Daily Archives: August 9, 2007

Soviet-style youth groups created by Kremlin serve Putin’s cause

Nashi’s opponents deride the organization as a modern manifestation of Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The colors and symbols are similar; members carry red books to record their participation in rallies and lectures. And, like the Komsomol, membership in Nashi is viewed as a stepping stone to jobs in government and state corporations.

“This may not be the young Red Guard’s Cultural Revolution, like in China, but something much more serious.”

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Supporters of the Kremlin-backed youth organisation “Nashi” (Ours) rally to celebrate seven years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in central Moscow March 25, 2007. [Reuters]

Youth groups created by Kremlin serve Putin’s cause

International Herald Tribune | Aug 8, 2007

By Steven Lee Myers

MOSCOW: Yulia Kuliyeva, only 19 and already a commissar, sat at a desk and quizzed each young person who sat opposite her, testing for ideological fitness to participate in summer camp.

“Tell me, what achievements of Putin’s policy can you name?” she asked, referring to Russia’s president since 2000, Vladimir Putin.

“Well, it’s the stabilization in the economy,” the girl answered. “Pensions were raised.”

“And what’s in Chechnya?” Kuliyeva asked, probing her knowledge of a separatist conflict that has killed tens of thousands and, although largely won by Russia’s federal forces and Chechen loyalists, continues.

“In Chechnya, it’s that it is considered a part of Russia,” the girl responded.

“Is this war still going on there?”

“No, everything is quiet.”

Kuliyeva is a leader in the Ideological Department of Nashi, the largest of a handful of youth movements created by Putin’s Kremlin to fight for the hearts and minds of Russia’s young people in schools, on the airwaves and, if necessary, on the streets.

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Supporters of the Kremlin-backed youth organisation “Nashi” (Ours) rally to celebrate seven years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in central Moscow March 25, 2007. [Reuters]

Nashi, which translates as “ours,” has since its creation two years ago become a disciplined and lavishly funded instrument of Putin’s campaign for political control before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next March.

It has organized mass marches in support of Putin — most recently gathering tens of thousands of young people in Moscow to send the president text messages — and staged rowdy demonstrations over foreign policy issues that resulted in the physical harassment of the British and Estonian ambassadors here.

Its main role, though, is the ideological cultivation — some say indoctrination — of today’s youth, the first generation to come of age in post-Soviet Russia.

To Nashi, young people are neither the lost generation of the turbulent 1990s nor the soulless consumerists of Generation P (for Pepsi) imagined by the writer Viktor Pelevin in 2000. They are, as Nashi’s own glossy literature says, “Putin’s Generation.” “Why Putin’s generation?” Nashi’s national spokeswoman, Anastasia Suslova, asked at the group’s headquarters. “It is because Putin has qualitatively changed Russia. He brought stability and the opportunity for modernization and development of the country. Thus we, the young people — myself, for instance, I am 22, and these eight years were the longest part of my conscious life when we were growing up, and the country was changing with us.”

Nashi emerged in the wake of youth-led protests that toppled sclerotic governments in other post-Soviet republics, especially in Ukraine in 2004. It was joined by similar groups, like the Youth Guard, which belongs to the pro-Putin party United Russia; Locals, a group created by the Moscow region government that recently launched an anti-immigrant campaign; and the Grigorevtsy, affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.

How Putin is using Russia’s youth to build up a regime – One truth, one leader, one party.  

The groups, organizers and critics say, are part of an effort to build a following of loyal, patriotic young people and to defuse any youthful resistance that could emerge during the careful orchestration of Putin’s successor in next year’s election. Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the groups, now claims 10,000 active members and as many as 200,000 participants in its events.

“The Kremlin decided that youth organizations can be exploited,” said Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He compared the youth activists to “Landsknechts,” medieval foot soldiers hired to carry out military campaigns.

Russia’s youth, like their parents, remain largely apolitical, seeing what passes for politics here as something remote from their daily lives. Nashi’s goal is to change that, spurring youthful activism, although within the careful limits of the Kremlin’s sanction.

Nashi’s ideology is contained in a manifesto, based on the writings of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political adviser, who has been called the Karl Rove of the Kremlin. At Nashi events and in interviews like Kuliyeva’s, members cite the manifesto’s passages, or “Surkov’s text,” like cant.

NY Times Video: The Putin Generation: systematic Soviet-style brainwashing of Russian youth

“I want Russia to be a leader of the 21st century,” Yuri Venchekov, 18, said at a recent Nashi rally at the All-Russia Exhibition Center that was intended to promote harmony among Russia’s many ethnic groups.

