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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contest Offers Youth Chance to Join Ruling Class

LIPETSK -- To the list of contest prizes that stoke fantasies worldwide -- riches, fame, a dream date, a new washer-dryer -- add another: a seat in parliament.

Shunning pinstripes for shorts and bathing suits, a group of potential legislators was unveiled at a beach party in Lipetsk last weekend -- the first-round winners in a competition called Political Factory, modeled on the popular television show "Star Factory." Plucked from obscurity, a few of these aspiring deputies are due to join the ruling class by October.

"I'm ready to fight and to solve the problems of young people!" proclaimed a beaming Svetlana Kondakova, 21, on hearing she'd made the cut.

When a DJ in wraparound shades remarked that what her bikini top concealed would help her advance in politics, the crowd roared its approval.

In April, the Supreme Council of United Russia decided that 20 percent of all candidates on party lists in future elections had to be 21 to 28 years of age.

The move is part of efforts to broaden the party's membership beyond the stolid bureaucrats and businessmen who currently stuff its ranks -- many of them inspired not by ideological fervor but by the party's almost-complete electoral dominance.

Lipetsk Governor Oleg Korolyov joined United Russia last October, part of a wave of political grandees switching sides. But how to recruit at the entry level? Young Guard, the party's youth wing, hatched the idea of a reality contest and opened it up to all comers. The competition was launched in May in nine regions, including Lipetsk, that are scheduled to hold local legislative elections in the fall.

"It's the first time in Russian history that a party has made a decision to share real power ... on every level from local to federal," said Ivan Demidov, a Young Guard leader and well-known television personality. "It's the first actual step toward renewing the elite."

According to surveys, young people are largely indifferent to politics, despite Kremlin fears that they could become the vanguard of the kind of popular revolt that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia. Although a host of youth organizations have been formed in the last two years to tame or channel youth activism, most of them quickly faded.

So Young Guard used modern marketing to try to attract recruits.

You are young.

You are active.

You are moving forward,

And Political Factory will open the doors for you!

Political Factory gives you a chance to get to power!

So promised a jingle aired over the last two months on local radio stations in Lipetsk, which is about 350 kilometers south of Moscow.

Critics call this approach a desperate gimmick. "Demidov is a showman," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. "The president asked him to propagandize among young people and he had to come up with something new to generate some interest. But I don't believe they'll give away parliamentary seats. There are too many of the party's adults who want them."

One young person who embraced the idea was Kondakova. "You look at politicians, and all you see are middle-aged men -- and how are they going to solve the questions of young people?" she said, speaking on the beach of an artificial lake outside Lipetsk. "This competition is a real surprise and a chance for young people to actually do things."

Contestants were invited to come to a Young Guard office in the city. There they had to fill out a long questionnaire on their personal backgrounds and political views.

"The U.S.A. is our friend, enemy or economic partner?" one question asked. Respondents were instructed to elaborate on their answers. There are no set correct answers, they were told.

"The U.S. is our strong competitor," wrote Andrei Trofimenkov, 26, who works for a local private group that promotes cooperation between government and business, in a fairly typical response. The Lipetsk branch of Young Guard provided The Washington Post with the completed questionnaires of all 60 people who entered the contest in the city.

"It is not our friend because it is not interested in restoring Russia's greatness," Trofimenkov continued. "Neither is it our enemy because it's not interested in Russia's total elimination."

"It's too tough to say enemy," wrote Dmitry Zakhvatayev, 24, a manager at a small company. "But they don't wish us any good, that's for sure."

Some responses were inflammatory. Asked what the first action of a new youth movement should be, Kondakova wrote that she would like "to disperse a gay parade." An attempt to stage a gay and lesbian demonstration in Moscow last month ended in violence when it was broken up by police and skinheads.

"I expected worse," Demidov said after reviewing questionnaires from the first nine regions taking part in the contest. "We wanted to find those who have desire, who identify themselves as leaders. There was a lot of confusion about ideology, in their understanding of power, but the main thing is they have the desire to take part. Some people say it's an artificial thing. It's always difficult to find talented people, but it's better to have this 20 percent as a door, rather than the wall we've had until now."

One question asked why Mikhail Khodorkovsky was in prison. Almost everyone wrote that he was guilty of financial crimes.

But others showed independence from the government's line.

Pavel Lysenko, a 21-year-old who works for the local branch of the Interior Ministry, said Khodorkovsky was in jail only because "he was able to earn money and the Russian mentality can't tolerate that."

Yevgeny Zenkov, a 23-year-old chemistry teacher and boy scout leader, said Khodorkovsky was "in jail for his political views."

Both Lysenko and Zenkov are still in the contest.

Entrants also recorded 45-second videos in which they stated why they wanted to be members of the regional legislature. A panel of judges, including Young Guard activists and well-known young people from Lipetsk, conducted follow-up interviews by phone.

"I was looking for some creativity," said Maxim Bereznev, a 23-year-old break dancer who took part in the judging.

On June 4, the original field of 60 was cut to 20, half of whom had no previous affiliation with United Russia or Young Guard, according to their questionnaires.

Contestants heard the news on the beach, where United Russia had set up a stage and DJs from a local radio station played Russian hip-hop and house music.

To the side, under a stand of trees, young activists grilled hot dogs and people helped themselves to the mineral water for which Lipetsk has been famous since the days of Tsar Peter the Great.

The winners were called up to the stage in groups of four. In responses to a DJ, the fledgling politicians proclaimed their devotion to the party, democracy and the Russian way of life.

"It's not important which party you belong to," said Sergei Pozdnyakov, 26, a former Communist Party loyalist who was among the 20 preliminary winners. "The main thing is to be with people who have some sincere beliefs."

Over the next month, the winners must gather the signatures of 500 people who pledge to support them in the fall elections. They will also have to organize some local events to show their political smarts. The contest will end with a debate among the 20 aspirants before the judging panel makes its final decision.

On June 27, five final winners will be chosen in Lipetsk and added to the party list. Three of those will almost certainly end up in the regional legislature.

"We're looking for energetic, thinking patriots," said Alexei Demikhov, head of Young Guard in Lipetsk. "And our main task is to choose those we won't feel ashamed of when they become deputies."