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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
The Kremlin's new commissars
Tim Whewell
By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight

Techno music blares out from massive speakers set up by the beach. Scantily-dressed teenagers are break-dancing.

Members of the Nashi movement parading in the street
Nashi movement parade

But the stage is decorated with quotations from President Putin. And every now and then the DJ stops the music and appeals to his young audience to start producing children - for Russia's sake.

The bizarre event in the provincial town of Tver, north of Moscow, is one of hundreds of activities staged every day across Russia by a mysterious youth movement that's been formed with the help of the Kremlin.

The movement - called "Nashi" or "Our People" - was set up at the end of 2004 with a mission to train young people to form a new governing elite for Russia. But it raises questions about how President Putin is trying to "manage" democracy for his own purposes.

Manifesto

The Kremlin denies it's fostering the group. But activists have told Newsnight that President Putin's chief political strategist Vladislav Surkov was the main initiator of the Nashi project.

President Putin
Is President Putin trying to "manage" democracy?
And Mr Putin himself has met the movement's leaders three times in the last year.

The movement's manifesto - which draws heavily on speeches by Surkov - calls for a "revolution" in Russia's political thinking and style of government to enable it to overtake its international competitors.

It already claims 65,000 ordinary supporters and 5,000 "commissars" - activists who are supposedly being groomed for key jobs in the state bureaucracy.

Last year - allegedly with organisational help from the Kremlin - the movement staged one of the largest rallies Moscow has seen in years.

Pro-government message

Most of its supporters, in their teens and early twenties, appear to be attracted by the chance to change their country for the better.

Members of Nashi picket a shop for selling alcohol and cigarettes to a minor
Nashi supporters have picketed shops for selling alcohol to minors
Nashi organises voluntary work in orphanages and old people's homes, and helps restore churches and war memorials.

It also pickets shops accused of selling alcohol and cigarettes to minors, and campaigns against racial intolerance.

But its activities have a strong pro-government message. And it appears to encourage the belief that Russia has powerful enemies, based in the West, who are seeking to undermine the country.

One of its recent "patriotic" campaigns has involved encouraging people to hand in dollar notes and then burying them in a public ceremony.

'Canon fodder'

Critics of the movement claim its chief aim is to prevent Russian youth being infected by the liberal ideas that helped produce the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine.

Ilya Yashin
Their real aim is to preserve the status quo when power is changed
Ilya Yashin, Yabloko
And they say Nashi members would be deployed on the streets to oppose any major anti-Kremlin demonstrations during or after the election for President Putin's successor in 2008.

"When the 'X' hour comes they'll be brought out to the Kremlin and used as cannon fodder," says Ilya Yashin, who runs the youth wing of the small liberal opposition party, Yabloko.

"That's the only aim of Nashi. Then it will be disbanded and there'll be nothing for them to do. They have an official aim - to change those in power in the country. But their real aim is to preserve the status quo when power is changed."

Training camp

Newsnight spent a week following Nashi leaders in Moscow and Tver, gaining rare access to a movement which usually takes care to stage-manage its own publicity.

We witnessed scores of young people queuing up to take ideological exams that will enable them to become "commissars" of the movement and take part in an annual training camp which is visited by top Kremlin advisers.

President Putin talks to members of the Nashi movement
President Putin has often met members of the movement
Those who succeed will follow courses in politics and administration devised by Nashi's own school of management. And some will gain material advantages unthinkable for most young Russians - in Tver, a new block of flats is being planned to house local commissars.

Kremlin sources say about $250m has already been spent on the Nashi project. But the movement's leader, Vassily Yakemenko, denies the money is direct state funding.

He says it's come from businessmen who want to ingratiate themselves with the Kremlin.

"Over the past year Putin has met us more often than all other youth movements put together," Yakemenko told Newsnight.

"Meeting the president is a signal for businessmen that this movement is important and useful. After all, our institute is preparing managers - and, we hope, the best in the country."

Rift

But recently there have been signs of a falling out between Nashi and its backers in the Kremlin.

Vladislav Surkov
Vladislav Surkov was the main initiator of the Nashi project
It's been accused of recruiting skinheads and soccer hooligans who've attacked members of rival groups. A festival the movement planned to organise this spring was mysteriously cancelled.

And in a rare interview with the western media, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, told Newsnight:

"It's they who consider themselves the new elite. But they have a lot to learn before they can make a serious claim, and I don't think they are up to that task yet."

Competition

Activists of the movement told Newsnight they still meet Surkov regularly. But authorities across the country now seem keen to encourage the formation of a variety of pro-government youth movements which can compete with one another.

The idea, critics say, is to create the illusion of democracy - while genuine grassroots groups face increasing restrictions.

"Those in power are against any political life," the liberal youth leader Ilya Yashin said, "against citizens becoming involved in the internal affairs of their country. They're afraid of their own people."

But Tver's governor, Dmitri Zelenin, a political rising star who's just created another youth movement in his province, defended the state's role in helping "create" civil society.

He insisted democracy was the only way forward for Russia but added:

"Many parties are unable to work out their own direction. There's a vacuum, and many young people go towards extremism. It's important for those in power to help young people understand history. I would like to see some sort of social contract between the state and young people. That is what is most needed."

TIM WHEWELL'S REPORT CAN BE SEEN ON NEWSNIGHT ON WEDNESDAY, 12 JULY, 2006 AT 10.30PM ON BBC TWO



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