Bureaucracy Stymies Pro-Kremlin Youth Retreat
Share with others:
MOSCOW -- For years, the Kremlin has sponsored a summer retreat where thousands of young people from across Russia, screened for ideology, camp on a lake and attend seminars with the country's leaders and political experts. Outsiders have rarely been permitted.
This year, however, organizers announced that they would invite foreigners, hoping to promote more openness and an exchange of ideas with the rest of the world.
It has not turned out that way. Instead, it appears to have turned into an object lesson in how even a modest effort at openness by President Dmitri A. Medvedev can run aground on the unforgiving shoals of Russian bureaucracy.
Numerous young people, mostly university students in their 20s from diverse countries, including the United States, Germany and Pakistan, accepted invitations to the retreat and bought plane tickets, eager to explore Russia and to meet their Russian counterparts.
But when the retreat started Friday, dozens of the invited foreigners were not there because they had not been able to obtain Russian visas, according to interviews and Internet posts. The government agency that runs the retreat seemed at a loss to help them or explain why the visa process fell apart.
"Incompetent time wasters," Raja M. Salis, from Britain, wrote last week on the retreat's Facebook page. "I've e-mailed these dudes on numerous occasions, and to my disappointment, they haven't even sent me a reply."
The Facebook page was filled with posts from around the world criticizing the retreat's organizers over the visa debacle. Organizers said last month that they hoped that 1,000 foreigners would attend. It was unclear how many ended up making it.
The retreat has long had close ties to a strident pro-Kremlin youth group called Nashi, ("Ours" in Russian). Under the leadership of Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister and former president, the Kremlin created Nashi in response to the so-called color revolutions that brought pro-Western governments to power in former Soviet republics, particularly the one in Ukraine in 2004. It hoped that Nashi activists would help counter possible protests against the authorities in Russia.
The retreat's new internationalist flavor was intended to reflect improving relations between Russia and the West, especially the United States. The Obama administration has pursued a so-called reset in relations with Russia, and last month President Medvedev made a visit to the United States that was widely seen in Russia as a major success.
"Our goal is to integrate Russian youth into the global community, and make our country more accessible for foreigners," Mikhail Mamonov, who is responsible for international relations at the Federal Agency on Youth Affairs, said in an interview before the visa problems cropped up.
But change comes slowly to Russian bureaucracy. Potential participants were told to apply for a visa through the youth agency, which then was supposed to work with consular officials in various countries to ensure that visas were granted. But in many cases, the process broke down.
Mr. Mamonov did not respond to several requests last week for comments about the complaints. His office said he was already at the retreat, in a forest on the shores of Lake Seliger, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, and was not reachable. But he posted a statement on the retreat's Web site in which he seemed to throw up his hands.
"You tried your best to get a Russian visa, which was an uphill battle with bureaucracy and all sorts of formalities," the statement said in English. "We celebrate those who made it and sincerely apologize to those who did not. In our defense, we must say that we did everything possible and impossible for you -- however, it is as good as it got."
A handful of Americans had planned to participate in the retreat, and most had to cancel, according to interviews.
"The visa issues seem to plague me every time I try to get to Russia," Phil Guthrie, 26, a graduate student in post-Soviet studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio, said in an e-mail interview.
He said he had been "excited by the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals, participate in seminars and attend the lectures offered."
Others spoke of similar problems.
"I wanted to visit Russia because of the myths and stories associated with Russia," Rosanwo Babatunde, 29, a Nigerian student in Ukraine, said in a telephone interview. "It seems I have to reserve my comments for now."
Some foreigners did get visas, and their presence at the retreat was played up on state television. Some posted their first impressions on the Internet.
"Since this is an international forum, there should be more English!" Ritesh Kumar Kanodia of Nepal wrote on the Facebook page. "It's very difficult for the international students! At the same time I would also like to say that organizing an event of this scale is really commendable! The tents, toilets, activities, amazing!"
The retreat lasts most of July, but organizers had planned the first week for events between foreigners and roughly 2,000 Russians. An additional 20,000 or so Russians were expected to attend later in the month.
Even before the visa problems, invitations to the foreigners stirred controversy because of the reputation of Nashi.
For years, the group held raucous pro-Kremlin rallies and harassed foreign diplomats in Moscow perceived as hostile to Russian interests.
Just a few years ago at Lake Seliger, participants snickered at a huge poster of opposition figures dressed as prostitutes stuffing dollars into their underwear. But the group's activities have been mellowing lately. And Americans who had planned to attend said they did not expect it to be as politicized as it once was.
While the retreat was supposed to change this year, some Russian critics pointed out that members of opposition groups were still barred from attending. And if the foreigners did not get visas, the critics said, all the better, because then they would not be lending prestige to the event.
"No one ever welcomed us at Seliger," said Roman A. Dobrokhotov, the leader of an opposition youth movement called My ("We" in Russian). "However the forum positions itself this time, its essence remains the same."
First Published July 6, 2010 2:01 am