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.
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.
Russian Expansionism with Nashi
The organization has an enormous following. According to its own calculations, it has at least 100 members -- generally between 18 and 22 -- in every mid-size city. This year's summer camp, held at Lake Seliger around 350 kilometers northwest of Moscow, was flooded by some 10,000 of the Putin enthusiasts.
There, women dressed in red and white sweat suits performed gymnastics to the sound of techno music. The men engaged in military exercises to prepare themselves for the supposedly imminent invasion of Western sympathizers. In the sky above, the Russian air force gave a spectacular performance. Even Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov dropped by, calling for the group to have more babies to help solve Russia's demographic problems.
The camp also hosted a mass-wedding for 30 couples, with red tents prepared for the couples celebrating their wedding night. "Who out there is pregnant?" went the call from the megaphone. "I'm pregnant!" the crowd shouted back. The lodgings for those attending the camp were not separated by gender.
Targeting the British Ambassador
Not all Nashi activities are that silly, though. In spring, Nashi activists headed for Estonia and became involved in violent confrontations with the police after authorities in the capital of Tallinn decided to move a monument dedicated to Soviet soldiers. In Moscow, Nashi members followed the Estonian ambassador at every turn and stormed a press conference. Even the British ambassador was targeted. While he was attending a conference organized by the Russian opposition, activists besieged his office and private residence.
Still, the group is assured of the government's goodwill almost irrespective of the capers they pull. "I personally don't like it when Nashi pushes the boundaries of the law," says Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, "On the other hand, they're just a bunch of kids. Nashi has managed to wake up the youth."
Nashi is a very hierarchical organization. Those who want to advance have to go to at least two training camps. After that, new members attend an initiation ceremony before being introduced to their new positions.
Typically, those who get involved in Nashi are full of ambition, and membership in the group often leads to rapid career advancement. Borovikov's predecessor at the head of Nashi, 36-year-old Vasily Yakemenko, is now working for the government, having been handed leadership of the State Committee for Youth Affairs just a few weeks ago. Even the group's foot soldiers profit from their affiliation with Nashi. At this year's summer camp, there was a Gazprom tent where members could apply directly for an internship with the state-controlled energy giant.
Bristling with Self Confidence
The Kremlin, Gazprom and Nashi: In the eyes of many a liberal critic, this is the triumvirate that rules Russia. Billions of dollars from oil and gas sales have helped the country gain the kind of influence it hasn't had since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Nashi makes sure this new importance is visible from the outside. "The new Russia bristles with self confidence," says Reinhard Krumm, head of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Moscow.
Smaller countries neighboring Russia are the ones who suffer most directly from this recent development. Former Soviet countries like Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania still belong to Moscow's empire in the eyes of nationalist Russians. These countries' desire to follow their own democratic path is of no consequence. "From a geographic and ethnic perspective, Ukraine and Russia belong much more closely together than Ukraine and the US," says Nashi leader Borovikov.
Is he interested in fiddling with the region's nation-state borders? Borovikov smiles and thinks about it for a bit. Then he says with a clear voice: "We are not interested in revisiting the borders drawn after World War II." In other words, Russia should once again be as large as it was during Soviet times.
He goes on saying that many Russians and Ukrainians would be happy were the border between the two countries abolished. "But we have to see what the future brings," he says. "Maybe one day we'll live in a single nation once again."
'Still Much too Young'
Disturbingly, Borovikov's position on the issue isn't just some extremist take from a right-leaning youth group. His viewpoint happens to be the official policy of the government. Indeed, Kremlin speaker Peskov is in no mood to criticize the young politician's territorial ambitions. "In the entire region of the former Soviet Union," he says, "there are still millions of mixed marriages. The woman, for example, has Russian citizenship and her husband has a passport from Turkmenistan." A solution has to be found for such people, he says.
The same argument holds true for the economy, he says. "For years, many farmers were able to sell their milk in the neighboring village," he complains. "And suddenly, that village is in a different country." Partially for this reason, the Kremlin wants to rejuvenate the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- the alliance of former Soviet republics. Under Russian leadership of course. "We need a process of integration in the CIS as happened in the European Union," Peskov demands. "Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan are going to form a customs union in the not-too-distant future."
Prior to that, however, another goal must first be met: Putin's victory in December's parliamentary elections. His party United Russia is aiming for 70 percent of the vote -- a not unrealistic target.
For Nashi, there is much at stake. Without Putin, the movement is nothing, but with him, the future is wide open. "We hope that Putin remains an influential figure on the political stage. But it is not up to us," Borovikov says with false modesty. "We are still much too young."