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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK
'Our People' stand up for Putin
A new pro-Putin youth group says it wants to promote a modern, independent Russia but, Lucy Ash reports, some claim the movement is a cover for thuggish nationalists.

Shouting, embarrassed giggles and laughter fill the dining hall.

Nashi member at first congress in Moscow
Nashi hopes to train 100,000 future leaders by 2009
About 150 young men and women are sitting around tables covered with felt tip pens and big sheets of white paper. Their task is to invent and then read out catchy slogans about their feelings for Russia.

Russia's Future Is in Our Hands! We Will Resurrect Our Country, Forward With Russia, America Can't Outshine Us! they yell as a wiry man in a track suit springs between the tables urging them on.

One teenage girl in a white baseball hat is carefully colouring in a huge green dollar sign.

"People today are far too interested in money", she says. "I think that is wrong. There are more important values in life like self-respect and love for your country."

We've been granted unique access to a training session of a new pro-Putin youth group called Nashi - Our People - at a Soviet-era cross-country skiing resort in Ryazan, three hours south of Moscow.

Leadership qualities

Each table sports a Russian flag and a Nashi one. The flag of the new movement looks a bit Danish to me but I am told the red stands for Russia's glorious past - at the centre of the USSR - and the white is the country's shining future.

Vasily Yakemenko
Putin is the only person who believes democracy and sovereignty can be combined in this country
Vasily Yakemenko
President Putin's advisers are acutely aware that youth organisations played a major role in the momentous events in Ukraine last December, and in Georgia a year earlier.

There are increasing signs that a nervous Kremlin is doing whatever it can to prevent an Orange Revolution in Russia.

Music was a crucial factor in boosting morale throughout the fortnight of street protests in Kiev. Perhaps that is why some of Russia's most influential rock stars were recently invited to a secret meeting in a hotel by Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov.

Officially the meeting was held to discuss the state of the music industry but according to Nashi's press spokesman, Ivan Mostovich, the musicians were also told that the President wanted to "count on them, if something happens, to at least remain neutral".

Nashi's leader, Vasily Yakemenko, is a former employee of the presidential administration and one of very few people I meet in Russia today who still seems genuinely enthusiastic about Putin.

The President, he tells me, is surrounded by incompetent bureaucrats who come from a generation of defeatists.

"What we are doing here today is looking for young people with leadership qualities", he says.

"After two days of training we'll pick out the most ambitious ones, the ones who haven't lost their hope in Russia."

Different agenda?

Nashi has grand plans to train a new generation of 100,000 young Russians, some of whom Yakemenko claims will be ready by 2009 to start running the country.

Delegates at a Nashi training session
Nashi values: Patriotism counts for more than hard currency
They'll be taught subjects such as geopolitics, history and economics in 25 different institutes across Russia.

"The tragedy of our country at the moment", he continues, "is that Putin is the only person who believes democracy and sovereignty can be combined in this country."

When I ask what he means by sovereignty Yakemenko criticises the role US- and Western-funded organisations played in the revolutions on Russia's borders.

To him young people who join groups like Ukraine's Pora - Time for Change - are helping to put the Motherland under foreign control.

If Yakemenko presents Nashi as a spontaneous union of well educated patriots, others worry that the group has a very different agenda.

One activist from the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party claims the movement is trying to intimidate young people and stop them from joining pro-Western groups. Ilya Yashin, who was thrown out of Nashi's founding conference once his identity was discovered, accused the movement of acting as "a cover for storm brigades" that will use violence against democratic organisations.

Law and order

Some of our members may be giving up their time to help maintain law and order on the streets - what is wrong with that?
Nashi spokesman, Ivan Mostovich
According to a report on the relatively independent REN TV channel, in Nizhniy Novgorod, one of Russia's largest cities, Nashi are already setting up squads to maintain order in the streets and local police officials are considering whether to provide the group with tear gas weapons.

But Nashi's spokesman Ivan Mostovich, dismisses fears that the group is aggressive or nationalistic.

"Ever since Soviet times we've had volunteers who helped the police - we called them druzhniki. And yes, some of our members may be giving up their time to help maintain law and order on the streets. What is wrong with that?" he asks.

"I think you have the same kinds of volunteers in the West and that is part of building a responsible civil society."

Spotting 'fascists'

This week it emerged that the movement is planning to distribute a booklet to head teachers across the country to help them to spot "fascists and their sympathisers" in schools.

Nashi denounces free market liberals who are ready to sell off Russia's assets to the highest bidder but they also oppose an ultra-left party, the National Bolsheviks, led by the maverick writer Eduard Limonov.

After a decade of apathy, growing numbers of young Russians are getting involved in politics.

Alexander Korsunov, a Moscow student, runs a website called Skaji Nyet or Say No. Among other things, the site provides detailed coverage of the social protests which have erupted in several Russian cities following the welfare reforms introduced at the beginning of this year.

He says his site is a response to heavy media censorship and he is trying to fill the information gap but he is also hopeful that change is on its way.

"I'm not trying to provoke people or make them join this or that party. Russians are smart enough to make their own choice but I think there is going to be some new oppositional power - now it is just in the air you know, everybody feels that something is going to happen."

Part Two of Putin's Game will be broadcast on Thursday, 28 April, 2005 at 2000 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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