Youthful challenge to Yeltsin regime

December 17, 1999


The three young leaders of Russia's Union of Right Forces have a positively film-star sheen about them in a political field characterised by age and infirmity.

Boris Nemtsov, former governor of reformist Nizhny Novgorod region, economist and former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko and parliamentarian Irina Khakamada are all under 46.

Their political movement emerged from Russia's turbulent political scene last summer to prepare for this Sunday's critical parliamentary elections. Its message is aimed at the students and young professionals who represent the most democratic and reform-minded part of Russia's 146 million people.

In a political environment associated with an ailing, stumbling president, massed rallies of Stalinist pensioners and bizarre jingoistic outbursts from bloc leaders such as the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Right Forces is striving to present a vigorous, youthful and democratic image.

Across Russia's vast territory Mr Nemtsov, 40, Mr Kiriyenko, 37, and Ms Khakamada, 45, have been on the campaign trail urging students and others from Russia's habitually most politically apathetic groups to turn out and vote.

In Ekaterinburg, the Urals city where President Boris Yeltsin began his political career, Mr Nemtsov, who won recognition for his free-trade experiments in Nizhny Novogorod before serving briefly as a deputy prime minister, was the jeans-clad star turn at a pop concert cum political rally.

Raising his hands, index and little fingers extended in the salute of the rock fan, Nemtsov introduced the band, "Chaif, the Union of Right Forces' favourite band", before reminding the roaring crowd to go to the polls.

Support for higher student stipends, free-market reforms and other pro-youth policies, combined with an aggressive campaign of pop concerts and television advertisements seem to be hitting the mark.

Right Forces' poll standing has crept up from 2 per cent last month to more than 6 per cent this. Voting is by party lists and under Russian law a party must receive at least 5 per cent of votes cast to win parliamentary seats.

The All-Russia Centre for Public Opinion Research puts it at 16 per cent - marginally ahead of the Communists and Yabloko, led by another young reformer, Grigory Yavlinsky, but behind Vladimir Zhirinovsky's bloc, which polls 25 per cent.

Zhirinovsky's unaccredited Institute for World Civilisations, established last summer, offers free courses and employment in his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to promising students.

But Right Forces' style and approach remain very different from that adopted by most battling for places in the 450-seat State Duma, or parliament.

The Communists, the largest single faction in parliament and the most bullish about succeeding President Yeltsin next June when his second and last term expires, also try to target the youth vote.

But with most votes for the Communists to be found among the over-50s, the enduring image of their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, on the campaign trail is like that in Ryazan, an army town near Moscow, where last week he addressed halls full of pensioners, red banners and busts of Lenin.

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