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Yeltsin Twists and Shouts to Lure Russia's Generation X to the Polls

The problem with Russian youths today, Boris Yeltsin's campaign is finding out, is not their political views, which are generally more or less pro-Yeltsin. The problem is that the young folks who rock out in Red Square while the Russian president twists the night away on the stage have not been so enthusiastic about getting to the voting stations.

This is more than a matter of forming good citizenship habits. President Yeltsin faces a runoff election next Wednesday against nationalist-communist opponent Gennady Zyuganov in which voter turnout has become the most pivotal factor.

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Campaign workers are not at all sure that voters will go to the polls in numbers approaching the first-round level. July is prime vacation season in Russia, when people head for their dachas to work in their vegetable gardens. And having voted once already, people may have less intense interest in voting a second time.

But more to the point, Yeltsin's voters may not show up, while Mr. Zyuganov's voters are considered more disciplined and reliable. The Communist Party still has the most extensive and well-organized network in Russia for mobilizing voters. Communist voters also tend to be older, and, as in the United States, older citizens are more reliable voters than the young.

"Russian society is very polarized generationally," says Sergei Kolmakov, a political scientist who works with the Yeltsin campaign. With each election since 1991, the age divide has grown more vivid, he says. "There are two different cultures in Russia now," he says. Russians over 50 are more communist and conservative, while their counterparts under 30 are more Western-oriented and reformist. "They have totally opposite voting behavior."

Yeltsin will beat his Communist rival with roughly 51 percent to 47 percent, says campaign deputy chairman Vyacheslav Nikonov, but only if turnout tops 60 percent. If it drops below 60 percent, then Mr. Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, may win, he said earlier this week. The Yeltsin campaign is expecting a 64 percent turnout.

"We don't want more changes," says Natalya Saprykina, a student who voted for Yeltsin in a small town outside Moscow. Zyuganov, she says, "is mostly supported by former Communists. They're used to living under that regime and they're not comfortable now. I don't wish anything bad for them, but it's time for us to live."

The difference shows up even in what time Russians vote. Pensioners tend to vote by 11 a.m., and younger people tend to vote after 2 p.m., Mr. Kolmakov notes. On election day of the first round, earlier this month, Yeltsin was actually trailing Zyuganov throughout the day until 6 p.m., says Mr. Nikonov. Yeltsin only overtook Zyuganov in the final hours before the polls closed at 10 p.m.

"The youth vote was very disappointing," says Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, in spite of all the effort the Yeltsin campaign put into rock concerts and national advertising to engage young voters. "There was lots of money, lots of energy, lots of dancing, but a poor vote," says Mr. McFaul.

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Not all young Russians are anti-Communist, even in Moscow, where reforms have been the most successful. Nastya Smirnova is only 17, but all of her 18-year-old friends are voting for Zyuganov, she says. If Yeltsin wins, Russia will complete its disintegration, stop industrial production, sell off its resources, and become a colony of the West, she says. She remembers the late 1980s, when "not everything was ruined.'' She and her sisters could still afford to go to theaters and dancing school. Now even in public schools, the good teachers and serious classes charge fees.

She cites themes heard almost universally among leftists: the need for order and less crime and corruption, as in the old days. Hollywood has made a negative impression on many, who cite the trashy character of the dubbed American movies they see on TV now.

And in interview after interview, when asked about shortages and long lines under communism, they argue that these only appeared under ex-President Mikhail Gorbachev, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. "Before Gorbachev there was order and the economy was stable," says Sergei Vatnin, a university student.

Most young voters have a less rosy view of the past. The crime and corruption so visible in Russia today, says 20-year-old Yelena Sedikh, in a often-repeated view, "was and is and will be. It was just hidden before."

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