Forest festival unites a motley crew against Russia's status quo


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The tents were pitched, the portable toilets in place, and the wailing sounds of dodgy experimental music filled the air as the festival got under way. But Anti-Seliger, held in a picturesque meadow an hour's drive from Moscow this weekend, is no normal festival. Nor, in fact, is the picturesque meadow a normal picturesque meadow.

Anti-Seliger, which finishes today, drew a crowd of more than 2,000 Russians, most in their 20s and 30s. A discussion forum set up for Russians unhappy with the current regime, the event took place in Khimki Forest, the scene of a long and bitter battle between the authorities, who want to build a new road there, and residents. The forest defenders organised the forum, but in the end its scope was much wider, and it became a place to discuss tactics ahead of parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March.

A motley crew of opposition groups vied for people's attention, from radical nationalists to anarchists and liberals. Ecologists collected signatures on environmental petitions, while the Pirate Party held discussions around a shisha pipe. A martial arts expert offered self-defence classes for journalists and opposition activists wary of being attacked, and free food was provided by the liberal political party Yabloko.

The four-day forum was called Anti-Seliger, a reference to the annual camps at Lake Seliger held by Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth organisation. The Seliger camps are huge events, with thousands of youths bussed in to hear speeches by the country's political leaders and to attend seminars on "healthy living" and how to make Russia great. The camp is decorated with vast portraits of the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and "information stands" in the past have shown photographs of the Kremlin's critics portrayed as Nazis or prostitutes.

The star of Anti-Seliger is Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner whose online demands for transparency in Russia's state-controlled companies have turned him into the darling of the Russian blogosphere. A well-built, charming man, he is already being spoken of as a future political leader; as well as his impeccable fraud-fighting credentials, a questionable allegiance to Russian nationalism could boost his popularity beyond the limited ranks of the liberal opposition.

"I talk with thousands of people online all the time, and I'm putting faces to many of them for the first time," he said. "For me, it's a kind of de-virtualisation of my activities." He started off looking rather sheepish at the number of people desperate to shake his hand and have their photograph taken with him, but he soon warmed to his new-found celebrity and seemed to enjoy the Pied Piper effect he had; whenever he moved around the camp, a huddle of groupies followed him.

"I have followed him online for months. I'm so impressed with what he does," said a girl from Moscow. "We need more people like him in Russia."

Yevgeniya Chirikova, a leader of the Khimki Forest defenders and an organiser of the event, said: "We're amazingly happy with the response we've had. We expected about 1,500 people and we've already had 2,000. Russian civil society is still in its earliest stages. It's still a baby in its cot, and it still needs years and years before it matures."

Later, Mr Navalny spoke from a makeshift stage and took questions from the crowd. He called on them to vote for anyone in December's parliamentary elections except for Mr Putin's United Russia party.

A middle-aged man began a rambling diatribe about the current state of Russian society. Pressed by the moderator to formulate an actual question, he raised his arms in despair and asked: "Will it ever end?" Mr Navalny, without a pause, responded: "That's the wrong way to formulate the question. I would prefer to ask, 'Will we ever end it?' It all depends on us."