The evolution of Putin’s regime toward tougher authoritarianism, which began with the «national leader’s» return to the Kremlin, will soon affect its policies toward youth. Under Vladislav Surkov, the erstwhile “éminence grise,” pro-Kremlin movements were supposed to serve as the main «anti-Orange» force on the streets. The Nashi movement, which used to be the «core» of this force, now will likely be reformed. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the changes in the Kremlin’s youth policy.
The Nashi (“Ours”) movement appeared in 2005 along with other youth organizations that «worked» for the Kremlin. Nashi played a key role: it was a mass movement with a complicated but clearly defined structure, generous financing (mostly from the pockets of loyal oligarchs,) and access to top government officials. Its objective was to oppose a hypothetical «color revolution» in Russia that the Kremlin began to fear after the events in Georgia and Ukraine. The presidential administration received an order to be operationally ready in case of political destabilization. Many in the Kremlin were convinced that the main risks originated not from inside, but from outside the country. That was when Putin’s anti-Americanism began to emerge. «Color revolutions» in the post-Soviet space were a milestone in Russian-American relations: in Moscow’s view, Washington used the «orange techniques» of manipulating and mobilizing street protests to encourage regime change
The Kremlin had certainly overestimated both the outside influence and the internal political risks. At that moment, the conditions in Russia for a «Ukrainian scenario» did not exist. The regime’s «vertical of power» had just been created, Putin’s standings in the poll were never higher, and the ruling party, United Russia, was expecting to keep its two-thirds majority in the parliamentary elections. The opposition had been, for the most part, «purged,» and, besides United Russia, the only other parliamentary parties were (and still are) docile groupings, all too willing to cooperate with the Kremlin rather than risk their seats in the State Duma.
Even at the time of its creation, the Nashi movement seemed superfluous. Nashi emerged from the pro-Putin group “Walking Together” that was headed by Vasily Yakemenko, who later became the connecting link between the movement and Deputy Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Vladislav Surkov. This marked the beginning of this project, the history of which can be divided roughly into four stages.
In Moscow’s view, Washington used the «orange techniques» of manipulating and mobilizing street protests to encourage regime change.
The first stage, which proved to be the most successful one, covers the period from 2005 to 2007. The movement declared its objective of «forcibly preserving» the current political system, with a gradual replacement of the ruling bureaucracy. (This last point was stated more for PR purposes than as a realistic goal). Liberals and «fascists» were defined as the main «targets» (in fact, they were equated with each other,) meaning all those who intended to «go into the streets» in order to influence the government in the way protesters did in Georgia and Ukraine. The Nashi movement was to become an alternative, aggressive street force ready to use tough methods against “destructive” elements. In an effort to attract the apolitical youth, the Kremlin offered as «bait» promises of a fast career path, access to top government officials, and participation in prestigious projects. «Commissars,» who were at the head of the movement, would hold periodic meetings with the president and government ministers. Each year, Nashi organized a summer camp at Lake Seliger in the Tver region. As the movement’s activists themselves wrote, Nashi was a «training system for professional managers to replace the current ruling elite.»
However, the plan did not work out. United Russia was in no hurry to include young people from the Nashi movement in their election lists. The movement quickly became a mechanism for receiving financial resources through semi-official channels. Only a few members managed to obtain a promotion, and, even then, only with Surkov’s personal patronage. Very soon, the movement became engulfed in scandals linked to its provocative actions against foreign ambassadors and Russian civic activists, as well as its use of «dirty tricks» to discredit political opponents. However, the first two years of Nashi’s existence can be called its golden age. Businessmen, ministers, and United Russia members, who vocally “supported” Nashi’s ambitious projects, “voluntarily” met with the movement’s representatives.
The second stage began in late 2007 and lasted until approximately 2009. It was a period of political uncertainty for the movement. Dmitri Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president, quickly distanced himself from Nashi. It was rumored that Medvedev’s relationship with Surkov was difficult (later, it considerably improved,) and the new president, who passed for a «liberal,» did not want to «soil himself» by association with a pro-Kremlin project of questionable reputation. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Nashi were pushed aside, the movement’s financing decreased, and there was talk about closing down the project altogether.
However, the movement continued to be maintained, as they say, «just in case.» The activities on Lake Seliger and provocative actions against the opposition continued. But the movement’s participation in domestic politics declined—until the third stage in Nashi’s history. As Surkov was drawing closer to Medvedev (which, in the end, cost him his post as deputy chief-of-staff), the Kremlin was trying to breathe new life into Nashi. In 2009 and 2010, many believed that President Medvedev would have a second term. The new agenda associated with a political «thaw,» «liberal» rhetoric, a warming of relations with the US, and the encouragement of innovation demanded new ideas from the movement. It was not a coincidence that Nashi started showing an active interest in modernization. The Kremlin made an attempt at reforming the movement in order to include it into what it believed would be the new political reality and make it into President Medvedev’s youth support base.
