Cablegate: Smolensk: Hope in God and Putin, Apathy in All Else

Published: Wed 10 Dec 2008 02:53 PM
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1. (SBU) Summary: Recent conversations with government,
political, business, religious and NGO officials in Smolensk
revealed the divisions between official messages of calm and
stability and the nervousness and discontent among citizens.
Senior United Russia officials, speaking in their capacity as
local and regional government officials, argued that Smolensk
enjoyed political and economic stability, and that it would
manage well through any economic downturn. Privately,
though, opposition party, business, NGO and media
representatives cited indicators of the already worsening
economic situation in the region, and the helplessness of
local and regional government leaders in taking any effective
action to mitigate consequences for citizens. Mayoral
elections in March 2009 may see a new generation take office,
but public cynicism about official corruption means little
will change. End Summary.
Regional Government: Everything Under Control
2. (SBU) Located approximately 350 miles to the west of
Moscow, the city of Smolensk and the oblast of the same name
have suffered significant declines in population and
investment over the past 10 years. Increased revenue from
the federal budget has enabled regional and local authorities
to maintain and expand support for citizen services, though
not for public infrastructure (roads, etc.), which are in
poor condition. Both Smolensk Oblast Governor Antufyev and
Smolensk city Mayor Haletskiy served as deputies in their
respective administrative organizations before taking their
seats as executives. They were rewarded for their loyalty to
United Russia and (then) President Putin, and for their
ability to satisfy local business (and some say, criminal)
3. (C) Nonetheless, the Governor's Spokesman, Yuriy Glebov,
December 1 painted for us a picture of Smolensk making the
most of its location, agricultural resources and the
entrepreneurship of citizens. Glebov claimed that there were
no concerns that major regional enterprises might have to
reduce staff, that businesses or the government would be
unable to fulfill payment obligations, or that there would be
any slowdown in construction. Indeed, joined by city deputy
mayor Raisa Cheberyak, he emphasized rather that the drop in
housing prices was enabling even more citizens to own homes.
Stable employment conditions encourage young people to remain
in the city and region after studies at institutions of
higher learning, like Smolensk State University. And
financial support from the oblast for parents of more than
one child was helping to reverse demographic trends that
imperiled the long-term vitality of the region.
4. (SBU) Seemingly more out of hope than on the basis of any
significant tangible developments, regional political leaders
told us that Smolensk's proximity to Belarus, the open border
and tariff-free trade in certain commodities represented
valuable commercial potential for the oblast and city. They
pointed to joint projects in food production and machine
construction as the most promising fields for cooperation.
They downplayed political disagreements between Minsk and
Moscow, and spoke instead of the people-to-people contact
that flourished in spite of the problems. Separately,
journalists and business leaders said that economic activity
with Belarus amounted to little, and that the economic
livelihood of few in the region was connected in any way to
Weak Local United Russia Leadership Noticed
5. (SBU) In contrast, leaders of medium-sized businesses,
independent analysts and lower-level officials in the
regional and local United Russia party apparatus openly
pointed to stagnation in local and regional leadership.
Communist Party leader Valeriy Kuznetsov proudly cited the
fact that among all Russia's regions, support for Medvedev in
the March presidential elections was weakest in Smolensk, and
strongest for the Communist Party. Smolensk Pravoe Delo
chairman Mikhail Khvostantsev, a personal acquaintance of
Governor Afuniev since the days when they were both deputy
governors, said that the governor's lack of business and
leadership skills had translated directly into Smolensk's
inability to use its resources to improve infrastructure and
attract business. Given the current economic climate, and in
spite of intimations of economic impropriety on the part of
Afuniev, Khvostantsev said he did not expect Moscow to make
any changes in regional leadership.
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6. (SBU) Vyacheslav Osin, Human Rights Ombudsman for Smolensk
told us that 90 percent of the appeals to his office and
correspondingly, 90 percent of his time, are devoted to
financial shortfalls experienced by more vulnerable members
of society in Smolensk, especially orphaned children and the
elderly. He acknowledged that his attempts to intercede on
behalf of citizens facing difficulties, or those unable to
secure what they perceived as justice from the court system
had been a waste of time. "The court system is the least
transparent, the most dependent on politics from above. I
gave up trying to fight corrupt justices who receive the
verdicts they will hand down by telephone. Instead, I
focused on people who I could actually help." That has
become more important since early autumn, he said, as
unemployment has grown and as state assistance to the needy
in the region has been delayed in order to fund other
7. (SBU) Smolensk will hold mayoral elections in March, 2009.
