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Russia: 'A Youth Movement Needs A Leader'

Vasilii Yakemenko (file photo) On 15 April the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (Ours) held its inaugural congress and elected Vasilii Grigorevich Yakemenko and four others as leaders of the movement. The same day, retired world chess champion Garri Kasparov blamed Nashi for an incident earlier that day in which a young man attacked him with a chessboard. Many political analysts -- and Kasparov, apparently -- see the group's agenda as trying to tap into Russia's growing nationalism and xenophobia.

In an interview with on 1 March, National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev argued that with Nashi, Yakemenko has developed a more effective doctrine than he did with the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together. Instead of "Putin is our president and he is always right," Militarev noted, Yakemenko gives lectures to youth activists in which he describes "the American authorities as our geopolitical opponent and says Russia needs to defend itself."

Although only 34, Yakemenko has launched many projects. He was born in 1971 in the Moscow Oblast city of Lyubertsy. He studied at the State Administration Institute, where he became a transport engineer, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 10 September 2002. After graduation at the age of 21, he established a company called Vento that assembled fans. The year after that he founded the wholesale outlet Akbars. His next project was Walking Together, which was officially registered on 14 July 2000.

Yakemenko confided in an interview with "Itogi" on 21 June 2004: "As soon as Putin was nominated for the post of prime minister [in 1999], my brother and I decided to create an organization. We created it for a nobody who was headed toward the presidency and who it seemed to us professed the same system of views as our own." At that point, Putin had only been known at national level as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) for a little over a year.
"Any movement, especially a youth movement, needs certain things: there should be a leader, there should be an idol. And without Putin the creation of such a movement was unrealistic. There was no unifying figure." - Yakemenko

In numerous interviews, Yakemenko has denied that he worked for the presidential administration when he formed Walking Together. Yakemenko told "Vechernyaya Moskva" on 18 September 2001 that "it is completely untrue" that the movement was created at the behest of the Kremlin. "I was invited to the Kremlin because I already had this movement," Yakemenko said. "Not the other way around. I wanted to create this organization five years ago. But I didn't create this five years ago because any movement, especially a youth movement, needs certain things: there should be a leader, there should be an idol. And without Putin the creation of such a movement was unrealistic. There was no unifying figure."

Yakemenko spent less than three months working for the presidential administration as head of a department for external relations. He answered then to Sergei Abramov, the head of the main administration for domestic policy in the presidential administration, and according to the "The New York Times" on 16 February, Yakemenko continues to meet with Abramov and with Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. Yakemenko told "Vechernyaya Moskva" that he found "the presidential administration a very wonderful, but also a very sluggish organization," and at his level in the organizational chart it was very hard to make decisions. "Moskovskii komsomolets" suggested that after hooking up with "political technologists" such as Gleb Pavlovskii during his tenure at the Kremlin, Yakemenko realized that he could make bigger money on the outside.

The actual sources of financing of Walking Together and its offspring, Nashi, are unknown. At one of Walking Together's first big events, some 10,000 young people gathered on 7 May 2001 on Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of Putin's inauguration. One student and a member of Walking Together told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau: "We are a very rich organization. Our heads have enormous funds. Do you think it is cheap to gather 10,000 people from the cities of Russia for a half-hour in the center of Moscow?" One student from Orel Oblast told AP on 7 May 2001 that the presidential administration had financed the event, though Yakemenko denied that his movement is funded by the presidential administration. He said the movement is financed by a "group of Russian companies," the names of which he declined to disclose.

However, in November 2001, he told NTV that Energomash, Russkii Aktseptnyi Dom, and other companies were the movement's backers. In December 2004, "Novaya gazeta" asked the State Duma to investigate the group's financing and charged that it had received more than 1.4 million rubles ($50,000) in 2003 from Western companies. Yakemenko dismissed the accusations as "laughable."

At a press conference following this month's Nashi's congress, Yakemenko stated "categorically" that he is "certain that the fatherland's large companies will support us," "Novaya gazeta," No. 28, reported.

When Yakemenko first got into the youth-movement business, he placed a decided emphasis on Putin. Walking Together's members attended rallies wearing T-shirts bearing Putin's gently smiling visage. In the interview with "Verchernyaya gazeta" in 2001, Yakemenko seemed almost unnerved when asked "what would happen [to the movement] if Putin suddenly resigned?" But Yakemenko regained his composure enough to answer: "I would hope that someone from Walking Together would replace him. Putin, whether or not he resigns, will remain in our hearts. The president will go, but the people will remain."

Next year, Yakemenko will turn 35, an age that marketers, at least, consider the cut-off for being considered youthful. If the past is prologue, Yakemenko may by then already be onto his next project. And by the time the 2008 presidential elections roll around, he will likely be considered a seasoned political operator ready to take on his next assignment.

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

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