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Untalented Youth Need Not Apply to Pro-Kremlin Camp

MTVasily Yakemenko, center, founding father of Nashi and head of the Federal Youth Agency, visiting Seliger in 2008.

When the annual Seliger summer camp kicks off this Friday several hundred kilometers northwest of Moscow, thousands of young men and women will gather around tents and barbecues to discuss key issues ranging from technology and entrepreneurship to Orthodox Christianity.

Among them will be quite a few of the country's future leaders, according to Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement closely linked to the camp, although it officially is no longer the sponsor but merely in charge of "technical-organizational support."

Many of the expected 25,000 campers are also on a new list of 25,000 people deemed to be the country's most talented youth, Nashi spokeswoman Anastasia Fedorenchik said.

Vasily Yakemenko, founding father of Nashi and head of the Federal Youth Agency, the camp's official sponsor, presented the list to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last Saturday.

The names on it include Olympic champions, entrepreneurs who pay their taxes, "and may even include a journalist with a very large blog audience," Yakemenko told Putin, according to a transcript published on the government's web site.

The list echoes President Dmitry Medvedev's "Golden 1,000" reserve of national talent but, unlike the Kremlin model, will be not published, Fedorenchik said. "It is confidential for intellectual property reasons," she told The Moscow Times.

Participants at this year's Seliger outing, which runs through July 29, will have to prove their worthiness through past achievements, Yakemenko told reporters last week. "An engineer or inventor should already have a working prototype. An artist should have won a prize already," he said, Gazeta.ru reported.

The summer camp, held annually since 2005 at Lake Seliger, in the Tver region 350 kilometers from Moscow, has gradually turned toward business after initially offering training sessions aimed at preventing a popular uprising like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

This year, organizers even invited the British Council, the organization that bore the brunt of a dispute between Moscow and London in the wake of the poisoning death of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

The British Council, the cultural arm of the British Embassy, declined the invitation, but camp director Ilya Kostunov told The Moscow Times last month that Nashi had changed its critical stance toward Britain.

With a focus on innovation and business activity, Seliger is poised to fit in with Medvedev's modernization policies.

Medvedev has stepped up efforts to lift the entrepreneurial spirit in the country, evident in his project for a national "Silicon Valley" at Skolkovo outside Moscow.

But critics maintain that the Kremlin's youth policy suffers from the same deficiencies as its overall modernization policy — a lack of open political competition.

"A national reserve of talented young people is a fine thing, but burdening it with ideological baggage is another," said Marina Litvinovich, a prominent opposition blogger.

She said the problem with Nashi and Seliger was that young people could only participate if they shared similar political views.

"Having only one right political viewpoint already violates the concept of a national list for talented people," she said.

Litvinovich also suggested that Nashi and other pro-Kremlin organizations like Young Russia and Young Guard suffered from a lack of ideology and relied heavily on government funds.

"They only exist because they can offer free trips, like to Lake Seliger. Without this they would be nothing," she said.

Yakemenko said the summer camp would cost 177 million rubles ($5.7 million), including 97 million rubles from the Federal Youth Agency and 80 million rubles from unspecified "partners."

Analysts said the price tag was not out of the ordinary and the original reasons for the state to support Nashi still held true.

"The 1990s showed that without such an organization, many young people drift to extremist organizations, which are uncontrollable by the state," said Sergei Mikheyev of the Center for Political Technologies.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist who heads the Academy of Sciences Institute for Elite Studies, agreed, saying it was better to have pro-Kremlin youth organizations than none.

But she denied that young people had no political options, saying opposition youth groups continue to exist.

"Where there is political activity, there is youth activity," she said.

Kryshtanovskaya said she was busy setting up a new group within United Russia, the ruling political party, of which she is a member. The movement, dubbed Novokon, or New Conservatives, will target university graduates and is supposed to be an intellectual alternative to Young Guard.

But questions remain about the old pro-Kremlin groups, which built a cult-like aura around Putin. Rather tellingly, Yakemenko is credited with being the first official to use the term "sovereign democracy."

"We step out for sovereign democracy where human freedom and the freedom of the state are essential," he told Komsomolskaya Pravda in October 2005, six months after he founded Nashi.

There have been no signs that the pro-Kremlin groups are prepared to demonstrate a similar admiration for Medvedev.

Mikheyev said the groups had another purpose as well: to mobilize voters for United Russia.

"After all, the young are those who can be influenced most strongly," he said.

The future of Nashi and its counterparts depend on the political situation in the country, he added. "If everything is stable and predictable, their significance will fall," he said.

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