Precocious Lawmaker Sees Move To Youth

MTShlegel describes Nashi as a pool of "nationally minded" potential officials and says Medvedev understands the need to train new young managers.
As he soaked up the feeble May sunshine at an outdoor cafe on Red Square, State Duma Deputy Robert Shlegel, Russia's youngest lawmaker, held forth on how the Kremlin should breed a new generation of patriotic public administrators.

"Fifteen people under 30 elected to the Duma isn't a bad start," Shlegel, 23, said as he sipped a $10 juice, which he insisted, somewhat defensively, that he could afford.

Elected in December on the ticket of the all-powerful United Russia party, Shlegel rose to prominence as a spokesman for Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement that mobilized tens of thousands of young people in street rallies to show their support for then-President Vladimir Putin and counter the opposition.

Since becoming a lawmaker, Shlegel has made headlines by attacking readers of erotic magazines and sponsoring a controversial bill that would have toughened the penalties for libel. Earlier this week, United Russia dumped Shlegel's bill after receiving numerous complaints from media freedom groups and Public Chamber officials.

"The concern of my colleague, Robert Shlegel, is understandable, but we consider the amendments superfluous," Duma Speaker and party leader Boris Gryzlov told reporters.

The episode raised questions about whether Moscow's political elite view young politicians like Shlegel as the future of Russia — or as expendable foot soldiers.

Nashi and other pro-Kremlin groups like Young Russia position themselves as stepping stones to high-powered careers. At last summer's Nashi training camp at Lake Seliger, activists could apply for internships at Gazprom and receive leaflets outlining how to become lawyers, deputies and PR specialists.

Of course, groups like Nashi pale in comparison to the Soviet-era Komsomol, which once boasted tens of millions of members and was a mandatory step for anyone seeking a Communist Party career.

Shlegel described Nashi as a pool of "nationally minded" potential officials and said President Dmitry Medvedev understood the need to train young managers to replace the existing political elite.

At the current speed, however, it looks like the process will take quite a long time.

In 2006, United Russia declared that at least 20 percent of its tickets for regional legislative elections had to go to political activists aged 21 to 28. But the young people were usually put by older party bosses at the bottom of the ticket, and very few actually made it in, said Alexei Titkov, an analyst with the Institute of Regional Studies.

In the last Duma elections, United Russia's career boost for young pro-Kremlin activists was also quite modest.

Contradicting Shlegel's claim, only 11 Duma members are younger than 30, according to the Central Elections Commission. Moreover, not all of them are members of United Russia's fraction in the Duma, which has a total of 314 lawmakers. Only two Nashi members, Shlegel and Sergei Belokonev, were picked by United Russia and placed high enough on its ticket to get into the lower chamber.

Shlegel's role in the Duma is to submit controversial bills that United Russia and the Kremlin want, but that no other deputy is willing stake his reputation on, said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Information.

"He can be very easily sacrificed in the event of a big scandal," Mukhin said.

In the interview, Shlegel insisted that he authored his bills himself, without any guidance from his United Russia elders. He also defended his media bill, which would have allowed courts to close media outlets for libel, instead of just penalizing them with fines as stipulated by existing law.

"Today's media organizations are not trustworthy; they cannot effectively perform their social role," Shlegel said, arguing that the threat of closure would make media outlets more responsible and ultimately serve freedom of the press.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the bill contradicted the constitution and international treaties signed by Russia. He also offered his own explanation about why the bill might have been introduced by Shlegel.

"He belongs to a new, poorly educated generation that understands little about liberal values, disrespects the law and enjoys permissiveness based on his love of the president," Panfilov said.

Shlegel agreed that his bill was too controversial to be introduced by any of his older colleagues. "Yes, no one wanted to get into a vulnerable position," he said.

United Russia may end up clamping down on the media anyway. Even as it rejected Shlegel's bill, the party agreed to form a working group that could completely overhaul Russia's media law, Kommersant reported Tuesday. Shelegel called the decision a "victory" in comments posted on United Russia's web site.


