Russian political opponents faced off Monday evening at a Georgetown University Student Association-sponsored event.
Featuring Mikhail Mamonov, head of the international relations department for the Federal Agency on Youth Affairs of the Russian Federation, and Ilya Yashin, opposition activist and protest organizer, the open forum held in the Intercultural Center auditorium fostered a discussion about current government initiatives to encourage openness and entrepreneurship in Russia.
Mamonov helps run the Seliger International Youth Forum, which is one of those programs.
Seliger has been controversial in the United States and Europe, however, as it was originally sponsored by pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which has been linked to attacks on foreign diplomats and journalists as recently as November.
Now under direct government control, the camp “seeks to set up a global network to promote mutual understanding, cooperation and education among the young people,” according to its website.
“I’m here to persuade you that Seliger international camp is not actually an al-Qaida boot camp,” Mamonov joked as he urged Georgetown students to attend the camp, which will be held at Lake Seliger in the Tver region of Russia this summer. “And to persuade you that Russia is opening up.”
He cited the Skolkovo innovation center project — also known as the Russian Silicon Valley — and his presence as examples of Russia’s progression. “A sign of Russia opening up is me being here and talking to Ilya, who is one of the most vehement critics of the incumbent regime,” he said.
However, Mamonov’s description of a government eager to democratize was contested by Yashin, who was arrested as recently as New Year’s Eve for protesting against President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration. Yashin dismissed Medvedev, calling him a “good blogger, [but a] bad president,” and pegging Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the leader of the Kremlin’s continued corruption and censorship of Russian media.
“We want you to understand what is really happening in our country. We know there is propaganda from Putin’s regime, we know there is propaganda from the Kremlin and pro-government movements, and we just want to give you more information for you to have the big picture,” he said.
Yashin also counseled students not to participate in the Seliger camp, saying that government officials will use students’ good reputation to boost the regime’s integrity.
“The only thing I have in this world is my reputation, and I don’t want to share my reputation with absolutely dirty and corrupted and criminal persons,” he said. “They tried to make these summer camps as a [state-sponsored] non-politic[al] camp, but they cannot do this.”
The two opponents answered student questions ranging from the use of social media in the opposition movement to speculation about Putin’s plans for the upcoming election. The debate remained civil despite heavy accusations and slight barbs from both sides.
“Hearing kind of the fact that neither of these two people would speak together in this kind of a setting in Russia, makes it really interesting — really how they would handle each other and really as Ilya said, that he wasn’t sure that his opponent would come,” Neza Bevc (COL ’11) said afterward.
“I thought it was very interesting. I thought watching the facial reactions was the most interesting of all,” GUSA Chief of Staff Daphne Panayotatos (SFS ’11) said. She helped organize the event along with outgoing GUSA President Calen Angert, who met Mamonov during a trip to Russia in November and invited him to speak.
“I just think it’s really valuable when you have these kind of connections to bring something new to students that maybe they wouldn’t hear, they wouldn’t hear in the classroom, they wouldn’t read online,” she said.