Wild in the country: Putin's opposition prepares for battle

It has the feel of a festival – but thousands are flocking to a camp in Khimki Forest not to party but to mobilise

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The Independent Online

The tents were pitched, the portable toilets put 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, was no normal festival. Nor, in fact, was the picturesque meadow a normal picturesque meadow.

Anti-Seliger, which concludes today, drew a crowd of over 2,000 Russians, most of them in their 20s and 30s. A discussion forum set up for Russians unhappy with the current regime, the event took place in Khimki Forest, scene of a long-running 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 due 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 of Russia 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 Kremlin critics portrayed as Nazis or prostitutes.

Anti-Seliger had similar display stands, but the content was somewhat different. One told the story of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a Khimki newspaper who was beaten to within an inch of his life by unknown assailants, and later brought to a courtroom in his wheelchair to face charges that he had libelled the local mayor. At another stand, people could write postcards to political prisoners in Belarus.

Yevgeniya Chirikova, one of the leaders of the Khimki Forest defenders and the main organiser of the event, said that Anti-Seliger is a riposte to everything that Seliger stands for. "It's not specifically against Nashi," she said. "It's a protest against the government trying to pretend to be the people. This is a real place for people to have discussions, rather than a fake reflection of civil society."

"It's not normal for people to be unloaded from buses and told to demonstrate," agreed Elena Panfilova, the head of the Russian office of Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog. "It's normal for people to take a weekend day, come out to a nice place like this to talk about serious issues, and stay as long as they want."

The star of the day on Saturday was Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner whose online demands for transparency in Russian 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 potential political leader in the future; as well as his impeccable fraud-fighting credentials, a questionable allegiance to ethnic Russian nationalism could boost his popularity beyond the limited ranks of the active 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 status 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 one visitor to the event, a young girl from near Moscow. "We need more people like him in Russia."

"We're amazingly happy with the response we've had. We expected about 1,500 people and we've already had 2,000," Ms Chirikova said on Saturday. "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 assembled crowd. He called on them to vote for anyone in December's parliamentary elections, except for Mr Putin's United Russia party. "We don't have any real opposition, but the most effective way for now to register discontent is if we persuade as many people as possible not to vote for United Russia – the party of crooks and thieves." These last words, which have become his catchphrase, drew wild applause from the crowd.

The rag-tag assortment of hippies, anarchists and nationalists at Anti-Seliger will not have the Kremlin terrified just yet. In comparison to the tens of thousands of youths that the real Seliger can muster, they are just a small speck on the country's political consciousness. But in Mr Navalny, there may be the beginning of a grass-roots opposition force.

During his question and answer session, a middle-aged man began a rambling diatribe about the current nature of Russian society. Pressed by the moderator to formulate an actual question, the man 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."

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