Old Soviet faces make way for fortysomethings

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The younger generation of Russians is coming into its own. Sunday's parliamentary election gave a huge boost to Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, the scourge of Chechnya, Vladimir Putin. At the same time it introduced the world to the young politicians likely to work with Mr Putin, the Prime Minister, in the 21st century.

The younger generation of Russians is coming into its own. Sunday's parliamentary election gave a huge boost to Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, the scourge of Chechnya, Vladimir Putin. At the same time it introduced the world to the young politicians likely to work with Mr Putin, the Prime Minister, in the 21st century.

Preliminary results suggested yesterday that the Communists would remain the biggest single party in the 450-seat State Duma. But the combined strength of pro-Putin parties would be greater and, for the first time since Russia launched its market reforms, the government could rely on the backing of the lower house.

Mr Yeltsin, who has vowed to leave the Kremlin on time in June, dreamt of such support throughout his presidency, which he spoilt because of his character flaws but which was also hostage to the obstructive Communists. Now he is a lame- duck President and Mr Putin, if he does win the Kremlin next year, will benefit from the renewal of the Duma.

The election was in effect a referendum on the war Mr Putin has pursued in Chechnya and the result shows Russia is in patriotic mood. The way voters could express their approval for Mr Putin, a former KGB agent, was to opt for the new Unity or Bear Party, led by the Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu, a friend of the Prime Minister. Or they could vote for the Union of Right Forces (URF), led by the former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who early in the campaign made clear he would back Mr Putin for president.

The success of the Bear, which did not exist three months ago, attested to the power of the media, especially the first and second television channels, which unashamedly favoured the Kremlin. Likewise, Mr Kiriyenko, whose chances looked slim, as he was remembered for bringing down the economy in August 1998, could thank the media, which began to promote him after he declared his loyalty to Mr Putin.

So powerful was the propaganda that poor Russians, who had suffered from the bungling and corruption of the Yeltsin years, turned to the parties of the very Kremlin that had crushed them. "In Russia we like to vote for those who beat us," was the cryptic comment of a man leaving a Moscow polling station where, he seemed to be saying, he had voted for a pro-Putin party.

The assessment of Grigory Yavlinksy, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which scraped into the Duma, was that Russia was still essentially Soviet, because its inexperienced voters could be manipulated and pushed. The tricks from the Kremlin were certainly dirty and another former prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, blamed them for the disappointing showing of their non-Communist opposition bloc, Fatherland-All Russia.

Yet not all voters could have been as meek as lambs. Perhaps they found Mr Yavlinsky too idealistic, always criticising but never prepared to get his hands dirty by taking part in government. Perhaps they thought Mr Primakov, 70, and Mr Luzhkov, 63, were not sufficiently different from the Communists and too old.

It is hard to under-estimate the shame Russians feel when they see Mr Yeltsin lumbering across the world stage, reminding them of Leonid Brezhnev. The younger generation yearns for leaders who do not have one foot in the grave but, interestingly, so do many older Russians. Take, for example, Galina Alexeyevna, a pensioner. She gained nothing from the Yeltsin reforms, as she lives on bread and cannot even afford a copy of the newspaper Izvestia , for which her late husband worked for 45 years. Yet she said on Sunday that she had voted Bear because, at 47, Mr Putin had the advantage of being "not senile".

Equally, however else you describe them, you cannot accuse of senility the young politicians who will share power with Mr Putin if he inherits the Kremlin. Mr Shoigu, 44, who might become his Prime Minister, is popular with citizens because they have seen how, as Emergencies Minister, he has sent teams to rescue people from the many disasters Russia manages to produce. He has also enhanced its international prestige by contributing to rescue efforts abroad, for example in earthquake-racked Turkey.

Mr Kiriyenko, 37, nicknamed "Kinder Surprise" after the German chocolate eggs that are popular with Russian children, may take a leading role running the economy for Mr Putin. That might not be as bad as it sounds.

For, while Mr Kiriyenko did announce the rouble devaluation and debt default last year, he could hardly take the entire blame, as he had only been in office a few months and had inherited a mess.

Many young Russians were euphoric yesterday at the advent of politicians cool enough to use the Internet. But warning voices were also raised. The analyst Lilia Shevtsova said she was disturbed by the rise of leaders about whom Russia and the world knew far too little. Mr Putin's only policy so far had been to bomb and shell Chechnya. When things began to go wrong for federal forces in the Caucasus, as she predicted they would, to what would Mr Putin turn next to maintain his popularity?

"Will he find other internal enemies? Or will he whip up the anti-Western mood?" she asked. For Ms Shevtsova, at least, there was something potentially frightening about the fresh blood now transfused into Russian politics.

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