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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Annals of Neo-Soviet Horror: Putin Deputizes Nashi

The Moscow Times reports:

They've been accused of illegal behavior ranging from harassment of diplomats to violent mob attacks. But with State Duma elections just months away, activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi are teaming up with city police to keep the streets quiet. Critics have accused authorities of turning a blind eye as Nashi's members intimidate political foes. But last week, Nashi began mobilizing brigades of volunteers trained by city police to enforce public order. Some 200 Nashi activists, accompanied by actual police officers, have already begun patrolling the streets, wearing red armbands to show their status as druzhinniki, members of a volunteer corps that dates back to Soviet times, said Oleg Lobkov, a Nashi leader heading up the volunteer patrol program.

Nashi is hoping to have some 5,000 activists conducting volunteer patrols in Moscow alone by December, Lobkov said. Druzhinniki are roughly analogous to the Guardian Angels in the United States. While these people's patrols have traditionally focused on plucking the odd drunk off the street, Nashi has made it clear that its brigades are being formed specifically to head off any political unrest during Duma elections in December.

"In December, volunteers will head out on their own to patrol the streets and help Moscow police to control the situation," Nashi said in a statement posted on its web site.

Many believe Nashi, by far the largest and most powerful pro-Kremlin youth group, 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.

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.

Nashi held a training session Tuesday outside the Russian State Library, often referred to by its old name, the Lenin Library, in central Moscow for around 200 activists from various regions.

"We are taking a civic-minded position," Lobkov said outside the library. "We don't know what the opposition will plan, so we have to be ready."

Nashi says the country's stability is under threat from groups such as The Other Russia, a coalition of opposition forces whose leaders include former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and writer Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party.

The coalition plans to hold a Dissenters' March in central Moscow on Oct. 7 and hopes to attract 5,000.

"It's no secret" that the Nashi patrols will be mobilized for the opposition rally, Lobkov said.

Asked separately what specific threats the patrols would head off, teenage Nashi activists Svetlana, Yegor and Anastasia gave identical answers.

"The opposition wants to destabilize Russia," each of them answered.

Some activists said they couldn't name the threat but that it was important to protect the stability of the country. Others shrugged and walked off.

"It was Nashi's idea to help," said a city police spokesman, who declined to give his name. "Kozlov told them that in order to legally help keep public order, they must become volunteers."

Deputy City Police Chief Vyacheslav Kozlov suggested to Nashi representatives that they begin by forming volunteer patrols, the spokesman said Friday.

Kozlov oversaw police operations during the April 14 Dissenters' March, which OMON riot police violently quashed.

A city law on the patrols allows volunteers to "take physical action" if a lawbreaker is "actively disobedient" or resists. The law allows force as a last resort and "within the boundaries of the right to necessary defense."

Lobkov, however, said Nashi activists would not use physical force, a position echoed by city police spokeswoman Alevtina Belousova.

"The volunteers will not take physical action, and they are not armed," Belousova said.

She said police welcomed the help.

"We don't care which organization the citizens come from," Belousova said. "As long as they are registered volunteers, then they can help out."

Other pro-Kremlin youth groups have promised to mobilize their activists to head off opposition rallies.

"We will carry out appropriate countermeasures should our opponents take to the streets" said television personality Ivan Demidov, a leader of Young Guard, the youth wing of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia.

It is the "duty" of all pro-Kremlin youth groups to act accordingly, Demidov said.

While Nashi is fashioning itself as a protector of public order, the opposition and foreign governments have accused the youth group of using violence and intimidation for political ends.

Limonov accused Nashi members of being involved in a savage attack in August 2005 in which masked men wielding baseball bats and air guns assaulted opposition youth activists. Witnesses said some of the attackers were wearing T-shirts bearing the Nashi emblem. Nashi dismissed the accusations, saying the group's activities were "based on the principle of nonviolence."

Earlier this year, Estonia accused Russia of failing to protect foreign diplomats after Nashi activists mounted a noisy demonstration outside the Estonian Embassy with demands that Tallinn apologize for its controversial decision to move a Soviet-era World War II memorial. Dozens of activists also stormed a news conference being given by Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand.

Nashi members were also accused of harassing British Ambassador Anthony Brenton after he met with leaders of The Other Russia last year.

Ilya Yashin, head of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party, called the formation of the Nashi patrols "exceptionally dangerous."

"It will come to a point where politics in Russia will end with fistfights on the streets," Yashin said. "[Nashi volunteers] lack a deeper understanding of politics. When young, lively people are politically indoctrinated and given the backing of the state, they feel invincible. And that is very dangerous."

While the Nashi patrols are being mobilized for election season, a nationalist youth group last week earned public praise from the country's top migration official for carrying out a cunning vigilante crackdown on illegal foreign workers.

Federal Migration Service chief Konstantin Romodanovsky lauded members of youth group Mestniye for rounding up 72 people attempting to obtain work illegally, Interfax reported.

Mestniye spokesman Andrei Groznetsky said activists posing as businessmen promised jobs to migrant workers near a market in northeast Moscow. After agreeing on a wage, the activists drove them away and dropped the workers off at a nearby migration service office to have their documents checked, Groznetsky said.

"We are in permanent contact with the authorities," Groznetsky said. "We have experience in helping them intercept illegal activities, and they are free to call on that experience any time."

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