It takes a lot to bring me out of semi-retirement. Especially considering that I have far more important things to do, like writing a dissertation. (OK, in the big picture I realize that my dissertation isn’t all that important). It takes even more to get me to write about current Russian events, but when this story passed across my desk this morning it sent chills so far down my spine that I could not help noting it on the blog.
The story came from the September 24, 2007 edition of the Moscow Times and can be found (at least temporarily) here. The headline announces, “Nashi Brigades to Enforce Public Order.” I won’t get into the background and history of Nashi, as there are others who have already done that quite well.
The pro-Kremlin youth organization, Nashi (“Ours”), has recently begun organizing volunteer patrol brigades to help “enforce public order.” While some might argue that this is simply a large-scale form of the “neighborhood watch,” there is plenty of evidence to suggest that something more sinister is lurking below the surface. Or at least the potential for something sinister.
Consider the following choice quotes from Nashi activists which appeared in the Moscow Times article:
*”‘In December, volunteers will head out on their own to patrol the streets and help Moscow police to control the situation,’ Nashi said in a statement posted on its web site.”
*”We are taking a civic-minded position,” Lobkov said outside the library. “We don’t know what the opposition will plan, so we have to be ready.”
*[The opposition movement “Other Russia”] plans to hold a Dissenters’ March in central Moscow on Oct. 7 and hopes to attract 5,000. “It’s no secret” that the Nashi patrols will be mobilized for the opposition rally, Lobkov said. Asked separately what specific threats the patrols would head off, teenage Nashi activists Svetlana, Yegor and Anastasia gave identical answers. “The opposition wants to destabilize Russia,” each of them answered.
*A city law on the patrols allows volunteers to “take physical action” if a lawbreaker is “actively disobedient” or resists. The law allows force as a last resort and “within the boundaries of the right to necessary defense.” Lobkov, however, said Nashi activists would not use physical force, a position echoed by city police spokeswoman Alevtina Belousova.
*”We will carry out appropriate countermeasures should our opponents take to the streets” said television personality Ivan Demidov, a leader of Young Guard, the youth wing of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia.
Perhaps most disturbing about these quotes and the movement they represent is the fact that these activists view opposition – any opposition – as destabilizing. Opposition to the Kremlin, they believe, is a threat to the state and to Russia. Their desire is not to tolerate competition in the “marketplace of ideas” that is characteristic of a liberal democratic society, but rather to control the spread of ideas which contradict their own. In other words, they are engaging in a policy of containment. Opposition to the Kremlin is a threat which must be contained. The disturbing part of all of this, of course, is the fact that under a functioning democracy opposition is viewed as not only desirable but absolutely necessary. A democracy without opposition is not much of a democracy at all! That opposition should be viewed as an evil threat which must be contained speaks volumes of the Nashistis’ understanding of democracy and politics in general.
Disturbing as this might be, it has even greater implications for the future of Russia’s political development. One key characteristic of any democratic regime is the presence of multiple centers of political power. In other words, a variety of institutions, organizations, and structures that operate independently to exert political power. This might include the traditional “checks and balances” of the American system, but it extends to other realms outside the traditional three brances of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). For example, civic organizations can influence the political process, as can political parties, regional and local leaders, the media, even business people. Like it or not, lobbyists too are independent centers that exert influence on the political system and thus weild some form of political power.
The point of all of this is that under democracy there is a plurality of actors who can affect the political process. One of the defining characteristics of Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has been the gradual reduction in the number of politically influential spheres. One by one the independent centers of political power have had their wings clipped by a strengthening Kremlin. The president selects members of the Federation Council and governors. The elimination of single-member districts from the Duma electoral system make it literally impossible for independent politicians to serve in the Duma. The raising of the representation barrier in Duma elections from 5% to 7% has reduced the number of parties that are represented in the Duma. The marshalling of state resources for the benefit of United Russia has both weakened opposition parties while making the Duma itself a pliant extension of the Kremilin’s arm. Independent nationwide media has come under government control while big business and the oligarchs who run them have been taught a valuable lesson by the example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. NGOs and civil society organizations have been burdened by complicated re-registration procedures while sometimes facing the threat of being branded an “extremist organization” subject to liquidation. In short, there are fewer and fewer actors that can exert any sort of political influence, let alone serve as a viable opposition.
