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New anti-Putin youth movement draws old reaction

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—They came together only a few weeks ago, with a core group of about 10 university students. Quickly, they decided on their name—Walking Without Putin.

They printed fliers, worked the Internet and got several hundred students to join an anti-government march last Saturday through the bitterly cold streets of St. Petersburg.

They also stirred up the interest of some threatening-looking men who left no doubt of their ties to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. The men told the students they should change the group's name and strongly suggested 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."

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

Obozov said Walking Without Putin—the name is a play on Walking Together, the 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 ex-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 (in Russian, Iduschie Vmeste) is the only youth group of any size or political impact. A straight-laced organization that clearly has ties to the Kremlin, its members idolize Putin and wear T-shirts bearing his picture at their rallies.

When mainstream opposition parties recently held a congress in Moscow that drew 1,000 activists, Walking Together responded with a pro-Putin rally that drew 5,000.

"The leaders of Walking Together have called us traitors," Obozov said. "They said we should be thrown in prison."

Saturday's march in St. Petersburg, which attracted 5,000 demonstrators, included a broad array of political parties, opposition activists and elderly pensioners who are angry over cutbacks in Russia's social-welfare system. Their unprecedented street protests have flared across Russia for the past three weeks, forcing the government to restore subsidies for public transportation, utilities and health care.

"Putin really humiliated our pensioners and our war veterans," Obozov said, noting that students also took a hit from the benefit "reforms," including a tripling of the price of their monthly bus-and-subway pass.

Walking Without Putin (www.noputin.com) has other concerns on its agenda, particularly the possible elimination of student military deferments. When Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov floated that idea recently, Obozov said, "For us, that was the last straw."

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 exporting a rose- or orange-hued revolution to Russia will 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 the national TV channels.

"Georgia was small, Ukraine was bigger, but Russia is huge," said Natalya Yevdokimova, a liberal member of the St. Petersburg legislature. "It's difficult to shake this monster."

Students and young people were highly organized in the Soviet Union. Most joined the Young Pioneers, the communist version of the Scouting movement in the West. For older kids there was the Komsomol, the official youth wing of the Communist Party that carried heavier political indoctrination.

But young people have been slow to organize in post-Soviet Russia, and many current students say the workload and pressure at universities are simply too demanding and time-consuming. What is mostly unsaid is that spots at top schools are too precious to jeopardize by engaging in opposition politics.

Obozov said the dean at Polymer University already has called him in to suggest he moderate his views.

Obozov, who describes himself as an average student, said his group didn't want to affiliate with any established political parties, although they've met recently with liberals, trade unions and communists. The liberal party Yabloko, or Apple, printed posters and leaflets for them.

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.

"It seems to have," Obozov said, "a reference to freedom."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-YOUTH

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