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Fledgling youth groups worry post-Soviet authorities

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Julie A. Corwin
Publication Date 11 April 2005
Cite as EurasiaNet, Fledgling youth groups worry post-Soviet authorities, 11 April 2005, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Julie A. Corwin: 4/11/05

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from RFE/RL

During Soviet times, one measure of an artist's success was how strenuously the authorities would try to suppress their works; in this historical period, youth movements are experiencing a similar kind of success in the political arena judging by the attempts of political authorities to undermine them.

In Kyrgyzstan, before the recent Tulip Revolution, local authorities were so disturbed about the creation of a new youth group, KelKel, which had only 300 members at the beginning of 2005, that they resorted to dirty tricks to undermine them. They created their own KelKel, with an identical name and identical symbol and a similar website address. University students report being paid to attend the false KelKel's meetings.

While some authorities find their own youth groups worrisome, they seem even more disturbed by those from other countries. During the lead-up to the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine in 2004, authorities refused to allow Aleksandr Maric, a former activist with Serbia's Otpor and consultant for the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, back into Ukraine, forcing him to fly back to Serbia.

In Azerbaijan, members of Ukraine's Pora group were not allowed to leave the Baku airport's arrival hall during a recent trip, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 14. Ukraine's embassy in Baku was officially warned that if Pora activists appeared in Baku again, their activities would be considered an attempt to foment revolution with all the attendant consequences. Ukraine's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Anatoliy Yurchenko, even felt compelled to hold a special press conference at which he tried to convince those assembled that the cooperation agreement between Pora and the Azerbaijani opposition does not reflect the official position of the Ukrainian government or represent a threat to the leadership of Azerbaijan.

Why are governments in the former Soviet space so concerned about fledgling student groups? After all, Serbia's Otpor and Georgia's Kmara are hardly significant political forces in their own countries today. In December 2003, Otpor obtained less than 2 percent in national parliamentary elections, while Kmara has all but vanished from Georgia's political scene.

The danger that these groups pose is twofold. One, they act as spark plugs for politically passive and/or frightened populations. Two, they have a kind of know-how that is exportable.

The chronicle of Serbia's revolution is replete with examples of young members of Otpor politicizing not just their fellow students, but also their family members and community. According to French journalist Christophe Chiclet, Otpor members formed alliances with Nezavisnost (Independence), Serbia's only free trade union, as well as with the defense workers' union and the pensioners' organization not because of some grand political strategy but because their parents were in these organizations. In Ukraine, even the people who chose not to camp out on Independence Square in central Kyiv participated in their own way by bringing in food and supplies. And, Pora's financial support came mostly from domestic businessmen.

The activists themselves openly acknowledge learning from the experiences of their youthful colleagues in neighboring countries. In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on December 2, 2003, Kmara activist Giorgi Kandelaki said that he and his fellow activists read books about Otpor as well as receiving instructions directly from Otpor veterans. And more than a year later, Kandelaki, writing about the Orange Revolution in Ukraine on on January 19, 2005, described how Pora members borrowed Serbian and Georgian tactics when they blockaded the Prosecutor-General's Office, took charge of the opposition tent city in downtown Kyiv, and convinced the police to refrain from violence.

And there are other parallels. Otpor's philosophy of nonviolent resistance, its ubiquitous slogans, its attempt to include rather than oppose local law-enforcement officials, and, last but not least, its sense of humor are all mirrored in Pora's tactics. When the Milosevic regime started making claims that Otpor members were terrorists and drug dealers, many young people started wearing T-shirts that read "Otpor, Drug Addict." Otpor activists spray-painted their symbol on the door of police headquarters and their slogan, "He's done," referring to Milosevic, on walls, staircases, and in restrooms all over Serbia after the September 24, 2000 elections.

In Ukraine, Pora members also pasted stickers everywhere, such as "They Lie!" Activists used an incident in which presidential candidate and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was felled by an egg to ridicule him mercilessly. For example, they brought a giant egg to the cabinet of ministers building, asking them to protect the dignity of birds and to honor the yolk that died in defense of democracy by knocking down the "sportsman, activist, and prime minister, 120-kilogram Viktor Yanukovych." Despite being constantly arrested, Pora activists also tried to elicit sympathy from policemen by giving flowers in one instance and asking them to prosecute criminals rather than Pora members.

And as Pora members learned from the experiences of students in Serbia and Georgia, they have tried to pass on their own experiences to others. During the occupation of Kyiv's Independence Square, representatives of youth groups from Belarus and Russia were there to watch firsthand. On the return trip from Kyiv, four leaders from Belarus's Zubr were pulled off a train by the Belarusan secret police, savagely beaten, and tossed into a local jail, according to "The Washington Post" on January 10. Undaunted, Zubr activists met in February in Slovakia with members of Pora and other movements such as Otpor and Kmara in order to compare notes on democracy movements in the region (see "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," March 15, 2005).

For some CIS leaders wanting to protect their populations from infection, keeping a close watch on former activists is one solution. Former Otpor organizers are on blacklists of the secret services of several authoritarian regimes, according to historian Richard Wolin writing in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" on February 11. But such a solution has to be combined with controls on other means of communication such as the Internet, since Pora's website provides a daily chronicle of that organizations' activities.

Perhaps even more critical is to somehow eradicate all vestiges of previous indigenous political movements. In an interview with the Kyiv-based newspaper "2000" on January 21, Vladyslav Kaskiv, a coordinator for Pora, acknowledged that his group "made a careful study of the experience of various movements," but he downplayed the importance of Otpor's model. He said that they started their study with Ukraine's own Rukh, adding that it was Poland's Solidarity movement rather than Otpor that actually provided the model most relevant for Ukraine. According to Kaskiv, Pora was headed by veterans of the student movement that conducted the first protests in 1991 and who drew upon their experience then. And, Otpor, the grandfather of the subsequent movements in the CIS, itself began with the student veterans from the 1996-7 protest marches.

In Russia, where analysts and government figures have watched with increasing alarm as the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan unfold, political authorities appear to be preparing for even the most unlikely possibilities. In a recent interview with "Vedomosti" on April 5, political scientist Vladimir Golyshev reckoned that only 2-5 percent of Russian youth are politically active. Nonetheless, university authorities are watchful. According to "Kommersant-Vlast" on March 7, Moscow State University Rector Viktor Sadovnichii conducted an unusual session of the university administration at the end of February. He warned that students are "defenseless" and could wind up in a zone of "suspicious political forces." These forces could try to "sway" Russian youth, and "there are many examples around our motherland such as the Georgian Kmara and Ukrainian Pora."

The weekly noted that the university's administration has a rich history of political repression of students to draw on should the need arise. In 1848, when Europe was hit by a wave of revolution, the university gave increased powers to the inspector in charge of monitoring the students' attitudes. During Soviet times, these inspectors were given even more power to develop students' moral and ideological progress by organizing trips to farms to pick potatoes among other things.

The weekly commented that "now it's difficult to imagine someone who can seriously threaten a student revolt, but the authorities, possibly, know more than simple mortals and are getting prepared early." According to the weekly, at the end of 2004, the head of the department for youth policies at the Ministry for Education and Science, Sergei Apatenko, asked why his department had become so active – flocks of people were attending the department's seminars on youth policy – answered, "No one wants an Orange Revolution in Russia."

Posted April 11, 2005 © Eurasianet

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