RUSSIA Liberal youths challenge Putin
The Putin government has taken notice of the groups despite their small size.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Blocking an upscale pedestrian mall in the heart of Russia's second city, a dozen young people rallied one recent afternoon to protest the country's continuing war in Chechnya.
"Our mission today is to draw attention to the problem," said Alexander Shurshev, 23, head of the Yabloko Youth movement, who stood at the demonstration behind a large white banner that read: "The war in Chechnya is the shame of Russia."
"Our future goal is to take millions out to the streets," he said. While that may seem like hyperbole, nascent liberal youth groups like Yabloko Youth are emerging as potentially significant sources of opposition to President Vladimir Putin -- and government officials, including Putin, have taken note and made highly critical comments about them.
Potential turning point
Spurred by cuts in benefits to pensioners and students, by the often abusive treatment of Russia's teenage draftees in the military and by what they perceive as increasingly dictatorial rule from the Kremlin, these groups hope that Russia's presidential election in 2008 becomes a turning point similar to the popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian governments in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia over the past two years.
That strikes Ruslan Linkov, chairman of the Democratic Russia movement in St. Petersburg, as overly ambitious. While his own organization is also opposed to the Putin government, he says that most Russians are "politically lazy and apathetic."
Although a majority decries cuts in benefits and abuses in the military, only 3 percent said they would consider taking part in mass political protests, according to a nationwide survey by Russia's VTsIOM polling agency. Membership in the emerging liberal youth groups numbers in the hundreds, if that.
Yabloko Youth has only about 300 people in Moscow and about 100 in St. Petersburg. Another fledgling group, St. Petersburg-based Walking Without Putin, whose members joined Shurshev in the rally, has about 40 followers, says its leader, Mikhail Obozov, 21. The leading activists of the two groups have created Oborona, or Defense, which has about 100 members and uses as its symbol a clenched fist borrowed from the Serbian Otpor opposition movement, which helped topple the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
Small as these groups are, however, the Putin government has taken note.
"Individuals are being trained to carry out an 'Orange Revolution' ... in Russia," Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, said last month, using the popular name for the uprising in Ukraine last year.
Putin has said he had information that "money is being sent from abroad to finance specific political activities in Russia" -- an allusion, analysts say, to programs such as the U.S. Freedom Support Act, which is aimed at nurturing democracy abroad.
"Not a single self-respecting country will allow that, and neither will we," said Putin, a former KGB colonel who has said he would name a successor when his presidential term expires in 2008.
The United States has been allocating millions of dollars for Russia and other former Soviet republics under the Freedom Support Act since 1992. The assistance is intended to support Russia's burgeoning civil society and pays for programs that train locals on how to organize political parties and how to monitor elections.
Leaders of the liberal youth groups deny that their organizations receive foreign funding.
But the Kremlin, which blames Washington for orchestrating recent popular uprisings in the former Soviet republics, alleges that this money may be used to prepare an uprising in Russia.