Nashi’s platform is defined by its unwavering devotion to Putin and by the intensity of its hostility toward his critics, including his former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov and a nationalist writer, Eduard Limonov. Nashi’s members denounce the opposition leaders as fascists with a fervor that can be disquieting.

One of Kuliyeva’s applicants to Nashi’s summer camp — two weeks of sports and ideological lessons beside Lake Seliger outside Moscow — noted that in Russian the first two letters of each man’s name spelled out the past tense of the verb to defecate.

“So this troika sounds nicely,” the young man, Vitaly Chubarov, answered. Kuliyeva chuckled.

Nashi’s ideology extends beyond the purely political. It promotes ethnic tolerance and opposition to skinheads; participation in the army, whose draft is widely evaded; support for orphans and pensioners, and respect for veterans of World War II. On social issues, it campaigns against drinking and smoking and advocates a conservative view on issues like abortion and birth control, warning against the use of condoms, for example.

Like Putin himself, who recently seemed to compare the foreign policy of the United States to the Third Reich, Nashi also laces its campaigns and literature with an undercurrent of hostility to Europe and the United States. At the rally promoting ethnic harmony, a poster denounced American adoptions: “In 2005, 3,966 Russian children became citizens of America.”

“Putin’s Generation” is growing up with a diet of anti-European and anti-American sentiment that could deepen the social and political divides between Russia and the West for decades to come.

“Today the United States on one hand and international terrorism on the other strive to control Eurasia and the whole world,” Nashi’s manifesto says. “Their gaze is directed at Russia. The task of our generation is to defend the sovereignty of our country as our grandfathers did 60 years ago.”

Although Kremlin officials have tried to portray the groups as independent players, Nashi and the others owe their financing and political support to their status as creations of Putin’s administration. They are allowed to hold marches, while demonstrations by the opposition are prohibited or curtailed. Their activities are covered favorably on state television, while the opposition’s are disparaged or ignored.

Although Nashi’s financing is opaque, the group receives grants from the state and big businesses like Gazprom, the state energy giant, and Norilsk Nickel, whose principal owner, Vladimir Potanin, is a Putin loyalist. Nashi repays Potanin’s support in its literature by distinguishing him from the “oligarchs” who are widely reviled in Russia.

“We have to admit that for a long time we did not have any youth policy at all,” Surkov said in a rare news conference last year. “Sooner or later, we realized, we had to.” While he acknowledged supporting Nashi, he added, “It is very important not to take too strict or rigid control of these movements, not to repeat the experience of having the old type of organizations.”

Nashi’s opponents, in fact, deride the organization as a modern manifestation of Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The colors and symbols are similar; members carry red books to record their participation in rallies and lectures. And, like the Komsomol, membership in Nashi is viewed as a stepping stone to jobs in government and state corporations.

More ominously, opponents say, Nashi has conducted paramilitary training in preparation for challenging those who take to the streets to protest the Kremlin. Ilya Yashin, the leader of the youth wing of Yabloko, the liberal political party, said the goal was “direct intimidation of opposition activists,” citing an attack attributed to Nashi supporters against the headquarters of the banned National Bolshevik Party, led by Limonov.

Politically, at least, Nashi has become a powerful instrument to express the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction. When the governor of the Perm region, Oleg Chirkunov, a Putin appointee, allowed a member of an opposition party to attend a youth conference last year, hundreds of Nashi protesters picketed his office despite bitterly cold weather, demanding that he apologize. He promptly did.

After Estonia relocated a Soviet-era war memorial in late April, Nashi laid siege to the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, throwing rocks, disrupting traffic and tearing down the Estonian flag. Nashi members, including the group’s leader, Vasily Yakemenko, accosted Estonia’s ambassador, Marina Kaljurand, at a news conference in early May. Her guards had to use pepper spray to defend her.

Yashin, the Yabloko leader, said the Kremlin ran a risk of unleashing a wave of activism that could spread beyond its control, especially as Putin’s loyalists fight for control after he steps down, as promised, next year.

“The authorities may face serious problems,” he said, “because all the young people whom they teach today, in whom they invest, whom they teach to organize mass actions, may find themselves in the real opposition when they see that their interests are violated.”

“Today they are loyal, but tomorrow they may become the opposition,” he added. “And this may not be the young Red Guard’s Cultural Revolution, like in China, but something much more serious.”

