New political force in Russia: youths

Emerging youth groups protest Putin's 'managed democracy,' spurring pro-Kremlin groups to respond.

The idea couldn't have been simpler: to chart online the scale of antigovernment protests erupting across Russia, marking each city where pensioners rallied against welfare reform with a fire.

The resulting website - which gets 1,500 hits a day, including many from the FSB, the successor to the KGB - is proving a catalyst for Russian youths disenchanted with the politics of President Vladimir Putin.

"They can close us, but we can host somewhere else, like in the US. The Internet is still a free zone," says Alexander Korsunov, creator of the site, or Say No. "We can use this site to join everyone online. The main thing is to get everyone offline, and onto the streets."

Springing from the unprecedented pensioner protests last January, several new anti-Putin youth groups have emerged or are gathering steam, casting themselves as harbingers of opposition before Russia's 2008 presidential election.

The protests helped push Mr. Putin's longstanding approval ratings of nearly 80 percent last year down to 42 percent, according to some polls. But as the elderly try to safeguard their retirement, the new youth groups are battling to redefine the meaning of patriotism in a political environment where the Kremlin has equated devotion to Putin with love of Russia.

The emergence of groups like Moving Without Putin and Yabloko Youth - with sites like Mr. Korsunov's providing connections across Russia - has prompted Moving Together, the main pro-Putin group, to respond.

Nashi, or "Ours," is an offshoot that promises to be more militant, more nationalistic - and more alert to protecting youths from "fascists." Dozens of Moving Together activists were on the streets of Moscow Monday, picketing what they called "pornography" in a modern opera at the Bolshoi Theater. The newspaper Isvestiya pointed out that none of the protesters had read the libretto, by Vladimir Sorokin.

"The role of youths in future elections will be maximum," says Vasily Yakemenko, a former Kremlin bureaucrat who leads both pro-Kremlin groups. "I don't think there exists any other political force in Russia that will be more important."

Mr. Yakemenko says all activities of Nashi focus on patriotism and anti- fascism. The "several threats that our organization must struggle against," he says, are oligarchs, bureaucracy, and fascist "enemies" that include a "counter-revolution of former officials trying to seize power."

He dismisses the anti-Putin youth groups as "traitors" trying to get foreign money, says their "ideology is just zero," and notes that there are "many ways to struggle against them."

In this duel for young people, both sides present themselves as patriots. But the examples of student movements from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine, which have led successful, regime- toppling revolutions, is never far away.

"The new situation is a battle for young minds - the presidential administration understands this, that's why they created Nashi," says Korsunov, a towering student of political science at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, who wears a diamond stud in his left ear. "They know something is going on."

So far, his website has steered away from direct criticism of Putin, and instead focused on the incompetent handling of the welfare issue - a point the president himself has made.

Beyond that, opposition student leaders say they want to limit what the Kremlin calls "managed democracy." The Internet is a way to spread the word, at a time when virtually all national broadcast media are government-controlled.

"We live in an information society, [but] now I know that we live in this information vacuum," says Korsunov, whose map is dotted with protest fires that point to a "big problem." "If you don't have information, you make the wrong choices. I don't go into ideology on the website, because I believe people are not stupid. There are a lot of kitchen talks, as in Soviet times, about [Putin's] 'vertical power.' "

The answer will be on the streets, says Ilya Yashin, head of the youth groups of the liberal Yabloko party.

"The fight for the presidential election in 2008 has already started ... and social groups like the youth movement will take a serious part," says Mr. Yashin, who two weeks ago was caught trying to listen in on a meeting of Nashi. He was forcibly removed and dumped in the snow. "The Kremlin is really scared about Ukraine and Georgia," he says.

Before being ejected from the meeting, Yashin says he saw about 200 activists: True believers who "understood what happens, and know why they are there"; newcomers keen on "free billiards and food"; and "fighters in sports clothes and with short hair" - who kicked him out.

With the main organs of power under Kremlin control, "you have to go to the streets," says Yashin. "Everybody understands that whoever controls the streets in 2008 has a good chance to win. And the Kremlin will try to control the streets - that's why groups like Moving Together and Nashi were formed."

Moving Together discredited itself by going after popular writers, paying supporters to attend meetings and rallies, and handing out free Internet and discount cards, says Korsunov.

"The only thing they don't do is pray for Putin. They wanted to do everything like [Soviet-era] Komsomol, but this is a different age," adds Korsunov. And while pro-Putin youths have been effective at motivating supporters with patriotism, they don't corner the market.

"I'm a patriot. I want Russia to be independent and democratic. All that talk that Russians don't respect democratic values is [wrong]," he says. "Putin and Russia are not the same thing, and people are beginning to realize that."

To help them along, he created a "public movement" in January, at the same time he launched, called People Who Know. "In Russia there is total control over information," the manifesto states. "We want to know. Information is our weapon. We will speak!"

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