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Russia: Radicalized Youth On The Rise

Many groups were inspired by pensioners' protests against benefits reforms The recent successes of the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the much earlier success of the Yugoslav opposition in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic, have generated considerable interest in the driving forces behind these movements. Key roles in all these uprisings were played by informal but radical and disciplined youth movements espousing direct-action tactics. These groups include Otpor in Serbia, Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine, and KelKel in Kyrgyzstan.

[For more on the rise of political youth groups,
see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth."]

In the last couple of months, there has been an upsurge of activity by youth groups across Russia's political spectrum, with many groups speaking about their desire to adopt the tactics of their successful counterparts abroad. This spurt of activity has been stimulated by Russia's domestic unrest, caused primarily by the government's reform to convert most in-kind social benefits to cash payments. Widespread demonstrations and protests have gripped the country since January and the government has been forced to retreat and subtly allot about $8 billion for additional payments to benefits recipients, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 14, reported.
"Those who control the youth movement will win the next elections."

Although the benefits protests were initiated by pensioners, many political groups -- including the youth movements -- learned lessons from them, primarily that the government can be moved by the power of mass civil disobedience. Ilya Ponomarev, leader of Youth Left Front, an umbrella organization of antiglobalists, anarchists, Trotskyites, and communists, gave a concise account of the sea change that has occurred in recent weeks. "The expectations of revolutionary transformation have grown drastically," he said, according to on 3 March. "These expectations can be achieved, for understandable reasons, only by young people. Therefore, those who control the youth movement will win the next elections."

Ponomarev added that the evolutionary path of development has reached its end because "the democratic system of the 1990s has been destroyed." "There are no traces of the democratic state -- no separation of powers, no system of checks and balances, no federalism, no local self-government. All branches of government have lost their independence and political expression through parliamentary procedures is impossible," he explained.

Perhaps the best Russian analogue to Pora or Otpor as far as tactics is the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which was created in 1994 by radical writer Eduard Limonov, Eurasianism ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (who soon left the party), and rock musicians Yegor Letov and Sergei Kurikhin. The party's ideology was a strange hybrid of ultraleftism, anarchism, and nationalism, mixed with openly fascistic ideas. Officially, the NBP is not a party, since the government has refused to register it, dismissing it as a group of hooligans and criminals.

But the most important thing about the NBP is not its ideology but its tactics of direct action, which include such things as taking over government offices and throwing eggs or tomatoes at members of the ruling elite or high-profile foreign guests. Since 2001, the NBP has retreated from its radical antiglobalist position in order to focus on its irreconcilable opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

Limonov was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2001 and spent 2 1/2 years in prison on terrorism-related charges stemming from an alleged plot to send weapons to ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. In all, more than 100 NBP members have served time in prison over the last decade and 47 are in custody now.

"Russkii zhurnal" wrote about NBP on 15 January that "in today's Russia there is no other organization with such a long record of direct action [against the government], such creative leadership, and, most importantly, so many activists who sincerely consider themselves revolutionaries and who are ready for sacrifice."

In addition to the NBP and the Left Youth Front, there is also the Vanguard of Communist Youth (AKM), a small Marxist group whose acronym is the same as that of a popular Kalashnikov automatic-weapon modification. AKM leader Sergei Udaltsov told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 2 February that the main revolutionary force in Russia is the government itself. "None of us [revolutionaries] managed to do in 10 years what the government has done in six months," Udaltsov said. "[Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail] Zurabov is a revolutionary genius."

To counter these radical groups, the Kremlin not only has the national pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together, but also a new offshoot organization called Nashi (Ours). According to National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev, the Kremlin would like to turn Nashi into the main counterrevolutionary shield against a possible "orange" threat," reported on 4 March.

Russia's liberal parties generally have weak and ineffective youth movements, but Yabloko has two organizations for young people that are reportedly dynamic enough to worry the authorities. These are the party's youth subdivision and the more informal and more radical Oborona (Defense), both of which are headed by Ilya Yashin.

In an 8 April interview with, Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin acknowledged that Yabloko's youth movements are sympathetic to Pora and Kmara, but are not analogous. "They are specifically Russian organizations and are not subject to any influence from abroad," Mitrokhin said. He added that the groups are capable of radical actions but "will confront the current regime within the framework of the law." Mitrokhin said that he expects "an explosion of youth activity" in 2007-08 if the government continues its policies of dismantling free higher education and cutting back military-draft deferments for students.

On 13 April, the FSB blocked the release of a Russian edition of "From Dictatorship To Democracy," by American political scientist Gene Sharp, that was prepared by Oborona, reported. That book, a short guide to nonviolent political action, reportedly played a role in guiding the revolutions in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Many analysts correctly argue that the majority of Russian youths are too apolitical, passive, or opportunistic to go out into the streets for the sake of democracy. However, the number of radicals who are willing to do so appears to be on the rise. According to "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 15 March, the Russian branch of Pora has 200 members, but they expect to be able to bring 5,000 people into the streets within six months. The Yabloko youth organization, which is aligned with Pora, has about 1,600 members, while the AKM has about 500. The largest anti-Kremlin youth organization, the NBP, has 12,000 members. In all, the daily concluded, the youth-oriented radical political opposition today numbers about 20,000.

By contrast, the newly created pro-Kremlin Nashi already has 3,000 members and boasts that it can bring 50,000 supporters into the streets, the daily reported. Walking Together claims 100,000 members.

In any political confrontation, the key is how many people can such organizations bring out into the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In this context, it is worth recalling that former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was one of the leaders of the August 1991 putsch attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, estimated that the number of people who came out in support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the two cities was about 170,000.

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