Sunday, February 06, 2005

Navy Blue

Mark McDonald at the Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting article about the chances of an Orange-style pro-democracy revolution in Russia (free registration):
They printed flyers, worked the Internet, and got several hundred students to join an antigovernment march last weekend through the bitterly cold streets of St. Petersburg.

They also stirred the interest of some threatening-looking men who left no doubt about their ties to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. The men told the students that they should change the group's name, and strongly suggested that they shouldn't openly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin or the war in Chechnya.

"We shall definitely keep our name," chief organizer Mikhail Obozov said in a late-night interview in the cafe of a small hotel. "But for now, for the sake of the preservation of the movement, we might not directly mention Putin or Chechnya.

"We didn't really set ourselves up to attack the president. We just want to protect students' rights."

In the longer term, Walking Without Putin would like to use Ukraine as its political model in Russia. Its young organizers were mesmerized by the pro-democracy protests in Kiev in recent months.

But importing such a revolution to Russia would be difficult, political experts say. The Russian police and security services are widely feared, and the Kremlin controls virtually every lever of power, from the legislature, the courts and the regional governments to the election process and national TV channels.

Witness Obozov, 20, a slight, soft-spoken engineering student, son of a kindergarten teacher and a factory worker. He was sure he'd been tailed to his interview with me, and several times he lowered his voice to a whisper when speaking of the president.

Obozov said Walking Without Putin - the name is a wordplay on Walking Together, a pro-Putin youth group - isn't opposed to Putin personally. He does believe, however, that the president is "the embodiment of the building of a totalitarian state."

"We're also not very happy that he has connections with the secret services, that he was raised by them." (Putin, a St. Petersburg native, is a former KGB spy who also briefly headed the agency. Many of his closest aides in the Kremlin are former members of the security services.)

Young people and university students were instrumental in dislodging authoritarian governments in a number of former Soviet republics and satellites. Most recently, youth groups helped engineer the pro-democracy Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

But that trend has yet to emerge in Russia, where Walking Together is the only youth group of any size or political impact. A straitlaced organization that clearly has ties to the Kremlin, its members idolize Putin and wear T-shirts bearing his picture at their rallies.

The group want to remain independent of Russia's political parties, and

for now, the group has no hip T-shirts, no catchy slogans, not even a signature color, although organizers have debated what hue their incipient revolution might take. Navy blue is the current favorite.

Said Obozov: "It seems to have a reference to freedom."

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