The children of Vovanovo: pro-Kremlin youth groups

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“After meeting with the President, my emotions are overflowing… The President is just the kind of person I’d like to fall in love with.”

“He radiates energy.”

These expressions of delight can be found in reports from Young Guard movement leaders about their meeting with President Vladimir Putin at his Zavidovo residence. And the Mestnye movement underscores the status of this meeting by noting that “even Connie, the President’s beloved labrador, wanted to meet the activists.”

ITAR-TASS reports that over 65 activists from pro-Kremlin youth movements were brought to the Zavidovo residence to meet the head of state: representing Nashi (Our Own), Mestnye (the Locals), Young Guard, Young Russia, New People, and Our Country.

The possibility of uniting pro-Kremlin youth organizations was discussed at the meeting. This idea was proposed by Nashi leader Vasili Yakemenko, who asked the President to consider establishing a special directorate for youth policy. “Establishing a single center for youth management – I think that’s in the past,” Putin replied. ITAR-TASS quotes Putin as saying: “Instead, the state should create conditions that enable young people to achieve their potential – in careers, private life, culture, and politics.”

Mestnye leader Sergei Fateyev said that his movement is trying to get rid of garbage dumps in Moscow, and engaging in political environmentalism: monitoring produce markets in order to protect the rights of national consumers and issuing cautions to migrants “whose improper behavior might provoke interethnic discord.” (Quoted in Kommersant.)

President Putin gave Mestnye’s activities his overall approval: “All newcomers need to know that they shouldn’t attempt to impose their ways on us.” However, he advised Mestnye to refrain from any great-power chauvinism: “Only lawful means should be used in making lawbreakers abide by the law.”

Young Russia leader Maksim Mishchenko admitted he doesn’t believe that Putin isn’t bothered by the Dissenter March protests, funded by “you know who.” Putin’s response was unwavering in upholding democratic principles: “All political forces have the right to express their opinion by constitutional means. But if their purpose is provocation, it’s important that the law enforcement agencies – acting within the law – should prevent that.”

Kommersant reports that the President took a hard line on a different issue. In commenting on Britain’s demand for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, Putin noted that Britain itself “refuses to extradite people who are hiding out on British territory, and gives other countries insulting advice to amend their constitutions.” He summed things up by saying: “It’s their brains, not our Constitution, that need replacing!”

Nadezhda Orlova, head of Young Guard’s political council, brought the conversation back to domestic affairs: reporting that the United Russia party is already carrying out the President’s wishes, and 280 members of Young Guard are already on United Russia’s candidate lists for the Duma election.

As the Vzglyad newspaper reports, Orlova told the President about the Political Factory project, which helps the most active Young Guard members get selected as United Russia candidates. Putin was very impressed by this “youth cadre elevator.” He also expressed approval of a youth campaign team program: according to Orlova, these efforts added 5% to United Russia’s voting results in the March round of regional legislature elections.

In commenting on what he heard, Putin expressed the hope that young Russian citizens themselves will play a more active role in politics. He also summed up what the Kremlin wants from young people: “I very much hope that some young people are included on party candidate lists in the forthcoming election, and that others will be equally active in the election campaign, getting involved in campaigning.”

President Putin praised the Seliger 2007 All-Russian Youth Education Forum: the Nashi movement’s summer camp at Lake Seliger, held for the third consecutive year. “More events of this kind should be held. Other organizations should be assisted in organizing them,” said Putin.

The scale of the Lake Seliger camp is impressive, says Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal observer Alexander Golts: “Ten thousand people, and fighter jets doing display flights overhead – everything indicated that the event’s organizers had really enjoyed themselves in the process of spending state funding.”

In other respects, according to Golts, the “Nashists” are sticking to established tradition: “Ritual denunciations of the ‘global conspiracy’ and insults directed at the opposition, all fertilized by abundant tackiness.” The summer camp included a collective wedding ceremony, which Golts compares to Moonie ceremonies. Quoting Nashi’s official website, Golts reports: “At exactly six o’clock that evening, four GAZel cars brought the grooms and their guests to the Young Families camp. The City of Brides consisted of 25 tents arranged in the shape of an enormous heart. At the entrance of each tent, a bride awaited her groom… The Governor of the Ryazan region promised to stand godfather to the tenth child born to the couples.”

The Gazeta newspaper’s correspondents were surprised by the location of the camp: tents were pitched at an abandoned cemetery. “But no one’s been buried here for a hundred years, anyway,” said Elena Soboleva, a Nashi commissar from the Tula region. Gazeta comments: “All the same, it was an impressive spectacle: old headstones and crosses, alongside teenagers having fun.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that guests at Lake Seliger could see a clock doing a countdown to the presidential election, and the improvised town of Vovanovo, with a collage displayed at its entrance: a variation on Vasnetsov’s “Three Heroes” painting, with Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Medvedev, and Sergei Ivanov as the three knights on horseback.

