Lowering the Guard


Worried about the health of Russian democracy? Then you should be pleased with President Medvedev. The “successor to Putin” made a few very noteworthy breaks this week with the authoritarian style of his judo-loving predecessor. Human-rights advocates can breathe at least two sighs of relief:


1) On Friday, the Kremlin announced the closing of 45 of the 50 offices of Nashi, the 200,000-strong militant youth organization founded in 2005 by pro-Putin official Vasily Yakemenko with these two stated missions: “protect Putin from antigovernment forces” -AND- “conjure patriotism in the hearts of the apathetic young.”


On the bright side, Nashi’s youth camps and public rallies enthusiastically encourage Russian young people to take up active roles in building a new Russia: They extol young men to join the army; champion marriage and childbearing; and celebrate Russia’s ethnic diversity.


But on the not-so-bright side, they also push a cult-like hero-worship of Putin, demonize anyone who criticizes Putin, and sabotage the campaigns of rival candidates. They’re known to occasionally cross the line into thug tactics, like when a gathering of Nashi members vandalized the Estonian embassy in outrage over its removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from its premises.


And on the just plain disturbing side, they get rewarded by their elders for blindly agreeing with whatever Russia’s president says. Nashi membership requires passing an applicant interview that grill would-be members for their views on every major policy issue: gas transit, Chechnya, the war in Georgia, etc. Those who pass get admission into Nashi and all the goodies that come with it: free cell phones, a complementary university education, and first preference for government jobs.


Get a feel for the movement for yourself, in all its flag-waving creepiness and its zeal for “ensuring the President’s complete victory,” at this link.


Patriotism and family values are great things. Suppression of independent thought isn’t. And neither is blind adherence to party ideology. An organization that promotes the latter two things deserves a minimal role in a modern democracy. Medvedev’s call on this gets my steadfast kudos.   


2) Also getting my kudos is Medvedev’s order Thursday to his staff that they revise a bill (one crafted originally by Putin, no less) that would have extended the definition of “treason” and “espionage” to “activities against the Constitutional order and state integrity.” As some human-rights leaders noted, this would have made possible the de-facto outlawing of just about any nonviolent protest or social-activism campaign that Russian officials didn’t like.


If the above sounds conspiratorial, then consider what befell one university student just the day before. As the story will tell you, police pressed the student’s university to expel him for his participation in a December 14 protest of government policies. University officials rebuffed them and kept the opinionated young scholar. But were any activity against the “constitutional order” to become treasonous, then the police would have very probably gotten their way.


These back-to-back liberalizations are a good portent for life in Russia in general. They signal that people are much more satisfied with things, and that Russian leaders can be very confident of continued popular support – thus, measures to suppress dissent strike them as no longer worth the time and trouble. This is logical. People who are optimistic about the future don’t need a lot of overhead control. They will support those who are in charge, convinced as they are that those in charge are making good things happen. It’s the desperate and frustrated that public officials need to worry about. Putin has done a good job of making people optimistic. And so it’s small wonder that, in the weeks before the presidential elections last March, fully 40% of poll respondents said that they would vote for whomever Putin picked as his successor, no questions asked. With the prospect growing dimmer and dimmer that the electorate will vote the Putin-Medvedev people out and bring some potentially inept presidential administration in (of which Russia has seen many: Andropov, Gorbachev, Yeltsin), thus undoing eight years of hard work setting things straight, Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev can relax and enjoy the bounty of success.  


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