Putin sets up youth group to stop 'orange revolution'

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The Independent Online

A mysterious new Kremlin-backed youth organisation with the working title One of Us has been set up to ensure Russia does not fall victim to a Ukrainian-style velvet revolution. The group, Nashi, is being touted as the vanguard of a political party that could usurp the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party whose usefulness as a vehicle for the establishment has been called into question.

A mysterious new Kremlin-backed youth organisation with the working title One of Us has been set up to ensure Russia does not fall victim to a Ukrainian-style velvet revolution. The group, Nashi, is being touted as the vanguard of a political party that could usurp the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party whose usefulness as a vehicle for the establishment has been called into question.

Nashi will face off against an alliance of anti-Kremlin youth groups and is designed to "reach maturity" well ahead of presidential elections in 2008. Its leaders, whose identities remain secret, are said to want to "get 300,000 people on to the streets to defend Russia" from the threats of "external governance", "orange revolution" and "American intrusion".

Significantly, it is said to be patronised by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of Vladimir Putin's presidential administration, and a man often credited with wielding enormous power behind the scenes.

To its organisers' anger, Nashi's first Moscow congress, held in secret last Saturday, was infiltrated by the leader of the youth wing of the liberal party Yabloko, Ilya Yashin. Mr Yashin, a student, says he was forcibly ejected, had his face rubbed in the snow and was repeatedly kicked while on the ground.

He told The Independent yesterday he was planning to sue his assailants and that the incident showed how the Kremlin would start to use physical violence against its opponents to intimidate them. Nashi's organisers call Mr Yashin's claims "funny". They say he tried to get in after being ejected and only then did tensions flare. Vasily Yakemenko, a leading Nashi ideologist, told The Independent: "We must understand what methods people who calls themselves 'democrats' use."

A Kremlin-backed youth group with 100,000 members already exists and is led by Mr Yakemenko, who used to work in the Kremlin administration. But the group, called Walking Together, has seen its image tainted by a campaign to "purify Russian literature" by weeding out "harmful" books, and claims that students were coerced into joining with sanctions from their universities.

It has also been lampooned by a new opposition youth group in St Petersburg called Walking Without Putin. It has joined forces with Yabloko. Figures in the Kremlin reportedly believe the unified organisation is trying to model itself on the Serb youth group Otpor and its Ukrainian version Pora. Both played pivotal roles in the transfer of power in those countries.

Mr Yakemenko was cagey about Nashi yesterday. But he conceded its formation was being "actively discussed". Its name has already been ridicul-ed by opponents who play on the phonetic similarity of Nashism with fascism. Mr Yashin said: "I wouldn't rule out clashes [between rival groups]. We expect tumultuous times. The main task of the Nashists is to frighten us. They will form shock brigades ... to ensure people are afraid to march in the street under opposition banners."

In the Moscow Times, Masha Gessen, a well-known commentator, said the Nashi name was alarming. "An organisation that openly divides its own country into those who are 'us' and those who are 'them' is despicable."

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