Between classes at her university in southern Russia, 21-year-old Irina Papandopulo lists the qualities of President Vladimir Putin: “He’s strong, he’s diplomatic, he’s close to the people, he plays sport, he has a healthy lifestyle, he looks good.”
Like other young Russians who will vote for the first time in a presidential election next month, Papandopulo, a tourism student in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, remembers little of life before Putin came to power at the turn of the millennium.
This so-called “Generation Putin” has become a focus of an election in which the current president is all but guaranteed to extend his term for another six years, as authorities and opposition set their sights on 2024 and beyond.
The Kremlin has made a special play to the demographic while opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called on his many young supporters to boycott polls he denounces as a sham.
Less than half of people aged 18-24 say they are definitely planning to vote, according to polls, but of those, some 82 percent will back Putin — a higher rate than the generation above them.
“Stability is the key to success,” says Sochi law student Diana Chernyakovskaya, 21, as she explains her support for Putin, who has always sought to project an image as a stabilizing influence after the political and economic chaos of the 1990s.
Diana, Irina and a group of other students agree that citizens have a duty to vote and reject the idea that the ballot has been fixed.
On the day Putin announced his candidacy he made a highly choreographed appearance at a forum for young volunteers.
The crowd chanted “yes!” as he asked if he would have their support if he sought a historic fourth term.
Since then he has regularly appeared at youth events and chose the head of Sirius — a center for gifted young people set in the complex built for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — as one of his campaign managers.
The Russian Union of Youth, successor to the Soviet Komsomol, has also organized a string of concerts at polling stations in colleges and universities for March 18, with the specified aim of boosting youth turnout.
‘Bad but bearable’
But as she puts up posters calling for an election boycott in a run-down suburb of Sochi, 20-year-old Olesya Khristosenko rolls her eyes at the mention of stability. She says the only things that have remained stable under Putin are corruption and low wages.
“Very many people are simply scared of change,” says Khristosenko, who works full-time at the city’s Navalny headquarters.
Navalny’s group has been agitating for a “voters’ strike” since he was barred from the ballot for legal reasons.
“What they see is that it’s bad but bearable… They won’t allow for the fact that things could get better (with a new leader). They’re scared that it will get worse.”
Earlier in the week, the office where she works was raided by the police. Several young people who have tried to get involved with the campaign were warned by teachers that it would land them in trouble at school or university, according to Khristosenko.
Navalny offices across the country regularly report similar raids, along with threats from teachers or police against young volunteers.
‘My vote can’t change much’
A crackdown on the protest before the last presidential election in 2012 acted as a similar warning to the younger generation to stay out of politics, analysts say.
“Those (young people) who do go the polls will of course vote for Putin, but there will be very few of them. Not because they are against Putin, but because they are not involved in politics,” said Denis Volkov of the independent Levada Centre polling institute.
Though the internet has boosted the country’s opposition movement — notably through Navalny’s Youtube videos that expose corruption among the country’s elite — most young people’s political views are not strongly influenced by what they see online, according to the pollster.
“Young people are interested in the internet for chat, films, music,” he told AFP.
Nikita Nikulin, 23, who works in internet installation in Sochi but gets the news from state TV channels, says he is proud of his presidency but is not yet sure if he will vote.
“Everything will depend on time if I’m working that day, if I’m tired in the evening,” he said.
“I’ve never voted before and I don’t think my vote can change much in such a massive country.”