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Cablegate: Managed Democracy in Action: Astrakhan Regional

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: In advance of October 8 regional elections,
we visited Astrakhan Oblast and found:

-- The Kremlin-backed United Russia party in the lead and
expecting to gain a majority in the regional Duma;

-- A popular United Russia governor who touts his ability to
use his contacts in the Kremlin to deliver for the region:

-- Billboards and paid TV ads from all parties, but United
Russia dominance in TV news and newspaper coverage;

-- The Republican Party, in alliance with other liberal
parties, hoping to reach the seven percent threshold, while
overcoming a challenge to its registration;

-- Positive inter-ethic relations despite a mixed population
including over 25 percent Muslims;

-- Complaints about inadequate revenue sharing from Moscow.
End Summary.

October 8 Regional Elections

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2. (U) Astrakhan holds elections on October 8 for all 58
seats in the regional Duma. United Russia had a majority in
the outgoing Duma, which had only 29 seats. Ten parties have
registered for the election. These are: United Russia,
Communists, LDPR, Rodina, Party of Pensioners, Republican
Party, Peoples' Will, Democratic Party, People's Party and
Patriots of Russia. During a September 19-21 visit, we met
with regional Duma members, opposition party candidates, Vice
Mayors, business people, students, and officials to get a
sense of attitudes prior to the election.

United Russia in Driver's Seat

3. (SBU) Aleksandr Zhilkin, the incumbent governor of the
Astrakhan region (oblast) was elected in 2004 -- one of the
last elected before Putin initiated the change to a system of
appointed governors. His term extends to 2008 so he will
remain in office whatever the result of the October 8
election. Most with whom we spoke, even those from the
opposition, were positive about Zhilkin, who heads United
Russia for the region. Although he is not running for office
himself, Zhilkin has dominated the campaign. United Russia
literature touts Zhilkin's ties with the Kremlin and his
ability to use these ties to deliver for the region. Zhilkin
promises to use the 450th anniversary of Russian rule in
Astrakhan in 2008 as a hook to extract greater resources from

4. (SBU) We met at the Duma with Astrakhan region Duma Vice
Chairman Yakov Vinokurov of United Russia. Vinokurov
explained that the appeal of United Russia in Astrakhan, as
throughout Russia, is -- as its name implies -- its
commitment keep Russia unified. To remain intact, Russia
needs the "power vertical." Vinokurov noted that the party's
message stresses the stability that the Putin era has brought
-- and the economic growth that stems from it. Vinokurov
underlined that the fundamental attraction of United Russia
is rooted in a revulsion to the chaos of the 1990s.
Vinokurov, like other United Russia supporters with whom we
spoke, said that the party's goal is to get an absolute
majority on October 8. He thought it was doable.

"Information Bandits"

5. (SBU) Communist Party Duma member Igor Negerev
participated in our meeting with Vinokurov. Negerev was
unsparing in his criticism of the "monopoly of power" of
United Russia in the region. While he did not criticize
Zhilkin personally, Negerev complained that United Russia
dominated the news media and prevented the message of other
parties from getting out. Negerev handed us a pile of the
front pages from the last few weeks of the main regional
newspaper and pointed out that the lead story every day was
about Zhilkin - complete with photo. The same was true of TV
which, he said, leads every night with favorable stories on
the governor's activities. Negerev accused United Russia of
being "information bandits." He also alleged that United
Russia sympathizers had destroyed Communist Party campaign
billboards and posters. Negerev passed us pictures of youth

MOSCOW 00011310 002.2 OF 004

ripping down posters. He also passed us court documents in
which he had formalized his complaints. In addition, Negerev
showed us photos of government vehicles with United Russia
bumper stickers on them -- another issue he had raised with
the courts.

6. (SBU) Negerev declared that if information flow were
fair, the Communist Party might get 25 percent of the vote on
October 8 and run even with United Russia. Negerev said that
in campaigning he stressed that United Russia was the party
of insider deals and corruption and that it was the Communist
party that represented the interests of average people and
small business. Negerev continued that United Russia
members' main concern was using their influence to get as
rich as they can as fast as they can. Vinokurov took on
Negerev on several points and the two proceeded to have a
heated debate in front of us.

Liberals Hope to Make a Showing

7. (SBU) We met with State Duma member Valeriy Zubov of the
Republican Party, who was in Astrakhan to boost the party's
profile in advance of the elections. We also met separately
with the leader of the regional Yabloko party, Vadim Munen.
Of the liberal parties, only the Republican party is running
in Astrakhan - with the endorsement of Yabloko and of the
Union of Right Forces (SPS).

8. (SBU) Zubov said United Russia (YR) would certainly win
the election - the only question was by how much. He
expected YR to get about 40 percent. As for the Republican
Party, Zubov told us that polls indicated it might cross the
seven percent threshold and get its block into the regional
Duma. Both Zubov and Munen agreed with Communist Deputy
Negerev that United Russia used its control of the
governorship and media to monopolize news coverage.
Nonetheless Zubov said he expected no outright fraud at the
polls. Despite United Russia's advantages, Zubov said the
Republicans wanted to compete. He noted that if the
Republican party got seven percent in Astrakhan it would be a
major boost to the party on the national level and encourage
the liberal parties to unite. Of the nine regions having
elections October 8, the Republican party is competing only
in Astrakhan.