However, not much came out of it. Nashi have not become innovators, and their involvement in a number of scandals brought the government more harm than good. Suspicions about Nashi overseer Vasily Yakemenko’s involvement in beating up well-known journalist Oleg Kashin became a turning-point. Despite Medvedev’s promise to give this case special attention, the crime remains unsolved to this day. Clashes have also started to take place within the Kremlin: tensions arose between Medvedev’s public relations team and Surkov over Nashi’s harassment campaign against columnist Alexander Podrabinek. The pretext for the harassment was Podrabinek’s op-ed in the online Daily Journal, in which he sharply criticized the Moscow Veterans Council for opposing the existence of a restaurant called «Anti-Soviet.» The Presidential Human Rights Council and the president’s press secretary, Natalya Timakova, stood up for the columnist, who was subjected to unprecedented pressure. Surkov, on the other hand, all but approved of Nashi’s actions. For this and other reasons, Ella Pamfilova resigned as head of the Human Rights Council. Finally, members of Nashi were caught faking photographs that falsely portrayed Nashi as helping to put out wild fires that affected much of Russia in the summer of 2010. Sensationalist PR became the movement’s «calling card.»
However, it was neither the bad reputation nor the provocations that brought Medvedev’s «romance» with Nashi to an end. Instead, it was the result of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin, which he announced during the now-famous United Russia congress in September 2011. This congress marked the political death of Medvedev, his agenda, his team and everything that it had achieved. Medvedev also «dragged down» Surkov, who was moved to the post of deputy prime minister for modernization, which Putin considered politically safe (the post of deputy prime minister for «nothing,» as observers joked at the time). The scope of innovation was reduced to the Skolkovo project, which would soon be embroiled in criminal cases and investigations of embezzlement of budget funds.
The current stage in Nashi’s existence began when Vyacheslav Volodin replaced Surkov in the Kremlin. Volodin considered the movement dangerous and was not inclined to continue pampering it. The current first deputy Kremlin chief-of-staff comes from the ruling party, and he disliked Surkov’s attempts to force United Russia to include Nashi members on the party’s election lists, especially since United Russia had its own youth division that competed with Nashi. It is no surprise that, after having dealt with the opposition, Volodin turned his attention to the legacy left to him by his predecessor.
According to Vedomosti newspaper, the Kremlin wants to reform the Nashi movement by changing its name and objectives. «We will not divide our young people into ‘ours’ and ‘not ours,’ there will not be such a word in the new name,» assures Vedomosti’s source. Most likely, the word «commissar» will not be used either, though most of the movement’s activists—the community of Nashi commissars—will stay. In place of the existing movement, there will be a project-oriented organization, where specific undertakings, decided on a competitive basis, will be supervised by specific managers. These projects will be of a nonpolitical social nature. The winners of competitions will receive both federal aid (in the form of presidential grants) and regional support. The current projects will be removed from the movement and entrusted to separate NGOs. According to the Kremlin, the project «Khryusha Against,» aimed at consumer rights protection, is the most promising of all1. Other projects include “Stop boor,” aimed at ending traffic violations, and the pro-fitness movement “Follow me.” Internet projects that used to be managed by Nashi will become separate entities under the auspices of a foundation run by former Nashi spokesperson Kristina Potupchik. Kremlin sources are promising that these NGOs will become partners of the restructured movement.
The Russian government is still «keeping in mind» the possibility of a «color revolution,» especially in the context of a growing protest activity.
In reality, however, this reform means the liquidation of Surkov’s structure and the creation of a new organization loyal to Volodin. There will, no doubt, be a rotation of personnel that will bring new people into key positions. None of this means that the new movement will abandon the old tactics of provocation—this function could be fulfilled by the same NGOs, which have already appeared at opposition rallies with the aim of discrediting them.
Despite the fact that the Kremlin’s youth policy has not changed, Volodin does not need the Nashi movement in its present form. The Russian government is still «keeping in mind» the possibility of a «color revolution,» especially in the context of a growing protest activity and a maturing opposition. The political situation in Russia is becoming less predictable, and the risks of destabilization are growing. The regime is undergoing a moral crisis and is increasingly vulnerable against a background of anticorruption exposés by civic activists.
Under such circumstances, the tactics employed by Kremlin-mobilized forces at demonstrations will become increasingly rougher and more confrontational. The reformed Nashi movement will lose its key role, and more conservative elements such as «Orthodox» activists, public organizations like Sergey Kurginyan’s All-Russia Parents Assembly, and even the Cossacks will move to the forefront. The belligerent support for Putin from marginal groups is becoming more ideological and aggressive toward the opposition in general, and liberals in particular. It may very well be that these new tactics will make us nostalgic for the times when the relatively innocuous Nashi were marching in the streets.
1 Khryusha is known to virtually every Russian as a piglet in the bedtime television program, “Good Night Little Ones,” watched for generations by young children and their parents. The closest American equivalent would be Big Bird.