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Russian Youth Groups Spring up Amid Social Reform Protests


During the past six weeks Russian President Vladimir Putin has weathered the largest protests of his presidency, sparked by public discontent over the most radical social welfare reforms since the Soviet Union's collapse. The protests have reportedly led to Kremlin concern about possible uprisings similar to that sparked in Ukraine by the student opposition group PORA. At least two new student opposition groups want a voice in Russia.

More than 40 million people, many living below the poverty line, have reportedly been affected by the reforms that replace Soviet-era benefits, such as free transport and subsidized medicines and utility bills, with cash payments from the government.

But many Russians say the cash payments are few and far between, if they are received at all, leaving protest as their last and final option.

Oleg Solomein, the president of Sverdlovsk's union for Chernobyl Liquidators, represents the thousands of people sent in unprotected to clean up after the world's worst nuclear disaster at devastating risk to their health. He says the workers and their families cannot live without benefits.

Mr. Solomein says he thinks the time has come when the government realizes that the protests are not just a one-time affair, but rather that people like himself are in it until the end.

According to Russian police estimates, about 250,000 people have demonstrated across the country on one side or another.

President Putin has sought to distance himself from the awkward start to the reforms, which helped fuel a free-fall of his popularity ratings from a high of 89 points to 64. That rating has yet to recover and the chief analyst for the Public Opinion Foundation poll in Moscow, Grigory Kertman, says it may go even lower.

Mr. Kertman says plans to reform the Soviet education, health care, and housing systems are also potentially harmful for President Putin and his administration.

Lashing out at lawmakers during a recent cabinet meeting in Moscow, Mr. Putin said that neither federal nor local ocial reforms, which he says are directly linked to the guarantee of adequate living conditions for Russia's citizens.

President Putin is urging lawmakers to inform and even consult with the public in order to lessen the shock of the changes.

But the protests show no signs of stopping, especially with the founding of two new anti-government youth groups that hope to give the Kremlin and its new pro-Putin youth group, known as Nashi, some serious competition.

Opposition leader Ilya Yashin leads the youth wing of Russia's liberal Yabloko party. He told VOA the battle lines have already been drawn.

Mr. Yashin says on one side of the barricade is what he calls an aggressive, bureaucratic majority and police batons. On the other, he adds, is a demoralized, disorganized civil society.

He says his groups goal now is to form a civil opposition in Russia to counter what he says is growing authoritarianism. Mr. Yashin stresses that his group is peaceful and non-violent, planning only civil demonstrations. But he says he is concerned about Nashi's true intentions.

Mr. Yashin says he and nearly 2,000 supporters fear that the Kremlin's newly formed youth movement will be used to form assault brigades which, he says, will develop ways to exert direct violent pressure on the opposition.

Moscow-based Independent political analyst Masha Gessen says the new pro-Kremlin youth group promotes the idea of "us against them."

"It is a bizarre thing to do in support of a sitting president," said Masha Gessen. "What they are doing by forming this movement is they are clearly admitting that the president is in grave danger and so they need this sort of war party to stand up for him. We should expect, at the very least, an escalation of rhetoric, which has already begun, and, at most, and at worst, violence."

In order to strengthen his group's chances to resist, Mr. Yashin's group recently joined forces with the leader of another opposition youth movement known as Moving Without Putin.

The leader of that small group, 22-year-old Alexander Korsunov, has big plans.

He recently launched a computer Web site giving details about the hundreds of protests across the country following the introduction of the controversial social reforms. He also hopes to link up disparate opposition groups in Russia opposed to the Putin government in order to consolidate resources and unleash greater dissent.

So, like so many of his youthful generation, he decided to harness the power of the Internet to get out his message.

Mr. Korsunov says he fears for the day when the Kremlin decides to try to silence the information technology revolution. He says the Internet is the only remaining place where one can freely spread and receive information, including opinion.

He says in Russia, like elsewhere, computer technology is favored by socially active and informed people who, he says, want to change things. Mr. Korsunov says information is the first step toward democracy.

Both opposition leaders Korsunov and Yashin, say the Kremlin's greatest fear, a PORA-style opposition group in Russia, will one day be realized.

Russia's young people have been largely absent from efforts to build democracy in the post-Soviet era. But recent signs indicate that could be about to change.

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