Current Mayor Vladimir Haletskiy faces strong competition
from within the local United Russia establishment. Chairman
of the Public Chamber Yuriy Rebrik, donning his hat as former
member of the national Supreme Council of United Russia, told
us that he had given up on Haletskiy for not doing enough to
combat organized crime in the city. He argued that Smolensk
needed a new, younger generation to take power, citing the
election of Barak Obama as a great example for Russian
citizens of the importance of participating in the democratic
process. That said, all political organizations aside from
United Russia cited the personal business connections each of
the major United Russia pretenders has with local and
regional government. Independent journalist Sergey Kovalev
bemoaned the total absence of any trust by citizens in
currently elected officials or any of those who might
possibly assume office. Smolensk survives not as a result of
any decisions taken locally, but because of the largesse that
comes from the national budget and Moscow decisions to invest
in local industry. Khvostantsev echoed the sentiment, noting
that he was placing his hopes in Pravoe Delo godfather
Anatoliy Chubais as the one through whom his personal
relations who could save Smolensk from continuing to decline.
Save Us, Vladimir Vladimirovich
8. (SBU) Director of United Russia's/Premier Putin's Smolensk
"reception center" Aleksey Seryy (a USG FLEX program alumnus)
told us that he faces a difficult task of attempting to
satisfy local residents who have placed all their hopes in
the ability of Putin to solve their (local) problems. He
said he is becoming increasingly frustrated with the refusal
to bring clearly local problems, including the shortage of
daycare and kindergarten facilities, to the attention of
local authorities. Instead, he is asked to convey even
demands of a local nature to Moscow for Putin to resolve.
(Note: Putin himself made the same comment during q's and a's
with reporters after his December 4 call-in program on live
national television. End Note.)
9. (SBU) Indeed, the centerpiece of the region's economic
well-being is the Krystal diamond fabrication plant.
Although government officials said the facility is
functioning at standard capacity, local business leaders, and
United Russia officials (who are beginning to receive
complaints from employees) reported that the plant is working
only 3-4 days per week, and that the company has also failed
to pay employees' salaries on time. Khvostantsev told us
that failure to make any major investment in new technology
for the facility, which should have occurred when times were
better, is a death sentence. It will continue to loss
relevance -- and customers.
10. (SBU) Critical for citizens in the region is the
appearance of national political stability. Kovalev,
Khvostantsev and United Russia's Seryy told us that citizens
do not differentiate between Medvedev and Putin. As long as
Putin remains in a significant position in national
leadership and has taken responsibility for seeing Russia
through its current economic difficulties, it does not matter
who else is at the helm with him. Communist Party chief
Kuznetsov said he had given up discussing the envisioned
extension of presidential terms because it was simply not
seen as relevant by local citizens to their daily lives.
Moreover, many supported it as either necessary to ensure
political stability - either with Medvedev at the helm from
2012-2018, or with Putin again as president.
Aide to Metropolitan Kirill Describes Agenda
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11. (SBU) The Russian Orthodox Church plays a key role in
the life of the city, in large part due to the fact that it
is the seat of Metropolitan Kirill, now Interm ROC Head
following the death of Patriarch Aleksey II. Kirill's aide
Bishop Ignatiy told us over lunch that Smolensk has greatly
benefited from the presence of Kirill in the city. He has
been able to use his influence and stature with local and
regional officials to bring national and international
attention to the city, and to weigh in on behalf of policies
(religious education in schools, financial support for young
families and restrictions on the availability of abortions)
consistent with ROC positions. Svetlana Yegorova, Chairwoman
of the Center for Women's Support NGO, said she takes into
account ROC views when she works with local officials on
women's issues, noting in particular the authority Kirill
wields in the community.
Comment: All Politics is Local, But Help is National
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12. (SBU) Stagnation in Smolensk is not just a matter of
lackluster local leadership, but a symptom of the vertical of
power and economic dependency which affects many regions. As
eyes increasingly turn to Moscow, and specifically to Putin,
for guidance through tough times, all politics may indeed be
local (for better or worse), but the only help that matters
or that people trust is that which comes from the national
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