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Friday, August 31, 2007

The Horror of Summer with Nashi

The horror of Nashi, revealed by Germany's Financial Times:

In a sunlit glade fringed with pine forest and a deep-blue lake, thousands of hands clap in unison with the beat. It could be a rock festival, were it not for the song's refrain - "Go on, Russia." - and the clunky slogans splashed across the speaker stacks: "Let's modernise the country! Let's defend our sovereignty!"

This is morning aerobics at Lake Seliger, 200 miles north-west of Moscow. For two weeks, 10,000 student-age activists from Nashi, a youth group that supports Vladimir Putin, the president, are gathered at a summer camp to sing, dance, swim, and take part in an "educational megaproject", with lectures on everything from entrepreneurship to civil rights.

Nashi - Russian for "our own" - was formed with Kremlin blessing two years ago to channel youth political activism and oppose attempts at a Ukraine-style "orange" revolution. Today, thanks to its largely corporate sponsorship, it is the best funded of a handful of pro-Kremlin groups. Claiming 10,000 active members and 200,000 volunteers, it dwarfs any opposition movement. Nashi calls itself a "youth democratic anti-fascist movement". Others say it is an example of what it claims to oppose, deserving its nickname - the Nashists.

Critics point to the group's high-profile, and controversial, activities. These include the month-long hounding of Sir Tony Brenton, British ambassador to Moscow, after he spoke at an opposition conference. It was Nashi members who organised thuggish demonstrations outside Estonia's embassy after Tallinn dismantled a Soviet war memorial.

At Seliger plenty of what Nashi calls patriotism, but others might term nationalism, is in evidence. There are ubiquitous calls to defend Russian sovereignty, with one poster illustrated with a nuclear missile. A board headed "Red Light District" shows posters with the faces of Mikhail Kasyanov, Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov - leaders of the opposition Other Russia coalition - digitally superimposed on lingerie-clad women. "They're shown as prostitutes because they're traitors to the country," says Alina Belyagina one of several members of Nashi's information section assigned to "escort" journalists around the camp.

Nearby there is a lecture on electoral law. The camp aims to train leaders to form a 60,000-strong force to monitor voting and conduct exit polls at parliamentary elections in December and next March's presidential election, to counter any opposition claims of vote-rigging. "We will have exit poll data that will confirm the official results," says Dmitry Baranovsky, co-ordinator of Nashi's election programme.

Conversation is dominated by the idea that the west will work with domestic opposition to subvert the elections. Activists reverently of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin ideologist who coined the term "sovereign democracy" to describe the closely-controlled Putin political system, and who will address the camp's final day. Asked against whom "sovereign democracy" must be defended, Yulia Kuliyeva, a 20-year-old member of Nashi's ideology department, echoes Kremlin officials twice her age: "We are defending our sovereignty not from someone else, but for ourselves, so that people listen to us, so that we can speak and our opinion will be taken into account," she says.

Nashi does attempt to counter the racist nationalism of far-right groups. An "ethno-village" at the camp displays cultures of Russia's many minorities. Invited foreign guests will lecture on their national cultures. And, for many, politics seem secondary to a belief that attending Seliger is good for career prospects. In the "Gazprom tower", Nashi members can apply for internships with the state-run gas company and other energy groups.

Analysts suggest that just as today's pro-Putin United Russia party resembles the Soviet Communist party in that ambitious officials feel they need to join, so Nashi has echoes of the Komsomol, the communist youth league. Vasily Yakemenko, the former Kremlin official who founded Nashi, admits some symbols are similar but insists that the ideology differs fundamentally.

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