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The Nashi Movement: Russian Youth and the Putin Cult

By in Moscow

With elections just around the corner, President Vladimir Putin's popularity seems higher than ever -- particularly among Russian youth. The right-tilting group Nashi practically worships their leader, and isn't shy about letting the opposition know about it.

Nikita Borovikov looks like he could be with the Young Republicans. Sporting a smart smile, suit pants, and carefully styled hair -- and constantly fiddling with his mobile phone -- he could easily be mistaken for a 26-year-old in Germany, France, or America. But the comparisons with the West come to a screeching halt when this doctor of law begins to speak. "In Russia," he says, "the nation needs a strong leader."

Borovikov is head of the youth organization Nashi, which means "Ours," the battle cry Russian football fans use to cheer on their national team. The organization has thousands of members across the country -- and they are blindly devoted to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Those who think badly of us call us Putin's troops," says Borovikov. "Everyone else says we are nationally-oriented youths."

Or, rather, peripatitic nationally oriented youths. Nashi is practically omnipresent in Russia and they stay busy with a full schedule of social events. "We don't just talk about children's homes," says Borovikov. "We collect money and renovate one ourselves." Their public blood drives are particularly popular. Nashi supporters set up in city centers across Russia and donate blood right in front of passers-by. "The hospitals lack blood donors. So, we call for donations," says Borovikov.

Run-Ins with Nashi

The benevolence, though, is just a by-product. The main objective of Nashi is a powerful Russia -- with a tinge of nationalism -- united behind a strong president.

"The Russian party system is still young," says Borovikov. "It can not reflect the interests of the whole people." Instead, Nashi promotes one, all-powerful leader. "Aside from Putin, nobody in Russia receives that kind of support."

Borovikov has for now turned his back on his law career to concentrate completely on the upcoming election. In December, Russians will elect a new parliament, and for Nashi the stakes are all or nothing: Putin's presidential term expires in early 2008, and if he is to continue playing an important role in Russian politics, his party United Russia has to win a dominant majority in the December vote.

Vladimir Ryzhkov has a pretty clear idea how Putin might achieve such a majority. He is one of the last independent representatives in the Duma, as Russia's parliament is called. But he is no longer a candidate in the December election because Moscow ordered that his party be dissolved, allegedly for having less than the requisite 50,000 members. Ryzhkov, though, has remained outspoken -- and has, as a result, had an increasing number of run-ins with Nashi.

"Whenever I appear in public, there are counter-demonstrations and disruptions," he complains. In general, the Nashi activists who show up at his campaign rallies stick to verbal attacks. But the message to his audience is clear: Ryzhkov supporters face powerful opponents.

Orange Equals Treason

Those opponents were especially nasty on Sept. 3. It was Ryzhkov's birthday, but his visitors that evening weren't just limited to close friends. A group of young men from the local Nashi chapter likewise came to his home to pay their respects.

"They gave a short speech and handed me an American flag," says Ryzhkov. At the time, he brushed off the strange incident. But soon afterwards, a video appeared on the Internet showing Ryzhkov holding the flag and accusing him of being a CIA agent. "It also said that I wanted to lead an Orange Revolution," recounts Ryzhkov.

Orange, of course, is code in Russia -- code for "treason" within Kremlin circles. Ever since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, politicians and authorities have been deeply concerned that something similar could take place in Russia.

"There's a constructive opposition and a destructive one," says Borovikov. He believes that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, the far-right leader who has threatened the West with a "third world war," is constructive. "He advocates sensible positions and remains within the framework of the law," he says.

Politicians critical of the Kremlin –- such as Ryzhkov, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov or the opposition party Other Russia, led by Garry Kasparov -- belong, on the other hand, to the destructive category. "Their actions are directed against national interests," Borovikov says.

Nashists

Nashi is well-armed for the fight against the opposition. The organization has an entire house in Moscow at its disposal, which has a seminar room and a number of conference rooms. The chairs and tables are new, and state-of-the-art video projectors hang on the walls for presentations. "The property belongs to the institute for national administration," Borovikov explains. "They are our partner."

The financing is typical as well. Nashi cooperates closely with the state and even gets public funds for some projects. "There are also businesspeople with a nationalist bent who are happy to support our events," Borovikov says.

Opponents accuse the movement of having been designed by the Kremlin itself. The organization was conceived of two years ago as a Russian response to the Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," and it is meant to give Russia back its national pride. For critics, a derogatory nickname wasn't difficult to find: The group's young members are called "nashists" -- which rhymes, of course, with fascists.

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