fun and don't forget to turn up at the polling stations Dec. 19. Our ballot number is ..."


With smoke, lights and music - and more concrete inducements, like support for higher student stipends - Russian political parties are chasing Russia's elusive youth vote in the upcoming election to the State Duma, or lower house of parliament.


Political analysts say those under 30 are far from a monolith - with some supporting liberal parties, others opting for the bloc of flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and some defying stereotypes to vote Communist. So, the parties have to aim their appeals at specific youth subgroups.


"Nobody appeals to youth in general anymore," said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.


According to polls in late November by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM, the leader among voters under 30 was The Zhirinovsky Bloc, with 25 percent. The Union of Right Forces polled 16 percent, while the Communists and liberal Yabloko party each got 15 percent.


Fatherland-All Russia got 11 percent, while Our Home Is Russia had 2 percent. Half of the 450 deputies are elected from individual districts, with the other half of the seats distributed in proportion to the vote for a party's list.


The Union of Right Forces - led by former Cabinet officials and so-called "young reformers" Nemtsov, 40, Irina Khakamada, 44, and former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, 37 - has been among the most aggressive at pursuing young people, using rock concerts in provincial cities and television ads to raise its profile.


It seems to be working. Over the last two weeks, its ratings have jumped from just over 2 percent to almost 6 percent among all voters, according to the major polling agencies.


The Union of Right Forces is relying on the youth vote in its bid to surmount the 5 percent barrier needed for automatic Duma representation. "If they overcome the 5 percent barrier, it'll be thanks to the young people," Ryabov said. "Speeches and congresses are archaic forms of agitation. Only Western-style shows and actions that give a sense of involvement can make a difference during the electoral campaign."


The Union, with its promises of market economics, often appeals to urban young people who see their future in business. Andrei Bodrov, 28, a manager at the French cosmetics company L'Or?al, said, "All our political parties are disgusting, but if I were forced to vote, I'd vote for the Union of Right Forces. It's the only movement where there are any deserving people."


The Union's rock-and-roll strategy, however, doesn't appeal to the liberal Yabloko movement. Andrei Sharomov, head of the Yabloko youth wing, dismissed the electoral impact of free campaign entertainment, saying that the teenagers who attend the concerts often don't vote.


"Radical democrats shouldn't have high expectations," Sharomov said. "During 10 years of their rule, the young people have realized that even graduation from the best school won't prevent them from unemployment or work at a kiosk."


Yabloko, he said, doesn't expend resources trying to attract socially passive youth, concentrating instead on older students, especially those in graduate or professional study, and young families who have already encountered social problems. Yabloko's pitch is for better funding for higher education, higher student stipends and an end to military conscription.


Then there's Zhirinovsky, who was forced to form a bloc from two smaller groups after his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia was tossed off the ballot. According to Carnegie's Ryabov, Zhirinovsky's traditional audience includes poorly educated and disaffected youth from smaller provincial cities, drawn by his showmanship and fierce nationalist rhetoric.


There's more to Zhirinovsky than just his calls for Russian hegemony in Asia, however. The well-heeled LDPR offers free summer camps, discos and education - and subsequent employment in the party structures.


Oksana, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of the students who have been recruited to Zhirinovsky's party. A recent law graduate of the Modern University for the Humanities in Moscow, Oksana took additional courses at the LDPR's Higher Party School and then was hired to work in the party's legal consulting office - for more money than a starting lawyer's salary at a state organization.


Though apolitical at the beginning, she gradually "absorbed LDPR ideology like a pickle in a jar of brine," she said.


Last summer, Zhirinovsky set up the as-yet unaccredited Institute for World Civilizations, where half of the departments - including Zhirinovsky's favorite, geopolitics - offer courses of study free of charge, said Alexei Popov, the leader of the Russian Union of Free Youth, one of the three parties that comprise The Zhirinovsky Bloc.


The centrist Fatherland-All Russia also concentrates on educational opportunity. Speaking to the founding meeting of Fatherland's youth congress, bloc leader and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov said he had fought to thwart the commercialization of the Russian education system and preserve state-sponsored education.


"It's not populism," he told the cheering and flag-waving delegates at the Izmailovo concert hall. "It's philosophy. We want all children to have equal chances."


Ryabov said it is the so-called golden youth of the large cities, with well-off parents and connections, who are most interested in an establishment group like Fatherland-All Russia, primarily for career reasons.


But whatever the tactic, no one can take the youth vote for granted.


"Youth always show extreme electoral passivity, but in the last days before the elections, they might collect themselves and give a surprise show," Vera Nikitina of VTsIOM said. "Their actions differ a lot from their original intentions."