Pro-Kremlin Youths Take Backseat to Crisis

Last year, pro-Kremlin youth groups were all over television, promising then-President Vladimir Putin love and loyalty, picketing foreign embassies and harassing a hodgepodge of opposition activists.

As recently as July, state-run television showed First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov lecturing Nashi activists in economics at their summer camp.

But with the election season over and the government grappling with the financial crisis, youth activists have drifted from the political spotlight, busying themselves instead with fashion shows and city cleanups.

There are no plans for a crisis-themed protest.

"We might organize something soon," Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik said of possible events concerning the crisis. "We have a meeting Friday. We will decide then."

Nashi is now working on "long-term projects," Potupchik said, adding that there are "fewer political reasons" for the mass demonstrations that the group organized during the December State Duma elections and the March presidential vote.

Nashi activist Antonina Shapovalova, who designed pro-Putin bikinis for the group, showed off her collection during the recent Moscow Fashion Week, Potupchik noted.

Nashi's top projects include promoting the patriotic children's movement Mishki, or Bear Cubs, tolerance programs and blood drives, she said.

"These are long-term and real projects, not one-day events," she said.

The plans are, however, unquestionably less confrontational than Nashi programs a year ago, when the group organized patrols -- accompanied by police and known as druzhinniki -- to head off any anti-Kremlin protests.

Now druzhinniki, members of a volunteer corps that dates back to Soviet times, are making different kinds of rounds. Recently, the volunteers removed political ads from the streets of Yaroslavl following local elections on Oct. 13, said Alexandra Valtinina, a spokeswoman for the volunteers.

"People were tired of seeing all those billboards, and we decided not to wait for communal workers to do the job," Valtinina said. "We cleaned everything up."

Nashi burst onto the political scene in 2005, staging a 50,000-member rally in Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Victory Day. The group was broadly seen as a response to the youth-led protests that helped bring pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine.

Last year, the group noisily picketed the Estonian Embassy following a feud over the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn. It has also been accused of harassing former British Ambassador Anthony Brenton after he attended an opposition conference.

Nashi founder Vasily Yakemenko left the group last year to head up the Youth Affairs Committee, which is in charge of the country's youth organizations.

A woman who answered the phone at the committee Monday said Yakemenko was unavailable for comment and referred all inquiries to Potupchik.

Nashi's fellow pro-Kremlin youth groups have been comparably tranquil since the end of the election cycle.

Vladimir Nasonov, spokesman for the United Russia youth group Young Russia, said "mass action" is not a wise tactic during times of crisis. He echoed President Dmitry Medvedev's accusation that the Unites States "set up" other countries in the current global financial crisis.

"Our duty is to defend the powers that be in case of large protests against the government," Nasonov said. "We need to back them, because the policy of those people living on the other side of the ocean should be blamed and not our government."

Andrei Groznetsky, a spokesman for Mestniye, another pro-Kremlin youth group, said youth movements were politically active only during the election season.

Both Young Russia and Mestniye appear to be focusing on more nationalistic issues.

Young Russia will hold a demonstration to "protect the Russian language" on Nov. 4, People's Unity Day, Nasonov said.

Mestniye, meanwhile, is devoting its energy to "fighting against illegal immigrants who work as unofficial cab drivers," Groznetsky said.

Both Nashi and Mestniye plan to hold demonstrations on People's Unity Day. The Nashi event, called "Blanket of Peace," will be held on Vasilyevsky Spusk, near the Kremlin.

After United Russia recaptured a constitutional majority in last year's Duma elections and Medvedev won a landslide victory in the March 2 presidential election, Nashi and other pro-Kremlin groups have denied suggestions that they might fade into political oblivion.

In March, several young people took to the streets to distribute rolls of toilet paper embossed with the logo of Kommersant after the newspaper quoted an unidentified Kremlin official as calling Nashi activists "jubilant street punks" and saying their services were no longer needed.

Also printed on the toilet paper was the cell phone number of the author of the article. Nashi denied any involvement in the stunt.

Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with Indem, a think tank, said the Kremlin needs all the resources it can get to deal with the current economic crisis, meaning that there will be few funds left over to finance youth groups.

"The markets are in chaos, and there are no bankers or businessmen the Kremlin can ask for money like before," Korgunyuk said. "What can the Kremlin ask of [the youth groups] now? To hold a sit-in in front of the American Embassy and scream, 'Down with the crisis?'"

In fact, Nashi is planning a Nov. 2 protest outside the U.S. Embassy in conjunction with Halloween, Potupchik said.

Nashi activists will bring pumpkins to protest "what the Americans did in South Ossetia, in Afghanistan and in other conflicts," Potupchik said.

The name of someone who died in one of these conflicts will be written on each pumpkin, she added.