Russia stretches ‘extremism’ laws

Newly beefed-up legislation enables the Kremlin to fight a rising wave of racism and other extremist views. But critics say it’s being used to stifle political opposition.

Christian Science Monitor | Aug 9, 2007

By Fred Weir

Moscow – Andrei Piontkovsky seems an unlikely extremist.

But the leading member of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party is facing serious legal woes under recently toughened “anti-extremism” laws over two books he wrote about President Vladimir Putin’s years in power. In June, the FSB security service in the southern region of Krasnodar threatened to shut down the local branch of Yabloko if it did not stop distributing the books, which are sharply critical of the Kremlin, and the case is likely to go to court in coming months.

“It is perfectly clear that the anti-extremism laws are not aimed at fighting terrorism, but against the political opposition,” says Mr. Piontkovsky, an urbane former chief of a Moscow political think tank.

Piontkovsky is one of several liberal intellectuals to have been targeted in recent months under the laws, which pro-Kremlin analysts say are necessary to fight a rising wave of racism, ultranationalism, and pro-terrorist sentiment.

First passed five years ago, the legislation was beefed up for the second time last month, when Russia’s top prosecutor reported a sixfold increase of extremist crimes over last year. Advocates of tougher laws say such statistics justify the new legislation, but critics say the laws hinge upon vague definitions of “extremism” and “assistance” to extremists – both designed to intimidate the Kremlin’s political opponents and journalists.

“Anything can be termed extremism [under the law],” says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks extremist activities. “It’s possible the authorities want to have this Damocles sword hanging over everyone’s head. [If you engage in public activity,] you will understand that you can be arrested, if not this time, then next time.”

The new amendments to the law, passed last month by the State Duma, come just as Russia readies for what could be a stormy political campaign season. Duma elections will be held in December, followed by presidential elections in March, when Mr. Putin’s two-term constitutional mandate will expire.

141 ‘extremist’ youth groups

The legislation now outlines 13 aspects of extremism, including such actions as “slandering an official of the Russian Federation” and inciting hatred against any “social group.” (Last year, an outspoken advocate of Chechen separatism, Boris Stomakhin, was sentenced to five years for inciting hatred against the Russian Army.) It provides punishment for “financing” and “organizing” extremist activity as well as rendering “public support” for extremism.

Advocates of tougher laws point to recent studies, such as one published in the daily Noviye Izvestia last month, which ennumerated 141 youth groups “of an extremist nature” in Russia, with a total of half a million members. “Extremist youth groups exist in all major cities, their numbers are growing, and they are becoming more organized and politicized,” the paper said.

“The enemies of Russia are attempting to use extremists as a trigger for explosive ethnic conflicts, designed to destabilize society and cause the disintegration of the country,” says Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker of the Duma, from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. “We need to establish zero tolerance in our society for xenophobia, nationalism, and extremism in all its forms.”

Russia’s top prosecutor, Yury Chaika, said last month that “we have registered 150 extremist crimes in the first six months of this year,” a sixfold increase over the same period last year. “The majority of criminal cases are related to public incitement to extremism and racial hatred,” the independent Interfax agency quoted him as saying.

Politically biased application of law

But critics, pointing to recent applications of the law, say “extremism” is whatever the Kremlin decides it is. For example, Russia’s Supreme Court this week upheld a ban on the National Bolshevik Party, which is led by novelist Eduard Limonov, on the grounds that its leftist ideology and occasionally violent street activism constitute “extremism.” Yet some pro-Kremlin youth groups, such as Nashi, engage in very similar tactics.

“Organizations like Nashi, formally established for educational and cultural purposes, actually engage in political campaigns bordering on extremism and promoting xenophobia,” according to a July 16 editorial in the independent daily Noviye Izvestia. “The only thing that saves them is their close relationship with the authorities.”

Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, an independent think tank in Moscow, says that the broad interpretation of extremism has greatly strengthened the Kremlin’s hand.

“The new amendments widen the concept of extremism so as to make it practically limitless,” says Mr. Pribylovsky, who ran afoul of the law earlier this year when the FSB raided his home searching for “extremist content” and seized his personal papers and computer. It remains unclear what they were looking for, though Pribylovsky is co-writing a biography of Mr. Putin with US-based historian Yury Felshtinsky. He is also the author of a political website, http://www.anticompromat.ru, which was briefly forced to close down in March.

“Basically [the law] is a universal stick available to punish anyone, and the decision about how and when to use it is in the hands of the officials,” says Pribylovsky.

