Political Payoff, Political Curse

It took a week longer than was predicted.  But few doubted that it was only a matter of time.  Prime Minister Zubkov finally made it official: Vasilii Yakemenko will head the Kremlin’s Youth Committee as expected.  Now Yakemenko has the real capital to affect youth politics in Russia–a budget that is estimated to be $160 million rubles.  In fact, getting a handle on this money appears to be Yakemenko’s first assigned task.  “Vasilii’s first step in the position of leader will be the dog-eat-dog fervor in the struggle for departmental resources,” a source told Kommersant.  The Commission’s potential budget not only comes from what the Russian government has allocated for youth, but also from the Ministry of Culture and the State Sport Agency; not to mention monies allocated for youth in regional budgets.

Yakemenko is a pure post-Soviet vydvizhenets bureaucrat.    Born in 1971 to a helicopter designer and translator, Yakemenko experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union in the army, where he served as a radio-telegraphist.  Upon his discharge he tried the private sector.  His business activities in the new Russia included leasing helicopters, starting a publishing company, general trading, and building ventilators.

Making only moderate headway in the gangster capitalism of the 1990s, Yakemenko eventually decided that the social mobility of a unabashed pro-Kremlin chinovnik bore more fruit.  And thus he turned his entrepreneurial skills to politics.  His first brush will the political was a brief stint in the music business, where he was the producer for the group Muzyka lezha, which, in 1999, recorded the song “Staryi primus,” which ridiculed Evgenii Primakov.  He was also involved in “Singing Together,” a quickly defunct music project devoted to recording patriotic songs.  Yakemnko must have liked the “together” theme because a year later he created the first pro-Putin youth organizations, Walking Together.  Walking Together, however, quickly ran out of political steam.  When the political winds were blowing “revolution” across the CIS, first in Georgia, then Ukraine, and finally stalling in Kyrgyzstan, Walking Together didn’t seem to have the right kind of “umph” to ward off any potential attraction “colored revolution” had among Russian youth.  Nashi was born in 2005 in that context.

Yakemenko’s almost religious devotion to Putin borders on monarchist adulation.   In an interview in Gazeta in January 2006, of Putin he said, “It would be simply great if Putin goes for a third even a forth [term].  Let’s talking about it openly.  In the last few years, the game with gubernatorial elections could not be settled, and what was the result?  The result was that Mintimer Sharipovich Shaimiev sate for 29 terms [in office].   Is that so bad?  No, it’s good!”  If I would guess, Yakemenko is a fervent member of the fabled “Third Term Party.”

That kind slavishness has finally paid off as Yakemenko now enters the government.  And what does this mean for Nashi in particular and Russian youth politics in general?  While too soon to tell, it’s a clear signal that Nashi will have to decide its future with only the indirect influence of their leader and founder.  I say indirect because I doubt that heading a state commission and scrambling for state funds will allow much time for a direct role in Nashi’s everyday operations.  That leadership vacuum could have profound effects on the direction Nashi takes especially as it seeks to define its post-Putin identity.

Here the parallels with the Komsomol of the 1920s come into view.  It didn’t take long for the Komsomol to experience an “identity crisis” of sorts.  Already unsure of its purpose toward the end of the Civil War (would it be class based or a mass organization? Was it to be subordinated to the Bolshevik Party or merely affiliated? Was it a revolutionary organization for youth or a political educative body?), only became more chaotic as its peasant membership exploded, thereby diluting both its proletarian numerical hegemony and the influence of members with “revolutionary credentials,” and having its deity, Lenin, die in 1924.  By the time the Komsomol’s first generation had all but left by the end of the decade, the League was expanding numerically but atrophying in political vivaciousness.  It took Stalin’s Revolution to re-inject it with revolutionary romanticism.

Nashi will certainly not experience the same political questions, but it could certainly be met with similar overarching problems of identity, purpose, and energy.  Yakemenko’s “promotion” could signal their beginning.  Nashi’s future leaders are an average of ten years his younger.  Yakemenko is 36, while the front runners to head the organization, Nikita Borovikov and Marina Zademid’kova are 26 and 22 years old respectively.  For them the turbulence of the 1990s, which if anything Nashi’s existence is predicated on avoiding a return, is merely a childhood memory.  Their formative experience are the Putin years, a fact that begs the question whether the organization can find a definitive post-Putin calling.  The answers to these questions will only become more imperative as Nashi grows in numbers and influence.

But Nashi’s future is only one issue among many when you consider the power Yakemenko now has in shaping youth politics in general.  The purse strings are a powerful weapon in deciding the life and death of youth organizations.  I’m sure that Yakemenko will wield that weapon effectively for the tastes of his political masters.  His first rehearsal will be the Duma elections, but I doubt the Youth Committee will have a big impact in December unless it works double time.  The real performance will be immediately following the Presidential elections in March.  I say after, and not before, because the elections will provide enough natural inertia to push political youth into action.  The real task will be maintaining a semblance of that fervor in the months following.

It is here that at least the financial centralization of youth politics under Yakemenko may prove to be a contradiction.  For sure having the power to manipulate the purse strings allows for greater influence, especially in the regions.  But history has shown that youth organizations don’t function well centralized. Centralization saps their energy, making them rote, predictable, and boring, and as a result, hollow.   Considering that Nashi’s successes have been their more flamboyant acts–the anti-Estonian rallies, hounding British Ambassador Brenton, holding summer camp, public events and campaigns, not to mention confronting opposition youth groups in the streets–centralization threatens to streamline and flatten the carnivalesque that makes participation in pro-Kremlin groups like Nashi attractive, not to mention fun.  Thus Yakemenko is faced with the same problems his forefathers of the Komsomol did in their first years.  How does one effectively meld political discipline with youth spontaneity?  On this, the creation of a Youth Commission in general, and Yakemenko’s appointment in particular, might cause more harm than good.