Putin At Summer Camp: Up Close As Russian Leader Mingles With Youth, Plays Politics

Vladimir Putin went to an annual summer camp organized by the pro-Putin youth group Nashi, in what was widely seen as an early stop on his election campaign to retake the Russian presidency.

Andrei Kalyesnikov

SELIGER - Entering the camp at Seliger, 300 miles northwest of Moscow, you quickly encounter a stage decorated with portraits of Dimitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, each sporting solemn Communist-era facial expressions that look like they'd been fashioned from granite.

Next to them are other portraits, but skillfully sketched in pencil, and stretching up to two meters high. The wooden flooring bears the words "the Kuril Islands are ours' (a reference to Russia territory dispute with Japan) while posters and quotes from Putin are hanging everywhere you look.

"Who is Putin thinking about?" asks a sign above a mirror. Your reflection shows that far from thinking about him, he is in fact thinking about you. Another larger-than-life poster of the Prime Minister warns, "Beware, those who sell alcohol to minors will end up in court."

There is a stand, showing off versions of the premier; as a cosmonaut, a builder and even a fisherman. Once you reach the other side of the camp, you begin to wonder if there is nothing he can't do.

Helicopter blades are heard chopping above. Panic ensues as it lands, as cries ring out: "Putin, Putin is coming!"

To the crowd's great disappointment, the figure emerging from the chopper is only the tourism minister and a few of his cabinet colleagues, all bewildered by such a rock-star reception. When Putin does finally arrive an hour and a half later, he seems at ease with the cheering of more than 4,000 young people.

He walks through the camp, stopping to listen to his famous 2007 Munich speech where he slammed the U.S, blaring out of loudspeakers.

Rock climbing, arm wrestling and political swaps

He comes across a practice rock-climbing wall, which requires safety equipment to scale. He leaps on it, scrambles up about a meter, insisting that safety equipment is for wimps, but losing sight of the holds, he is left hanging on for a few uneasy moments, before jumping off. Spiderman would have been proud.

His next stop is to pause in front of a two-seater bike, looking at it pensively. It seems to remind him of something.

There is also canoeing, arm wrestling and weightlifting. He then passes a board of holographic images of him and Dmitry Medevdev superimposed over each other, above them the words, "They are swapping."

Soon after, several thousand people squeeze into a tent in Putin's biggest ever press conference. He says he is proud to be there with so many young people. Putin then for the first time ever, describes how his father was one of only four out of 28 who survived behind enemy lines in World War II, and although seriously injured, miraculously saved his mother from death.

Asked about a possible American default, he calls the U.S "parasites on the world economy," and later says he couldn't give a damn about people who don't like his United Russia party.

One girl asks if he plans to return to Seliger next year, and if so, in what capacity. The question is elegantly put, which is more than can be said for the answer.

"If you are keen to sit down and chat with me, does it matter in what capacity? There's your answer."

One excited young man asks if a new political formation was created to help United Russia in the elections.

"To a large degree, that is true", the premier unexpectedly agrees. "Is that a bad thing? It is not a trap, we want to rejuvenate United Russia to appeal to new, interesting and beautiful people."

In response to other questions, he assured those present that the Americans did land on the moon and that the 9/11 attacks were not an inside job.

One girl asks earnestly: "Could Russia return to totalitarianism? There wasn't this kind of corruption under Stalin."

‘You really think so?" Putin says.

"Kind of," she replies.

"That's a shame", he sighed. "It is an ineffective way of running a country; it kills creativity and free ideas, that's what happened with the Soviet Union."

One student in particular took the premier's interest.

"What is your major? Political mathematics? That's a pseudo science."

The student then asked: "Is there any doubt you will stand in the 2012 elections."

Putin replied: "Tell me again what your major is? Mathematical political science? That's a harmful subject. The future is just around the corner and we may need to consult you over what to do next."

The back rows of young people gradually stop listening, even as those in front still eagerly raise their hands.

Sensing that he could test the audience's patience no longer, the Prime Minister stood up and left, but the support of the 4,000-strong youth army left behind him seemed stronger than ever.

Read the original story in Russian

Photo - openDemocracy

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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