Under the new amendments any crime can be classified as extremism if a political connotation can be shown. “If someone breaks a window, that’s hooliganism under Russian law, and the culprit is liable to one year in prison,” says Sergei Dickmann, a Moscow staff attorney with Jurists for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, a nongovernmental organization. “But if you shout something against the authorities while breaking the window, that may now be called extremism and get you up to six years in prison.”

The changes will make it a challenge for journalists to cover any political activities other than those sanctioned by the Kremlin, experts say. “It was difficult before, but now it becomes extremely difficult for journalists to do their job,” says Mr. Dickmann.

For example, any speech deemed “extremist” that occurs during a broadcast can lead to a media outlet being warned, and then shut down, by authorities. “The practical outcome of this rule is that radio and TV stations will simply stop having live debate and talk shows,” says Dickmann.

Georgia asks for emergency Security Council meeting on “act of aggression” by Russia

International Herald Tribune | Aug 8, 2007

UNITED NATIONS: Georgia urged the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to hold an emergency meeting on “an act of aggression” by Russia, saying it has “incontrovertible evidence” that Russian jets launched a missile near the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Georgia’s Charge d’Affaires Irakli Chikovani also urged the United Nations, Russia, the European Union and other international organizations to investigate and verify “this unprovoked use of force against Georgia.”

Russia’s air force has flatly denied that its planes crossed into Georgia’s airspace.

Chikovani told a news conference that radar records compatible with NATO standards showed that two Russian Su-24 jet had flown more than 75 kilometers into Georgian airspace on Monday before launching a precision-guided missile, which landed near a house but did not explode.

A day earlier — on Sunday — another military aircraft, most likely an Su-24, also violated Georgian airspace “from the Russian side,” he said.

Georgia considers the incidents to be a violation of the U.N. Charter provisions against the use of force and “an act of aggression” under a 1974 U.N. General Assembly resolution on the definition of aggression, Chikovani said.

“My country as a responsible democratic state cannot tolerate such offenses against our citizens and sovereignty,” he said. “It should be stressed that this act of aggression may have been aimed at hindering the recent positive dynamics in democratization and conflict resolution currently under way in Georgia.”

Chikovani met with the Security Council president — the Republic of Congo’s deputy ambassador, Pascal Gayama — on Wednesday afternoon to seek an emergency meeting of the council. Gayama is expected to consult other council members on the request on Thursday, U.N. associate spokesman Yves Sorokobi said.

The U.S. on Wednesday condemned what it described as a “rocket attack” and praised “Georgia’s cointuing restraint in the face of this air attack,” said a statement by the U.S. State Department, which also called for “the urgent clarification surrounding the incident.”

The statement, which carfully avoided naming a responsible party in the attack, encouraged Russia and Georgia “to advance efforts” to work toward peaceful resolution of the South Ossetia conflict.

Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to destabilize the country and of backing separatists in its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledged to bring back under central government control. The Gori region, where the missile was dropped, is next to South Ossetia.

Asked whether the council was the right venue for action given that Russia is a permanent member with veto power, Chikovani said the Security Council is the body that deals with threats to international peace and security.

“The common sense is that the United Nations Security Council has to tackle this matter which has threatened peace and security in my country, and we call on the United Nations to conduct its own investigation. I think Russian Federation has no arguments that would oppose the conduct of the investigation,” he said.

“We demand the Russian federation take immediate action to conduct a timely and thorough investigation of this aerial bombardment, and provide an exhaustive explanation,” he said.

Chikovani was asked whether an act of aggression meant Georgia was in a state of conflict with Russia.

“We do not consider at this moment that we are in this status of conflict with the Russian Federation, but we are requesting from the Russian Federation to provide information and conduct the investigation by themselves and also to participate in the investigation that we were proposing to conduct,” he said.

In March, Georgia said Russian helicopters fired on its territory in the Kodori Gorge, a volatile area on the fringes of breakaway Abkhazia. A subsequent report by the U.N. observer mission in Georgia last month said it was not clear who fired at the Georgian territory.

Chikovani said Georgia responded “very calmly” to that incident and participated in the investigation while Russia refused to cooperate, which he claimed was the reason the U.N. report was inconclusive.

“Evidently, these acts were not properly addressed and evaluated by the international community, thus establishing a breeding ground for the latest acts of aggression against Georgia,” he said.

Chikovani said that acts of aggression against Georgia are becoming a “very dangerous” tendency.

“Such actions constitute a threat to the international peace and security by undermining fundamental democratic values and endangering the primacy of international law,” he said.