Vladimir Filonov / MT
Over 50,000 people attending a Nashi rally on Leninsky Prospekt in 2005.
Shlegel's other main Duma initiative was a bill to fine people for publicly carrying erotic magazines and even for gawking at explicit images in the presence of others. He ended up withdrawing the bill.

Curiously enough, Shlegel, a graduate of the Moscow Television and Radio Institute, used to work for MolotOK, a teen-oriented magazine that prosecutors tried to shut down because of its sexual content.

Shlegel has clearly enjoyed a striking change in fortune since the early 1990s, when his fatherless family left Turkmenistan and settled in the Moscow region.

He now seems to have developed habits typical of young investment bankers. Or at least that's the impression he tried to make.

Shlegel said he lunches at Bosco Cafe in the GUM shopping center because the Duma cafeteria is too noisy and cramped and drives an Alfa Romeo because a Camry, which costs about the same amount, is too common.

He has not always professed pro-Kremlin ideology. Before joining the establishment, he used to call the Russian political elite "defeatist" in interviews and on his LiveJournal blog, where his user picture consists of the right side of his own face combined with the left half of the Terminator's shining skull.

One the main things that drew Shlegel to Nashi, he said, was his desire to defend Russia against the so-called "orange" ideology — named after Ukraine's Orange Revolution of late 2004, in which street protests brought pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko to power after a disputed presidential election.

"Now, there is no more of the 'orange' threat left, and mainly due to Nashi," he said proudly. "We accumulated most of the politically active youth in Russia."

Shlegel said the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the separatist aspirations of some Russian regions in the 1990s were orchestrated by the West. "It is a well-tested technology of territorial disintegration used against our country," he said. "The process is still going on, and we need to resist it."

When asked why many members of the Russian elite, including top officials, buy property in the West and send their children to study there, Shlegel responded that it was their private business how to spend their money.

Much of Nashi's activity consisted of "ritual spurning of the weak enemies of the regime," said Sergei Shargunov, a writer who briefly headed the youth wing of A Just Russia, another pro-Kremlin party.

"Shlegel and others were not bad guys when I knew them before, but when they began to consider it a big honor to call opposition leader Garry Kasparov a foreign agent and Eduard Limonov a fascist, I felt that their pursuit of loyalty to the regime came at the expense of their personalities," Shargunov said.

Some also believe that the days of lavishly funded pro-Kremlin youth groups are over.

After the Duma election, reports surfaced in the media saying the government would soon stop backing Nashi. Citing unidentified Kremlin officials, the reports said enthusiasm for Nashi had waned after the opposition failed to stage massive, Orange Revolution-style street protests. Nashi heatedly denied the reports.

Alexander Tarasov, who studies youth movements at the Feniks think tank, and Dmitry Badovsky, a political analyst with the Institute of Social Systems, both said the Kremlin had lost many of its reasons for supporting the youth movement since the election.

Pundits said the movements would not be disbanded, but they also expressed doubt that they would be used as pool of potential government recruits.

"Today's ruling elite consists of men in their 40s and 50s, and they have no inclination and see no strategic necessity to give way to younger administrators," Mukhin said.

The Kremlin might keep the movements as channels of communication with youth, said Badovsky. "As well as for pro-Kremlin street cheerleading and flag-waving at United Russia congresses," added Tarasov.

One sign of the times may be the fate of Nashi founder Vasily Yakemenko, who left the movement late last year and was appointed to head the government's Committee for Youth Affairs.

The committee was disbanded in a government reshuffle earlier this month, and Yakemenko became one of the few top Putin-era officials who have not yet been offered a government job by Medvedev.

Still, Shlegel was sure that Yakemenko would be offered an important post.

"When Medvedev was at the Nashi camp at Lake Seliger last year, he was extremely happy with what he saw there, and he was very pleased with Yakemenko," Shlegel said.