University of Helsinki,
Vladimir Putin’s presidency has witnessed the revival of government-organized youth activism as a part of authoritarian regime consolidation. The infamous pro-Putinist youth movement “Nashi” (2005–2012) was just one government-organized youth organization among many that have emerged since the early 2000s. In contemporary Russia, the sphere of government-organized youth organizations is characterized by pluralism. The operation of these associations has implications not just for the Russian youth, but for the wider Russian state and society, too.
“Government-organized NGOs” (abbreviated “GONGOs”) are formally non-governmental organizations that are set up or sponsored by the government in order to further its political interests either at home or abroad. In authoritarian states, GONGOs play the role of a docile civil society organizations supportive of the government and implement state policy among a specific sub-group of citizens. Although GONGOs come in all shapes and sizes, they are especially prominent in the youth sphere. This is because youth GONGOs promise to bring up young people into loyal supporters of the regime, an offer authoritarian leaders find hard to resist.
In post-communist Russia, government-organized youth NGOs can be divided into three categories: coopted organizations, youth movements of the Kremlin, and patronage organizations. These organizations are similar in their dependence from the Russian government, but vary in terms of their affiliation with it.
Coopted organizations are youth movements and associations that used to be independent but have since been incorporated into the network of GONGOs. The cooptation took place as the government identified them as potential challengers and to neutralize the threat they pose, opted to extend benefits to them in exchange for their loyalty. A prototype of such organization is the Russian Youth Union (RYU), the juridical legacy organization of the Soviet era Communist Youth League. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the RYU emerged as a non-partisan and financially independent NGO. However, in the 2000s, the association gradually realigned its agenda to government interests in exchange for an expert status in the field of state youth policy and consistent funding.
Youth movements of the Kremlin are relatively loose structures that have been set up directly by the presidential administration. The youth movement “Nashi” is a case in point of such a “project”, established in 2005 by Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov. It had a clear goal and substantial resources, which is what enabled it to become omnipresent practically overnight. However, once the Kremlin stopped supporting the organization, it disappeared just as quickly as it had emerged. Yet numerous offshoots of the movement, such as the media project “Set’”, the environmentalist “Mestnye”, and the temperance movement “Lev protiv” are still active in the youth GONGO sphere.
In contemporary Russia, the Federal Agency of Youth Affairs “Rosmolodezh’” is a relatively flexible tool for establishing and financing youth GONGOs, such as the aforementioned “Nashi” legacy organizations. For example, in 2016, Putin endorsed the institutionalization of “Volunteers of Victory”, a movement that was set up the year before to promote the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War among youth.
Patronage organizations are movements that are set up and supported by specific state institutions, such as ministries or political parties. While youth wings of political parties have been operating in Russia since the beginning of the multiparty system, ministry-affiliated youth organizations are a product of the early 2010s. For example, the “Young Army” National Military Patriotic Social Movement Association, set up in 2015, is supported by the government through the Ministry of Defense, while the Ministry of Agriculture runs the Russian Rural Youth Union. The patronage organizations are tools for promoting corporate interests among youth, and are thus somewhat more stable than youth movements of the Kremlin.
In contrast to the early 2000s, when the number of Russian youth GONGOs were countable on one hand, pluralism and competition in the government-affiliated youth organization sector have emerged in the 2010s. There is now a government-endorsed association for a young person wanting to engage in wildlife protection, volunteer in an orphanage, or even fight government corruption. Channeling administrative and financial support from the government to not just one but a network of GONGOs creates an illusion of civil society and contributes to the democratic façade of the regime.
The operation of a whole sector of government-organized youth NGOs has implications for the Russian state and society on both the macro and the micro level. On the macro level, the Russian government has demonstrated that it can construct a fairly sophisticated model of civil society made up of actors it controls either directly or indirectly. On the micro level, young people interested in civil society activism have a variety of government-endorsed outlets to choose from, which ought to be better suited for the needs of a more individualistic society. Yet there also lies the problem of the pluralistic model. Given the freedom of choice (and the relative freedom of information, at least online), young people can deliberately seek out organizations that are known to be affiliated with the opposition, if they prefer not to participate in government-supported associations.
Government-organized youth organizations in contemporary Russia impress with their scope and variety. Some associations are coopted civil society organizations, while others have been designed and established by political elites from the scratch. Awareness of these organizations and the way they operate is pivotal for the understanding of the government’s civil society and youth policy. Even if the infamous “Putin Youth” movement “Nashi” is a thing of the past, other government-organized youth organizations are doing better than ever.
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