An article in The Times (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru) reports that the Nashi camp also had a Red Light District: decorated with large posters of chess champion Garry Kasparov and his fellow leaders of the Other Russia opposition movement. They were portrayed as scantily-clad prostitutes, selling Russia for American dollars. And Boris Berezovsky, detested by the Kremlin, was portrayed as a devil with horns.

The Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper reports that the camp was full of images of Nashi’s object of adoration, President Putin: “The statue was particularly impressive – a hand pointing upward, with the inscription: ‘They’re reading Putin’s plan up there.’ Above it were pine trees, the sky – and God, presumably.”

The Nashi camp saw its highest-ranking guests on Saturday, July 21. Two potential presidential successors – senior deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev – made their first joint public appearance. A source told the Vedomosti newspaper that there was no political subtext here: they received invitations simultaneously, and both had some free time that Saturday.

As usual, the potential successors strove to emphasize their similarity. As Kommersant reports, when a Nashi activist asked why they always agree with each other, Medvedev answered readily: “We have a similar education and similar values. We listen to the same music. The fundamental difference between us is that his name is Sergei and my name is Dmitri.”

Naturally, as Vedomosti reports, the young people showed some interest in the presidential election. A Nashi activist asked the guests a direct question: which of them will be the successor, and whose campaign staff would it be better to join? Ivanov replied: “You won’t have long to wait. You’re young, and if this desire persists, Dmitri Medvedev and I will think it over and make a decision.” Medvedev hastened to give some good advice: “Don’t get steamed up over it, don’t do anything rash, await developments.” In his view, the next president’s priority should be “not letting down” the people’s expectations.

Mikhail Vinogradov, general director of the Political Conjuncture Center, told Vedomosti that the Ivanov-Medvedev visit to the Lake Seliger camp was supposed to show that there’s no tension between the two, and to demonstrate the political and psychological feasibility of a tandem in which one will be president and the other prime minister.

Political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko agrees that such a concept is being discussed, but the Lake Seliger event also had another purpose, equally important: to demonstrate that the Nashi movement has become the Kremlin’s personnel reserve – rather like the Komsomol (Communist Youth League).

Nashi leader Vasili Yakemenko agrees. “This visit is certainly an honor for our forum – it signifies recognition of our achievements,” he told Kommersant. “Given that either of the senior deputy prime ministers who visited us might become the next president, it follows that they were assessing our capacities within the framework of the project they will implement. And for us this was an opportunity to meet the most worthy candidates for the post of head of state.”

Yakemenko himself won’t be the Nashi leader for very much longer. He has already named his successor: Marina Zademidkova, head of the movement’s Voronezh branch. Yakemenko’s departure is scheduled for December 2007. Gazeta suggests that he might run for the Duma; it also quotes a Nashi source as saying that Yakemenko might be offered a job at the presidential administration.

Radio Liberty identifies three reasons why so many young people have come to adore the Kremlin simultaneously and in such an organized manner: wanting a career, wanting money, and wanting to participate in a great cause. Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think-tank, told Radio Liberty that mercenary ambitions and faith in a great cause are represented equally here: “The higher a functionary’s rank in their movement, the greater their desire to profit from contact with higher-ups, including the ultimate authority – the president. Those who stand lower in the movement hierarchy tend to feel sincere excitement about the cause.”

The Nashi movement is in no hurry to reveal its funding sources. Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Radio Liberty that Nashi has now become so influential that it no longer needs funding from the Kremlin: “Their own leader, Yakemenko, once responded to a question about funding sources as follows: as soon as business leaders are told that Nashi has the Kremlin’s support, they’re all glad to make donations to the movement.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the “luxury lifestyle” of pro-Kremlin youth groups has generated a wave of outrage, especially in the blogosphere. An activist recently posted some photos in his blog: advertising banners at the Nashi summer camp. The photos show well-known brands like MTS, Komilfo, and Senezhskaya mineral water. According to the activist, the photos are evidence that Nashi isn’t “living it up on tax-payers’ money”; at the summer camp, activists “eat canned meat and listen to lectures” on entirely lawful grounds.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that companies prefer not to publicize their cooperation with Nashi. “Money likes to keep quiet,” says Yabloko lawmaker Sergei Mitrokhin. “It’s a controversial movement, and sponsoring Nashi is very bad for a company’s reputation.”

While the Nashi youth movement bathes in the rays of glory emanating from Vladimir Putin and his two potential successors, opponents are working on a worthy response to Seliger 2007. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Just Russia party plans to organize a School for Young Political Strategists, scheduled for August 19-30. Just Russia’s youth activists say that their event won’t include any entertainment measures; they will concentrate on preparing for the Duma election campaign.

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