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Ukraine: Youth Apathetic About Presidential Elections

In the past, young Ukrainians have shown themselves to be less-than-enthusiastic participants in the democratic process. RFE/RL's correspondent in Kyiv, Lily Hyde, looks at the prospects for youth turnout in this month's presidential election.

Kyiv, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- They will have to live with the consequences of the presidential election longer than their grandmothers will, but young Ukrainians are less likely to vote than their elders.

A poll released yesterday by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research found that just over half of the young people (aged 18 to 28) surveyed intend to vote in the October 31 election. That compares with two-thirds of all voters.

Irina Bekeshkina from the Democratic Initiatives Foundation says youth turnout has been improving, thanks partly to the efforts of civic foundations. In the 1998 parliamentary elections, 60 percent of young voters turned out, more than double the turnout four years earlier.

Bekeshkina says that young people do believe in the ideals of democracy. But they doubt whether it can work in Ukraine, so they are often not inspired to vote.

"On the other hand, young people feel great skepticism about whether democracy will establish itself at all in Ukraine. Secondly, unfortunately, they are less inclined to participate in what would help the practical establishment of democracy -- like participating in elections, being interested in politics, forming their own organizations. It needs to be worked on. In the West, there is a tradition of the study and organization of political socialization. Here, the system of political socialization was destroyed and there is no new one."

Nevertheless, at least one presidential candidate is trying to appeal to young people. Incumbent Leonid Kuchma has been appealing to the youth vote with a spate of recent concerts in Kyiv. In his latest television advertisement, the normally bland Kuchma appears waving his arms in an effort to appear animated. The ad shows him accompanied by an array of the country's best-known pop stars, declaring a new Ukraine for young Ukrainians.

The strategy seems to be paying off. Both the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research poll and a mock election conducted among students by the Committee of Ukrainian Voters put Kuchma in the lead among young people. Progressive Socialist leader Natalia Vitrenko, the only other candidate actively seeking the youth vote, came in second.

One of the sites for the mock election was Kyiv's Mohyla Academy, a post-independence institution with a focus on Western subjects and teaching methods. Many students there told RFE/RL they are not interested in politics and do not intend to vote. At a break between classes, nineteen-year-old Tatiana Ivashko argued with friends about the relative merits of different candidates. But she admitted that few of her acquaintances are as informed or concerned as she is.

"I think people are just tired of politics, they get bored. They don't believe the presidential election can make any changes in their lives. All the same, I think the result of the election depends on youth. We will have to live in this country in the future and we have to be interested in politics."

Close to one-fifth of the students who voted did not choose a candidate at all. The Committee of Ukrainian Voters concluded that the students must be ignorant about the candidates. But one student, who gave his name only as Roman, gave a different reason.

"I didn't vote for anyone because none of them satisfy me. They've got a different view of life than me. I don't want to live in their country, I want to live in my own country. It's my duty to vote because I'm a citizen, and I showed my attitude to them. It was just training; in the elections I will vote for a definite person because it would be foolishness to vote for no one, because you cannot go at all. I just showed my attitude to these candidates."

Students who did vote exhibited a surprising level of almost cynical pragmatism in their choices. Many said they did not vote for the candidate they really favored, but rather the candidate they felt had a better chance of winning.