Pro-Kremlin youth groups can get away with anything

Organizations like the Nashi youth movement, formally established for educational and cultural purposes, actually engage in political campaigns bordering on extremism and promoting xenophobia. The only thing that saves them from being shut down is their close relationship with the authorities.

Like any other official youth movement, Nashi (Our Own) could be shut down at any time for violating its own charter. Organizations like Nashi, Young Guard, and Mestnye (The Locals), formally established for educational and cultural purposes, actually engage in political campaigns bordering on extremism and promoting xenophobia. The only thing that saves them from being shut down is their close relationship with the authorities.

Opposition activists say that if they did anything similar, their organizations would be shut down and they might even be jailed.

A charter is the basic document that sets out how an organization is supposed to function. Lawyer Dmitri Agranovsky told us that no public movement can be registered unless it has a charter; and the Federal Registration Service (part of the Justice Ministry) sets very strict criteria for charters. Subsequently, if a registered organization does anything to contradict the aims set out in its charter, it can bw warned or suspended for six months. In the event of systematic violations, an organization is subject to deregistration and closure. Yet recent events have shown that pro-Kremlin youth movements can do whatever they want, regardless of what their charters say. “That which is permitted for Nashi is forbidden for almost everyone else, and it has nothing to do with the law,” says Agranovsky.

Ilya Yashin, leader of Yabloko’s youth wing, told us that if any opposition activists tore down a flag from an embassy building or threw excrement at an ambassador’s car, “they would certainly find themselves behind bars for the next three or four years.”

Officially, the Nashi movement is “an inter-regional public organization” dedicated to “facilitating the development of sovereign democracy.” Nashi’s aims also include “educating a new generation of managers” and “modernizing Russian society.” Nashi also stands for “reinforcing common human values and civil consensus,” supports youth rights, and “contributes to shaping youth culture.” But the general public associates the Nashi movement with actions of an entirely different nature. It spent several months harassing British Ambassdor Tony Breton, demanding an apology for his attendance at the Other Russia opposition conference last year. Whenever the ambassador started a public speech, there would always be some Nashi activists in the crowd, shouting: “Brenton, apologize!”

During the Russian-Estonian conflict over relocating the remains of Soviet soldiers, Nashi joined other pro-Kremlin movements, Young Guard and Mestnye, in a week-long siege of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Nashi activists keep going to Estonia and standing as a “living statue” on Tynismyaga Square, where the Bronze Soldier war memorial used to stand. Nashi activists have also admitted responsibility for cyber-attacks on the websites of Estonian government organizations.

Ilya Yashin: “All this is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China, when Red Guard detachments acted entirely outside the law. They could do anything they wanted – because Party officials covered up for them and gave them the green light.”

The charter of another pro-Kremlin movement, Young Guard, states that it has been established “to involve young people in the processes of building a democratic society based on social justice.” The organization undertakes to “establish conditions for all-round complete development and education of the individual and the citizen,” and to “promote healthy lifestyles.” In practice, Young Guard has become known for its numerous attempts to disrupt opposition events. One disruption featured some horses, with Young Guard activists dressed up as American Indians. Before picketing the Estonian Embassy, Young Guard picketed the Georgian Embassy when Russian-Georgian relations deteriorated last year. But the oversight bodies have never found any fault with the activities of Nashi and Young Guard. When we asked the Federal Registration Service about the possibility of issuing warnings to these organizations, staff asked for time to consider a reply. As we went to print, no answer was forthcoming.

The Mestnye environmentalist youth movement, closely associated with Governor Boris Gromov of the Moscow region, was initially apolitical. Its activists picked up litter and demonstrated against drugs or gambling. But then they started searching Moscow schools for explosives; and this summer they launched a battle against illegal migrants. Mestnye arranged migrant-catching expeditions at produce markets in the Moscow region, and picketed universities, calling for illegal aliens to be evicted from student dormitories. Mestnye’s latest campaign against illegal migrants who work as taxi drivers has resulted in several complaints to the Prosecutor General’s Office. Between June 20 and June 28, Mestnye handed out leaflets showing a Slavic-looking young woman demonstratively refusing to get into a cab driven by a Caucasus migrant. It isn’t clear how this example of inciting ethnic hatred fits in with the organization’s charter. The charter is not posted on the Mestnye website, and when we asked for a copy of the text, spokeswoman Maria Shapovalova replied: “We talked to our lawyers and decided against sending you a copy of the charter.”

Another pro-Kremin organization, Young Russia, has no official charter – but it does have a manifesto. It says that this movement is engaged in developing education and science, and aims to defend Russia “against Western expansion and terrorism.” Until recently, however, Young Russia has focused all its efforts on disrupting events organized by the Other Russia opposition coalition. On one occasion Young Russia activists even broke into a meeting hall: one of them was dressed as Santa Claus and others carried a fir tree decorated with American hundred-dollar bills. On another occasion they had a donkey that was supposed to symbolize the liberals.

Presumably, lack of official registration should make it more difficult for a movement to operate. Agranovsky says that an unregistered movement is not allowed to engage in economic activities – so it would have to cover all its costs from unofficial and unrecorded sources, which is illegal in itself. But Young Russia isn’t complaining of poverty – not at all. Its activists have even met with senior state officials, including Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Experts maintain that the comfortable existence of pro-Kremlin youth movements is made possible by Russia’s tradition of “phone-call law.” Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center, told us: “A call from a senior official lets a business tycoon know that he has to cover the costs of a particular event – a march, a rally, a picket, or something else.” As a rule, such events cost $50-100,000.

Duma member Sergei Shiskarev confirmed that he contributes money to Nashi projects, but insisted that he does this of his own volition, not at the Kremlin’s request. Shishkarev declined to name any exact sums, pleading “commercial confidentiality.”

Experts say that these pro-Kremlin organizations never intended to abide by the law, ever since they were founded. Oleg Bondarenko, co-chairman of the International Association of Young Political Analysts and Consultants, told us that when a few of the Estonian Embassy picketers were summoned to a police station to give evidence, the youths were very surprised.

Valery Khomyakov, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, told us that there’s no question of abiding by the aims set out in organization charters, when “these young people are being comletely politicized – they carry out the decisions and wishes of their senior comrades, without sparing a thought for actual youth problems.” According to Khomyakov, no one joins pro-Kremlin movements for the sake of high ideals. People join because they are paid to join, or because membership promises favorable treatment when enrolling at university or applying for a job. Khomyakov maintains that the vast majority of activists aren’t familiar with the charters of their organizations. They don’t need to be; “after all, the oversight bodies have received instructions – these movements are to be left alone.”