MOSCOW (Reuters) – Thousands of Russian youths marched by the red stone walls of the Kremlin on Thursday in the latest organized show of support for President Vladimir Putin, who wants to stay in politics after his term ends.
The youth group Nashi, which organized the rally of around 15,000, has emerged as a key tool in Kremlin efforts to create mass support for Putin and drown out opposition protests.
Putin, 55, has pledged not to run for a third consecutive term in elections next year but has made clear he plans to retain political influence in an as yet unspecified role.
“We are here to support Putin create a greater Russia,” said Lyuda Rostova, an 18-year-old law student from Orenburg which is a day’s journey from Moscow. “People who don’t agree are wrong.”
Police blocked off several major streets through central Moscow to facilitate the rally, snarling traffic and frustrating drivers. Opposition demonstrations are rarely given permission to march along major streets.
Young models paraded along a catwalk into the crowd wearing Nashi designer streetwear — all in the group’s trademark red and white colors.
Vladimir, a 20-year-old, had traveled for four days by train from the Siberian city of Irkutsk to be at the rally.
“Of course I wanted to come and see Moscow as I haven’t been here before but I also believe in what Putin is doing,” he said. “Putin is our 21st century leader.”
A young man with a microphone paced around a stage big enough for a rock concert. Behind him a sign proclaimed: “Our future with Putin”.
“Not all our country believes in a future with (Putin), he said. “They want an ineffective, weak country. We are for a great, strong country.”
The ranks of youths waved Russian and Nashi flags — red with a white diagonal cross — and bellowed their support.
“December 2007, our victory,” proclaimed many of the identical white capes worn by the Nashi activists.
This was the second mass Nashi rally since Russia’s parliamentary election on Sunday in which Putin’s United Russia party won over 60 percent of the votes, but which Western election observers said was unfair.
On Wednesday, Nashi demonstrated outside the British Embassy in Moscow, handing officials a letter addressed to Queen Elizabeth demanding that she sack Britain’s envoy to Russia, Anthony Brenton.
Brenton has been targeted by Nashi since he spoke at an NGO conference last year where anti-Kremlin politicians were present.
Nashi, widely reported to be the brainchild of Putin’s chief political strategist Vladislav Surkov, draws its core of support from the young in middle- and lower-income families living mainly in cities in central Russia.
It offers them the chance of excitement, belonging and camps away from home with friends.