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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Horror of Nashi Unbound

Imagine that U.S. President George Bush creates a youth cult organization and funds it to the tune of millions of dollars. It's sole purpose is to fanatically heap praise upon his government and attack his rivals. Imagine they organize a summer camp, and at the camp they erect huge posters of John Kerry and Ralph Nader dressed as female prostitutes -- just like the ones you see at left so depicting Mikhail Kasyanov and Garry Kasparov and erected by "President" Putin's youth cult Nashi in Tver recently. What do you think the world would say about Bush's actions? Hopefully, it will say the same about Putin. The Moscow Times reports:

One of the most eye-catching displays at this year's Nashi summer camp shows three opposition politicians dressed as prostitutes. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth movement stopped to chuckle at the display, topped with the words "Red-Light District" and featuring larger-than-life images of three scantily clad floozies, earlier this week. The funny part was that the pictures had been doctored to show the faces of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former chess champion Garry Kasparov and writer Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party. "These are the people who are selling out Russia," clarified Yelena Yefremova, a Nashi activist who had been assigned as a guide to a reporter and photographer during a daylong tour of the camp, located about 350 kilometers northwest of Moscow.

Nashi's annual retreat on the shores of Lake Seliger is larger than ever -- with 10,000 activists in attendance compared with 5,000 last year and 3,000 two years ago -- and the campgrounds are abuzz with activity as Nashi prepares for State Duma elections in December and the presidential vote in March. But just as the retreat kicked off Monday, the future of Nashi became uncertain with the announcement that its leader, Vasily Yakemenko, was leaving. Yakemenko told reporters Tuesday that he would step down after the presidential election to make way for a new leader, who is to be selected in a vote at the end of next week. "I'm too old to be working in youth politics, to be leading a youth movement," said Yakemenko, 36. Asked what he planned to do after leaving Nashi, he said cryptically, "Wherever I can serve my country with maximum effectiveness."

Nashi, which means Ours, [LR: Actually, it means "us Slavic Russians"] was founded in 2005 and immediately made itself felt by organizing a rally of 50,000 students on Leninsky Prospekt to honor the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. The organization is unwavering in its support of President Vladimir Putin and frequently condemns fascism and racism. But its definition of "fascist" includes a number of political leaders critical of Putin, including Kasyanov, Kasparov and Limonov -- who have led a series of anti-Kremlin street protests as part of the Other Russia coalition -- and liberal parties such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.

Earlier this year, Nashi activists mounted a noisy demonstration outside the Estonian Embassy and stormed a news conference being given by Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand with demands that Tallinn apologize for its controversial decision to move a Soviet-era World War II memorial. Nashi activists were also accused of harassing British Ambassador Anthony Brenton after he met with leaders of The Other Russia last year. Yakemenko said Tuesday that Nashi would not stage any anti-British protests in retaliation for this week's expulsion of four Russian diplomats from London. The leaders of Nashi, whose financing is opaque, deny that they receive Kremlin funding. But the organization has been closely linked to Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. Many believe that Nashi was set up as a response to Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, in which youth-led street protests helped give the presidency to pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

Today, even though Putin has approval ratings of around 70 percent -- and despite the fact that his opponents in The Other Russia are widely seen as a marginal political force with little chance of winning the election -- Nashi activists still express fear that an Orange Revolution-style uprising could happen in Russia. "One of our main goals is to resist any attempts to conduct an Orange Revolution in Russia," Dmitry Baranovsky, the coordinator of Nashi's elections division, said at the Seliger campground. Baranovsky was standing outside a large tent where several dozen activists were listening to a lecture on exit polls and election procedures. Nashi is planning to enlist 60,000 people to conduct nationwide exit polls during State Duma and presidential elections, Baranovsky said. Nashi activists believe that Yushchenko was able to come back from his first-round defeat in the Ukrainian presidential election thanks to Western-funded exit polls that showed he was the true victor, rather than pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. "I'm sure the West will try to destabilize the elections," Nikolai Slepnyov, a Nashi activist from Tula, said near his campsite. As Slepnyov spoke, a large digital clock behind him showed the hours, minutes and seconds left until the presidential election -- a project initiated by the Tula delegation to help raise voter awareness.

In a separate project, the Tula delegation brought pryaniki, or gingerbread cakes, branded with the Nashi logo. Humor is a potent weapon in political activism, said Tamara Pavlova, an activist from Kursk who is the chief playwright in a Nashi-sponsored puppet theater that plans to tour the country during the electoral campaign. Pavlova showed off her actors -- puppets crafted to look like opposition figures, including former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada and self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky -- and shared some details about one of her plays. "The main subject of the play is the internal opposition, as well as Russia's enemies abroad," she said, adding that the play had a happy ending, since the foes of Russia would be foiled in the end.

Nashi fosters an entrepreneurial spirit among activists, said Yefremova, the guide. "You present your ideas, and if Vasily Yakemenko sees that it's a good project, he'll make sure you get funding," she said. Not all the projects on display at Lake Seliger were related to politics. In the tent run by Nashi's career division, activists filled out forms to apply for internships. Nashi has placed interns in the Duma, ministries and state-owned companies, including 30 at Gazprom, said Artyom Semyonov, coordinator of the division. Other projects were connected to charity. Signs pointing to a bloodmobile encouraged Nashi activists to donate blood, while one display offered information about the plight of children in orphanages.

Meanwhile, in a project inspired by the national demographic crisis, 30 Nashi couples were to tie the knot in a mass wedding ceremony Wednesday. A special campsite of red tents was set up for the wedding night. In stark contrast to Russian tradition, no alcohol would be allowed, since Nashi activists are forbidden from drinking at Lake Seliger. The campers must follow a strict regime where everyone rises at 8 a.m. and participates in a morning exercise -- running for men, aerobics for women -- to the sound of thumping techno music and, at least on Tuesday, to Yakemenko shouting "Go! Go! Go!" through a loudspeaker. [LR: Hmmmm . . . that sounds strangely familiar . . . ]

Yakemenko seems to be widely admired by the movement's activists. The words "Vasya, I love you!" were written with masking tape on the side of one tent. Now that Yakemenko has announced he is leaving, however, it is unclear what awaits Nashi after it executes its mission in the upcoming elections. But Yefremova, a two-year Nashi veteran who has earned the title of "commissar," had a simple answer. "He's leaving to make way for us," she said.

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