The Tip of a Nasty Iceberg

nashi012908.jpgDmitry Sidorov, the Washington DC-based bureau chief of Kommersant, has an opinion article today in Forbes about the frequent harrassment, threats, and violence against independent journalists in Russia, especially those working for Novaya Gazeta (which recently received a disturbing shipment of severed donkey ears – a mafioso-like message).  Sidorov points to the state-sponsored elements of these attacks, most notably in the activities of the Nashi.

Nashi was created with the help of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s resident ideological guru, who kept his post as deputy head of the presidential administration after Dmitry Medvedev was anointed president by Vladimir Putin. The organization has made a name for itself not only for its fawning admiration of Putin and Medvedev, but also for sinister bits of street theater targeting anyone they see as opponents of the Kremlin, be they foreign diplomats or Russian writers and journalists.

On the Nashi victim list was Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ambassadorto Russia, who was followed by movement members after the Estoniangovernment decided in 2007 to move a Soviet war memorial in theircountry’s capital. Another target was British Ambassador AnthonyBrenton, who had the effrontery to speak in 2006 at a conferenceorganized by the Other Russia opposition movement, which is headed bychess champion Gary Kasparov. And there was the writer VladimirSorokin, whose works Nashi deemed injurious to national sensibilitiesand proceeded to stuff into a large papier-mâché toilet in the centerof Moscow.

One might note that Nashi tracked the movements of the Britishambassador in Moscow relying on information that is believed to havebeen provided to them by the Kremlin via the Federal Security Service,the proud inheritor of the KGB mantle known in Russia by the initialsFSB. Also worth noting is the appointment of former Nashi leader VasilyYakimenko as head of the Federal Youth Agency, a division of theRussian Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy, three months andone day after Dmitry Medvedev took the presidential oath on May 7, 2008.

The shipment of donkey ears to Novaya Gazeta resemblesnothing so much as a Kremlin riff on a famous scene from the Godfather.When, in the midst of a mafia war, Sonny Corleone gets a dead fishwrapped in a bulletproof vest, he asks “What the hell is this?” One ofhis capos explains that it betokens the demise of the Corleone’s mainenforcer: “Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.”

Youth movements sired by authoritarian governments and dictatorshipsalways carry in their genes the ideology and behavior of their”parents.” Nashi is no exception, and the source of its ugly, thuggish”patriotism” is as clear as its mafia mentality.

Last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national securityadvisor under President Jimmy Carter, noted with hope that the currentregime in Russia has not produced a generation of followers. But he’swrong.

Nashi is just the tip of a nasty iceberg that includes even scariernationalistic movements throughout Russia, all of them formed with thesilent support of the security services and the Kremlin. Theirincreasing activity has coincided with a rash of killings targetingenemies of the Kremlin all over the country. If free speech and humanrights are not a priority on the long list of issues the White Houseneeds to discuss with the Kremlin, then the recent meeting betweenPresident Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in London is worth little ornothing.