View from Vladimir could be the clincher

The Kremlin cannot afford to ignore the provincial vote, writes Phil Reeves
Vladimir - We were sitting in the restaurant of an hotel in Vladimir, a provincial city where Julia, the daughter of an actor, was born and has so far spent all her 25 years.

Over the past few weeks I had heard a lot from young people about their attitude to politics, and in particular, the presidential election in just over a fortnight's time. But they were mostly Muscovites, the advocates and beneficiaries of reforms. What I wanted from Julia Smolnikov was to know what life was like for young people outside the liberal-leaning cosmopolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. What was it like out here, in Russia's answer to Northampton or Coventry?

Her grandfather had been a big wheel in the regional Communist party, a sincere Leninist who had declined to feather his nest so like many others in the nomenklatura. "People say to us `Surely you have some money from him?', but we got nothing." She owns no car, and no property. When she goes on holiday this summer to Germany, she will travel on a $60 (pounds 40) coach ticket and then get a temporary job, to pay her way home. Her biggest treat is being able to buy music cassettes and eat chocolate.

Although it seems a peaceful place, full of greenery at this time of year, her home city is not without problems, beyond the usual alcohol epidemic. Every now and then, the mafia burn down a street kiosk - the principal street outlet for vodka, beer, sweets and newspapers - for failing to pay protection money. But not long ago they murdered a businessman she knew. Ms Smolnikov carries a can of Mace in her handbag.

She lives alone in a room provided by her university, where she works in the department of international relations. As her monthly salary ($80) is the price of dinner at a half-decent Moscow restaurant, this is all she can afford. This did not seem to bother her much. "I don't need all that much, and if I want more I can find ways of earning it." She works as a guide, a teacher, and a translator when the opportunity arises. "People have to take responsibility for themselves."

In the December elections, she didn't find time to vote. In the Vladimir region, some 180 miles east of Moscow, the Communists came first in the parliamentary election, followed by the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party. This time, she intends to do go to the polls, although she has yet to make up her mind whom to support.

She regards the vodka-loving Boris Yeltsin as "unpresidential", hates his "bad, uneducated" Russian, and fears a second term would bring a re- run of the Brezhnev years of stagnation. She knows some smart young, progressive Communists at the university but fears that Gennady Zyuganov's Communist- nationalist bloc contains too many extremists to be a desirable option. "I would rather have my freedom than their cheap sausage."

She was, she said, mulling over her choice. So are thousands of other young people around this vast nation. As more of them are more sympathetic to Mr Yeltsin than to Mr Zyuganov, their decision could be crucial to the Kremlin, which fears the young vote won't bother to turn out.

Thus, its campaign slogan "Vote or Lose"; thus, Mr Yeltsin's promise not to send conscripts to Chechnya and his announcement of higher student grants, and, thus, the spectacle of him dancing at a rock concert this week in the Urals city of Ufa. He knows people like Ms Smolnikov count. The question is whether they think he does.