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Analysis & Opinion
06.07.10 Here Today, In Office Tomorrow
By Roland Oliphant

The founder of the Nashi youth group last week handed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a list of the 25,000 most talented people in Russia. The list will not be published. But it seems the people running Russia in 20 years time probably won’t be the most skilled – they will be the ones with the best friends.

On June 26 Vasily Yakemenko, head of the Federal Youth Agency, founder of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, and still the chief planner of the organization’s annual Seliger youth camp, handed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a register of the 25,000 most talented young people in Russia.

He didn’t say who was on the list, or how they were chosen, only that they are divided into 150 categories and that the chosen few included “winners of international competitions, entrepreneurs who have paid their taxes in the last year, and a journalist who has the highest audience for blogging.” It’s not clear what Yakemenko’s “national register” will be used for – or even whether those on it know they are. But its production chimes closely with his former group Nashi’s current fetishes: boosting the search for an innovation economy and nurturing the next generation of Russian leaders.

Nothing signifies the shift in the group’s emphasis from fighting color revolutions to dragging Russia (more frowning and spieling than kicking and screaming) into the post-industrial age more than the annual youth camp at Lake Seliger. Once an exclusively Nashist affair from which strange rumors of brainwashing, paramilitary training and sinister breeding programs occasionally emerged, in 2009 it was thrown open to all comers and rebranded as an “innovation forum.” Would-be Sergei Brins from all over Russia were invited to pitch their inventions and business plans to investors, and Yakemenko hinted in his talk with Putin that the “entrepreneurs” on his list included some of the “winners” who found a backer.

This year the camp was rebranded yet again, as an “international youth forum” with guests from all over the world, taking it – and, presumably, Nashi – another step further from the famed militancy of old.

Yakemenko’s list is obviously well in keeping with the “innovation” drum that President Dmitry Medvedev has been banging almost since he came to power in 2008. It’s even a direct echo of his famous “Golden Thousand:” a national talent reserve - this time published - that raised eyebrows because it contained no one over 50 and no ex-spies, predictably prompting speculation that the new president was moving to outmaneuver his siloviki-connected mentor Putin. But it is also a sign that neither Yakemenko, nor Seliger, nor Nashi have changed a bit: nurturing the “future generation of leaders” is a project so close to Nashi’s heart that the home page of its Web site is headed by a double portrait of president Medvedev and prime minister Putin with the headline “Will You Be the Third?”

Well, will you?

It’s difficult to tell. Some Nashists do go on to greater things. Robert Schlegel, born in 1984, who in 2007 became the youngest deputy in the State Duma, is by far the most famous. Irina Plesheva, born in 1987, another ex-Nashist and now the youngest member of the Public Chamber, a non-legislative talking shop meant to act as a public forum for discussion, firmly believes that “a great deal” of the people who will be running Russia in 20 years time have been or will attend Seliger – if they’re not there right now enjoying the summer.

“It’s not that Seliger is a place you just go and afterward you’re a leader; and I’m not saying every Nashi commissar is going to end up in some high position in government or running a huge corporation,” she said. “But it’s the kind of place that attracts active people, people with potential who have their own position, and have something to say and something they want to do. And those kinds of people are naturally going to rise to the top.”

That’s probably true, all other things being equal (they rarely are, though). But such characters are not limited to the sanctioned, pro-Kremlin groups Plesheva mentioned. And Oleg Kozlovsky, born in 1984, a very active man with something to say from the opposite end of the political spectrum, sees Nashi as actually sabotaging the chances of ambitious youth. “Your success is certainly not going to be determined by getting on a list drawn up by an organization like Nashi, because its real purpose has nothing to do with finding new leaders,” said Kozlovsky, who’s an organizer of Oborona (Defense), a group that is part of the opposition Solidarity umbrella movement. “In fact, the goals of Nashi are to preserve the existing leadership. So their actual task is to find people ready to work for them,” he claimed.

Kozlovsky is convinced that Nashi’s primary purpose remains providing the government with the “cannon fodder” to combat a color revolution, despite the apparent shift of emphasis at Seliger. And he points out that apart from stand-out cases like Shlegel and Yakemenko, there are remarkably few examples of former Nashists going on to careers in government. And even those two are well away from the real levers of power. “If you look at what groups like Nashi have done in the past five years, with support from above, with resources, and money, I don’t see any special results,” agreed Mikhail Fishman, the editor of Russian Newsweek and at 37 “not young anymore,” in the generation slightly ahead of Pleshcheva and Kozlovsky.

So, if the future leaders aren’t at Seliger, where are they? “The big cities in the regions – Ekaterinburg, Perm,” said Fishman. “I know for a fact that there are some really quite charismatic young people out there, and they are already making their leadership known through the Internet.” “I’d look in universities – and not necessarily the most prestigious ones,” said Kozlovsky, singling out journalism, humanities and technical departments for particular attention. But most importantly, he reckoned, are independent, self-organized projects, from publications to political movements (“not wanting to advertise Oborona, but…”), to start-up businesses, with no help from above. “You’ll find that everyone there is a personality with very specific talents. It’s not just feet and hands to march to the square – it’s hearts and minds that make such things work.”

Theoretically, that doesn’t sound too different from Pleshcheva’s account, who is a sincere believer in the ultimate triumph of meritocracy. “Even those who wangle themselves a place using material positions through the informal system of favors, back scratching and networking we call ‘blat,’ will have to prove competent in their jobs if they want to keep them,” she said.

And although Fishman sees nepotism far more entrenched in the system, he also displays a kind of optimism in Kozlovsky and Pleshcheva’s generation. “In the past few years I’ve found, quite unexpectedly, that almost everyone who has achieved something, or is achieving something or is going to, in business or something else, is much younger than I am,” he laughed.
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