National Bolsheviks unnerve the Kremlin

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: A group of mostly young activists has become a political force seen as a threat by the Putin administration.

July 10, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The small group of young political activists had scarcely arrived at the imposing Uzbek Embassy, where they planned an unsanctioned protest, when police swooped in.

Apparently tipped off, scowling officers with Moscow's Rapid Reaction Force methodically hauled off 10 National Bolsheviks. The leader, Olga Shalina, who wears a lapel pin depicting a hand grenade, finished only half of her prepared statement before she was dragged away.

"Out with tyrants!" she shouted. "Revolution!"

The abortive July 4 demonstration was a brief skirmish. But it was just part of a larger battle between the administration of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and a one-time fringe political movement, which authorities fear has grown into a significant threat to state power.

`Damage' to Kremlin

"In the Kremlin, they are hysterical," says the National Bolshevik's 62-year-old leader, Eduard Limonov. "They are like a bull that sees a red cape, because we don't believe in playing by the rules of their game. We are really doing damage to them."

The government, in turn, is engaged in a crackdown on Limonov's group, which has attracted thousands of restive Russians in their rebellious teens and 20s. A Moscow court ordered the party banned June 29, after prosecutors accused it of trying to form an illegal armed group.

A few days later, 39 party members went on trial in a Moscow courtroom for allegedly trying to "destabilize" the government, after party members briefly occupied the presidential offices near the Kremlin on Dec. 14. Experts said it is one of the largest mass trials in the post-Soviet era.

National Bolsheviks has been repeatedly denounced in recent months by Kremlin officials and in the state-controlled media. Earlier this month, a national television channel aired a broadcast comparing Limonov to Adolf Hitler. A new pro-Putin youth group, "Ours," was formed last year specifically to counter the threat of the Bolsheviks, political experts here say.

Putin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov has told interviewers that the National Bolsheviks "pose a danger" that should not be underestimated, and he warned that "coups could be attempted."

Masha Lipman, a political expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the crackdown was an overreaction by authorities, reflecting the Putin administration's obsession with controlling Russia's political landscape.

"The Kremlin, with its policy of overdoing control, is seeking to bar all activity that may be unexpected - to cleanse the political space in Russia," she said.

Party members are frequent targets of violence. Since January, group officials say, there have been 15 attacks in Moscow by gangs of young men carrying iron bars, baseball bats and road flares.

Limonov says the attacks are part of an overall Kremlin strategy. "Putin has demolished politics in our country," he said. "He's created a police state on the pretext of the Chechen war. He created in Russia a kind of dictatorship - modern, of course - camouflaging his policies under the title of democracy."

The National Bolsheviks were born in the 1990s as a movement of punks and skinheads. But in recent years, the party has transformed itself into a more conventional, and powerful, political force.

It helped organize nationwide protests last winter against the Kremlin's efforts to reduce subsidies for social services. It has joined with Russia's embattled liberal democratic parties in calling for the Kremlin to loosen its control of the courts, parliament and the media.

And the party, which once supported the war in Chechnya, now calls for Russia to abandon the republic to separatists.

The core of the National Bolsheviks' appeal is its militant nationalism, probably the single most powerful political force in Russian politics. Putin's popularity, experts say, is linked to the perception that he is a strong leader who has restored much of Russia's dignity and stature in the world, and has tried to reassert the nation's influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

For many young people, though, Putin has been too timid. Limonov claims Putin "made a terrible mistake" after the September 2001 attacks on the United States by accepting the establishment of U.S. bases in Central Asia. "We're becoming a colony of the West," he said.

Party with flair

The party has also attracted attention - and recruits - through its flair for street theater. National Bolsheviks, who call themselves NatsBols, have splattered eggs and smeared mayonnaise on political targets. In May, party members with alpine equipment scaled a hotel facing Red Square and unfurled a giant banner urging "President Putin, Get Yourself Out!"

On the one hand, one Moscow party official said, these antics have gained the party "credibility." On the other, said party spokesman Pavel Zherebin, they have led to the jailing of some of the party's most active members.

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