9. (SBU) However, the Republican party has concerns about
its registration. Zubov followed up with us in Moscow on
September 27 and said that he believed United Russia/the
Kremlin was using a party that was not even actively
campaigning -- the Democratic party -- to challenge the
Republican Party's registration in Astrakhan. The grounds
for the challenge was that the Republican Party on the
national level is not properly registered so authorities
should strike its Astrakhan affiliate from the ballot. We
followed up with the Astrakhan election commission October 4
and were told that the Republican Party remained registered.

10. (SBU) Zubov told us that the Republican Party was trying
to appeal to voters who reject the "vertical of power." He
said Republicans favor more power devolving to the regional
and local levels. They also emphasize the need for greater
transparency in government and for fighting corruption.
Zubov predicted a weak showing by the Communists and LDPR but
that they would make the threshold. He also thought the
Pensioners Party might make it.

Electoral Commission

11. (SBU) We met with Yevgeniy Povrovskiy, chairman of the
Astrakhan Electoral Commission. Asked about United Russia's
dominance on the news, Povrovskiy contended that it was only
natural that the media would pay close attention to the
governor's activities. The governor just happened, in this
case, to be from United Russia. Povrovskiy underlined that
all registered parties were free to run paid advertisements
following the news. This was not expensive. We watched
these adds several times - a series of ten-second spots that
featured the range of parties. Povrovskiy noted that there
was no state-sponsored system for debates.

12. (SBU) Povrovskiy added that he was on the lookout for
election irregularities such as the vandalism described by
the Communists. He noted that some groups, whom he did not
specify, practiced "Black PR." This involves, among other
things, spreading false rumors about candidates. We asked

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about projected turnout. Povrovskiy said that in previous
elections, turnout had been around 45 percent. A turnout of
50 percent on October 8 would be high, he said.

Registration Service

13. (SBU) We were warmly received by the head of the Federal
Registration Service, Tatiana Belova, and her staff. Belova
confirmed that ten parties had registered for the elections.
She reviewed the process, which involves submitting lists of
at least 250 paying party members, outlining the party
platform and sources of financing, and paying a small fee.

14. (SBU) Belova's office also does registration under the
new NGO law, so we took the opportunity to inquire how that
was proceeding. Belova informed us that she had increased
staff by six persons to handle the added load from NGO
registration. She knew of no foreign NGOs in Astrakhan. She
defended the NGO law, stating that its goal was simply to
make sure that NGOs did what they claimed to be doing. The
state needed to make sure, she said, that NGOs were not
fronts for criminal or terrorist activity. She claimed that
there was no outcry against the law in Astrakhan and that
NGOs did not feel oppressed by it.

Revenue Sharing: Seeking More from Moscow

15. (SBU) We met with Astrakhan Deputy Mayors Marat
Abdulkhalikov and Yevgeniy Aptekar, both affiliated with
United Russia. They stressed, as did others from the
regional government, that inadequate revenue sharing from
Moscow was a major issue. They told us that the percentage
of central government support for the city budget had dropped
from 52 percent to 29 percent in the last three years.
Related to this was the "vertical of taxation." Gazprom and
Lukoil, by far the biggest companies in the region, were
sending the bulk of tax revenue from their operation in
Astrakhan to Moscow. Four years ago, the local cut had been
significantly higher.

16. (SBU) Valeriy Bocharinkov, an advisor to Governor
Khilkin told us that the governor had made increasing
Astrakhan's take from Moscow his top priority. He travels
frequently to Moscow to make his case, meeting with such
figures as Putin and United Russia leader Gryzlov.
Bocharinkov stressed that the Governor would use Astrakhan's
450th anniversary in 2008 as a hook to get more funds. The
celebration will bring high-level attention to Astrakhan and
hopefully generate investment in a range of infrastructure

Inter-ethnic Relations

17. (SBU) Astrakhan is, by most estimates, 25-30 percent
Muslim, mostly Kazakh or from the Caucasus. Our
interlocutors universally said that relations between ethnic
groups were good. They attributed this to the fact that the
groups had a long history together -- recent immigration is
less of an issue. Our contacts told us that nationalist
parties, like Rodina, are not making ethnic appeals an issue
in their Astrakhan campaign. Following our trip, we learned
of an act of vandalism against a synagogue in late September.
We contacted State Duma member Zybov, who downplayed it as


18. (SBU) We gave a talk on US-Russian relations to about
sixty students at the University. The students were
overwhelmingly apathetic about the election. The prevailing
view was that United Russia would win no matter what, so the
elections did not matter. One student said that if she voted
she would vote for "none of the above"; others nodded in
agreement. We also met with fifteen business people at the
local business association. The business leaders were also
cynical about the election and did not expect much to change.
They were generally supportive of United Russia. Most
dismissed the liberal parties as having weak leadership.


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19. (SBU) The election in Astrakhan is a case of managed
democracy in action. United Russia has clear advantages --
media and patronage -- and is using them relentlessly.
Nonetheless, other parties are competing and a campaign of
sorts is underway. While the Republican Party feared being
de-registered, this appears not to have happened, maintaining
that choice for the voters. United Russia's claim that it
delivers and represents stability clearly resonates. How
much United Russia wins by will be the lead story. There are
also other issues in play -- such as how strong the
Communists, Rodina and LDPR show themselves to be. If the
Republicans pass the threshold, it may inspire other liberal
parties to unite for the 2007-8 national elections.

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