Russia Wants to Keep a Stricter Eye on Its Anti-Putin Youth

The Kremlin is seeking to counter what it sees as foreign influence on Russia’s increasingly rebellious youth with a new law aimed at tightening state control over out-of-school activities.

The upper house of parliament approved legal amendments that will compel providers of “educational activities” outside of traditional academic programs to coordinate with the government, the state-run Tass news service reported Wednesday.

The vaguely-defined changes were introduced after last year’s constitutional amendments that allow Vladimir Putin to remain president until 2036 also added a reference to patriotic education. They will become law once Putin signs the bill.

The push to regulate extracurricular activities comes as Russian authorities are already seeking to control access to online information following a surge in protests involving the young over the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Regulators fined internet companies for not removing posts urging teenagers to join nationwide protests earlier this year, and in March slowed access to Twitter Inc. and threatened to block it entirely in a dispute over content.

“Educational activity does not need external control and it is harmed by it,” said Sergei Popov, an astrophysicist member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He started a petition protesting the changes that has garnered 245,000 signatures. While the amendments don’t specify which activities will be regulated, “I think this law will be selectively applied,” he said.

Rare Resistance

The changes provoked a rare display of resistance in the lower house of parliament, where all three nominally opposition parties voted against the measure that was passed by the ruling United Russia party. Educators and cultural workers in Russia also condemned the legislation.

“The Accounts Chamber opposed the law, three reference groups opposed it, and the Academy of Sciences asked the president not to sign,” said Communist deputy Oleg Smolin, who chairs the State Duma’s education committee. “The leaders of non-profit organizations see an attempt to limit their capabilities, and museums and libraries are also alarmed.”

The non-partisan upper house of parliament voted 145 to one in favor of the amendments, with one abstention, Tass reported.

Supporters of the new law say it is necessary to protect students from foreign meddling aimed at historical revisionism. Putin has repeatedly stoked patriotism in confrontations with the West to retain public support as Russians’ living standards stagnated under the impact of sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The lack of appropriate legal regulation creates the preconditions for uncontrolled use of a wide range of propaganda activities by anti-Russian forces in schools and among students under the guise of educational activities,” according to the amendment’s explanatory notes.

Protests Call

As the Kremlin prepares for parliamentary elections in September, Putin’s popularity is flagging among a generation that has only known his rule over the past 21 years. Only 31% of Russians ages 18 to 24 want to see Putin remain president after his current term ends in 2024, compared to 57% who don’t, according to a March poll by the independent Levada Center.

Navalny’s aides are preparing for a wave of protests in support of the opposition leader. A petition has gathered nearly 361,000 signatures from people pledging to join demonstrations, which organizers say will start once the total passes 500,000.

The law’s broad phrasing has sparked fears it could be used to disrupt everything from language classes, exchange programs and summer camps to museum exhibitions and undesirable Wikipedia entries.

Russia’s burgeoning ed-tech industry could also be hurt by the measures after experiencing rapid growth during the pandemic.

“You have hundreds of thousands of tutorials, articles, videos that will be downloaded so officials can look at them and issue a permit,” said Alex Laryanovsky, a managing partner at online language school Skyeng. “In the worst case it will cause paralysis, and in the best case it will be a non-working law.”

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