Russia: The Fate of the Nashi Youth Movement

4 MINS READApr 10, 2012 | 16:32 GMT
Activists of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement in Moscow

Rumors are circulating among Russian media that the controversial youth movement, Nashi, could be restructured or disbanded in the next few weeks. During the week of April 1, several news articles reported that Nashi founder (and current head of the Kremlin's youth agency, Rosmolodezh) Vasily Yakimenko met with four Nashi commissioners and told them that the movement was over and would be disbanded. The story spread quickly through Russian media but on April 8, Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik said the rumors were unfounded.

Managing Russia's youth has always been critical to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the ruling Kremlin regime. It seems as though Russia's shifting political landscape is forcing the Nashi movement to evolve, but Putin must carefully manage any such change or decentralization of the movement to avoid losing control of the powerful youth population.

The Nashi organization was created in 2005 by Putin and his loyalists, including the Kremlin's so-called "gray cardinal," Vladislav Surkov. The group's purpose was to consolidate Russia's youth who were coming of age in the post-Soviet era. These young people were more in tune with Western values and technologies, so the Kremlin wanted to instill in them a sense of nationalism and loyalty to the state. The Nashi — which means "Ours" — was a success for the Kremlin, with membership in 2007 estimated at more than 200,000 (with some estimates exceeding 600,000).

There was a question of what to do with the group. Between 2007 and 2011, the Kremlin developed new versions of Nashi and roles for it. The movement's activities expanded to foreign politics and targeted embassies and diplomats; Nashi participated in protests in Finland and Estonia and were thought to be responsible for the cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007. By 2011, various versions of Nashi had evolved — such as the Young Guard, which groomed Nashi members to take political and business positions, and Stahl, a more aggressive pro-Kremlin group.

But changes in the Kremlin's political landscape and within Russia as a whole mean Nashi must evolve once again. Russia has just experienced a series of political protests both in favor of and against the Kremlin and Putin, who is returning to the Russian presidency. Notably, Nashi was not very visible during these demonstrations, though the group would be expected to be involved in protests and counter-protests. This is because Nashi — like most of Russia's political groups — is experiencing a splintering of identity and purpose. Moreover, shifts within the Kremlin — particularly the demotion of Nashi manager Surkov — created an uncertainty about how to deploy Nashi members during the protests. According to Stratfor sources, the Nashi movement was largely restrained to keep the group from intensifying anti-Kremlin sentiment. Furthermore, Nashi was subject to a series of scandals, such as publicized hacked emails that showed the group reportedly paying off media.

The next stage of Nashi's evolution appears to be very similar to the Kremlin's reassessment of Russia's overall political landscape. After the large protests, the Kremlin is formulating a way to manage a pseudo-decentralization of power via political parties to account for the country's diversifying political views.

Previously, Russia's political landscape was consolidated under Putin's party, United Russia, and the threshold for other parties to enter the political arena was so high that there was only a handful of parties. Now the Kremlin is working to accommodate the diversity in Russians' political views and movements, so it has made it easier for political parties to form. This is leading to the formation of parties that are liberal, nationalist, centrist, support Putin's agenda and oppose it.

However, Putin is creating mechanisms to manage the various political views. He is creating a network that can string these new parties together via coalitions, alliances and movements — such as the All-Russia People’s Front — in order to manage the proliferation of political parties. Such connections do not run through the anti-Putin movements; this keeps them from consolidating against the ruling elite in the Kremlin.

The same strategy of managed decentralization will most likely apply to reorganizing the Nashi movement (and youth groups in general). The Kremlin knows it must account for an expansion of political views among Russia's youth. This could manifest in several ways, such as the formation of various Nashi movements (Nashi-nationalist or Nashi-liberal, for example) or new Kremlin-managed youth groups representing those political views. As with the political parties, Nashi's message has to change and the movement must be seen as tied to a strong Russia rather than just to Putin. This will encourage more people to take part in Kremlin-managed movements.

The risk — as with the political parties — is the management of the decentralization going too far. Putin must still maintain some sort of control, even if from behind the scenes. Although networks and other mechanisms will be in place to keep all of these emerging and evolving groups tied together and tied to Putin, the growing diversity of viewpoints among Russia's political groups will be difficult to manage. 

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