As independent political centers are reduced, ordinary citizens are left with fewer and fewer means by which they can make their views known and influence the politics of their country. There comes a point at which their views can be expressed in the only place left open and unregulated: the streets. Thus, rallies, demonstrations, and protests are the last stand for those who wish to influence the politics of an authoritarianizing regime. It is no coincidence that as Putin’s Russia has become more autocratic we’ve seen an increase in the number, frequency, and intensity of political protests. Nothing else can capture the attention of the regime, and it is now clear that the Kremlin’s attention has been captured.
It is also clear now why Nashi and its Kremlin backers are so fearful of opposition and see the need to enforce order: public protests are the last means by which their power and control are threatened, and it is a threat which – like the Duma, the Federation Council, political parties, independent media, civic organizations, and oligarchs – must be contained. Russia’s leaders have stated on several occasions that an “Orange Revolution” will not take place in Russia. Nashi’s activists seem determined to make sure of it.
And so, come this fall, the Nashisti will take to the streets in massive numbers to “carry out appropriate countermeasures” against the fifth column of Russian society, the democratic opposition. What is frightening is the language Nashi is using – this is the language of battle, the language of warfare. Though they deny that they will use physical force, they are permitted by law to use force if an individual is actively disobedient. Thus, any refusal to comply with a Nashi activist’s instructions could be construed as active disobedience and worthy of physical force. While they may claim that no force will be used, this is hardly a credible claim from an organization that casts its mission on the streets in the language of violence. In the heat of “battle” do we really expect the Nashi brigades to maintain the discipline to refrain from using physical force? Certainly not. Nor can we expect oversight or justice for those who are injured at the hands of a Nashi activist “maintaining order.” Can one really imagine the police taking the word of an opposition protester over that of a Nashi patriot?
And so, we have many new sounds to look forward to this fall in Russia: the sounds of boots marching in step, the sounds of skulls cracking on pavement, and perhaps most troubling, the sound of the final nail being pounded into the coffin of public protest and democratic opposition.
The Moscow Times editorial board also weighs in on this subject:
Nashi, the youth group that is the bane of any foreign or Russian politician who has dared oppose the Kremlin, is becoming a militia of sorts. As reported by David Nowak in Monday’s issue, the group has struck an agreement with the Moscow police force to maintain public order with brigades of unarmed volunteers. But what kind of order could Nashi possibly offer? To help provide an idea, here’s a sampling of some of the group’s activities since it emerged in early 2005.
- February 2005: Holds initial training conference for 200 youths in the Moscow region. Beats up and throws out a Yabloko youth leader who snuck in.
- March: Declares itself to be a “healthy reaction” to the now-banned National Bolshevik youth group.
- April: Calls founding congress and vows to fight corrupt bureaucrats, liberal politicians including Vladimir Ryzhkov and Garry Kasparov, fascists, ultranationalists and U.S. influence. The same day the congress is held, a young man strikes Kasparov over the head with a chessboard. Kasparov and Yabloko blame Nashi for the attack.
- July: Holds its first annual summer camp, with lectures about elections, patriotism and the handling of weapons. President Vladimir Putin meets with delegates.
- August: Blamed for an attack on National Bolshevik Party activists by masked men wielding baseball bats and gas pistols.
- October: Accused by Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov of staging violent attacks on the opposition.
- July 2006: Disrupts conference held by The Other Russia opposition coalition, whose leaders include Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov and National Bolshevik founder Eduard Limonov.
- July-December: Pickets the British Embassy and hounds Ambassador Tony Brenton and his family after Brenton attends The Other Russia conference.
- May 2007: Storms a news conference called by Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand to demand that Estonia apologize for its relocation of a Soviet monument in Tallinn. Camps out at the Estonia Embassy for seven days.
- September: Forms brigades to head off possible political unrest during State Duma elections in December.
Nashi is believed to be the brainchild of Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, who is also credited with creating United Russia and Rodina. Its financing is murky, although it denies accepting money from the state. The last thing Moscow needs is unrest during the election season. Nashi, however, lacks credibility when it comes to maintaining order. It’s clear that Nashi has been involved in violent activities. It’s clear that Nashi has its own agenda.
People charged with maintaining order should be impartial and responsible. Nashi isn’t.