Cablegate: Russia: Politics in Voronezh Mirrors National Situation

DE RUEHMO #3995/01 2271043
R 151043Z AUG 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

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1. (SBU) During an August 6-8 visit to Voronezh oblast, we found a
political situation very similar to the national condition. The
United Russia and For a Just Russia parties dominate the political
scene, opposition forces are ardent but weak, the Russian Orthodox
Church plays an influential role, the NGO community is closed out of
public spaces, and local officials claim that there are no human
rights problems, despite several reports to the contrary. The
upcoming State Duma elections promise continued United Russia
dominance, while support for the once regionally powerful Communist
Party will continue to erode. End Summary.


2. (U) Located to the south of Moscow in a region that is known for
its rich soil, Voronezh is a city of one million people in a region
of 2.5 million. Although the city appears to have a vibrant economy
with a bustling downtown business district, the region has had
difficulty recovering from the changes that took place during the
1990s that resulted in the loss of its defense industry. In the
1990s, Voronezh was part of the so-called Red Belt due to its
consistent support of the Communist party.

United Russia Dominates the Political Scene

3. (SBU) The political scene in Voronezh is dominated by United
Russia. Governor Vladimir Kulakov, a member of United Russia and
Federal Security Service (FSB) veteran, was first elected in
December 2000. He was re-elected to a five-year term in 2004. He is
one of Russia's few remaining elected regional leaders. United
Russia is the largest faction in the regional Duma, holding 40 of 55
seats. The other parties holding seats in the Duma are For a Just
Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a block from
the party formerly known as Rodina, and the Communist Party of the
Russian Federation (KPRF).

4. (U) The For a Just Russia party is also popular in the region.
We saw prominent local coverage of a recent visit to the region by
party leader and Federation Council Chairman Sergey Mironov on the
front pages of local newspapers a week after his visit. Mironov's
portrait also appears on many billboards throughout the city.

5. (SBU) In a meeting between embassy officials and nine Duma
members on August 7, Nikolay Gaponenko, the For a Just Russia
faction leader described his party as being in competition with
United Russia, and he promised a spirited campaign in the upcoming
elections that would focus on their social program platform. United
Russia Duma Deputy Aleksandr Ponomarev, toed a more ecumenical line
and noted that United Russia, Just Russia, Great Russia are all part
of a political project created under instructions from the Kremlin
that acts in support of the Kremlin. Curiously, even though the
KPRF has historically been a potent political force in this section
of the "Red Belt," the deputies we met with neglected to mention the
KPRF's participation in the Duma and KPRF members were not at the

6. (SBU) A more interesting political dynamic exists at the
municipal level. We heard universal dissatisfaction with the current
mayor Boris Skrynnikov, of the For a Just Russia party. As a member
of the local union of journalists told us, "people are counting the
days until he leaves office." He is not viewed as a professional
mayor nor has he put a competent team in place. As a result, city
services such as roads, water and electricity have been neglected.
In addition, the city and regional administration are at odds over
use of tax money that is returned from the federal budget. Both
sides see the amount as inadequate to cover expenses and they
disagree as to how to divide resources. A number of candidates are
expected to run for mayor in the next election either later this
year or early next year. The timing will be determined by the City

Opposition is Ardent but Weak

7. (SBU) Opposition parties and groups in Voronezh remain dedicated
and active even though they have slim to no chance of electoral
success. Sergey Naumov, the leader of Yabloko, told us that he
expects United Russia and Just Russia to prevail in the December
elections. He said democratic parties are too weak to overcome the
seven percent election barrier. Despite this, his party has big
ambitions. He says it will field candidates in the December
election and work hard to get out the vote. Members of the
democratic opposition noted to us that they did not consider Naumov

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to be part of the opposition community given his strong political
ties to Governor Kulakov.

8. (SBU) Other Russia has been active in the area, and staged a
March of the Dissenters in May which brought out 100 participants
and 3,000 police. In a meeting with members of their local
coalition that included representatives of the Union of Right Forces
(SPS), National Bolshevik Party, Russian People's Democratic Union
and some NGOs, they told us they are subject to harassment which
they attribute to the high number of elected or appointed officials
in the region who were formerly with the FSB. This harassment
includes phone tapping, unauthorized entry into houses, and
detainment. Konstantin Makarov of the National Bolshevik Party said
he has been harassed, detained, his parents have been questioned,
and he has been warned that he could be charged with "social hatred"
for continuing his political activities.

9. (SBU) While Other Russia has fractured at the national level, in
Voronezh the coalition is united. They told us that "Our success in
Voronezh is that we have demonstrated that all democratic forces can
work together as a united movement." Other members of the coalition
in Voronezh include the Defense Youth Organization, Union of
Soldiers' Mothers, and Democratic Russia Movement. On August 11,
they held a regional primary to determine Other Russia's
presidential candidate. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov,
leader of the Russian People's Democratic Union won overwhelmingly
with 70 percent of the vote despite having withdrawn from the Other
Russia coalition in July.

Russian Orthodox Church Plays Influential Role
--------------------------------------------- -

10. (SBU) The Russian Orthodox Church is a powerful force in this
very Orthodox region. As representatives of the Pentecostal church
told us, relations between the ROC and other religions appear
friendly, but below the surface minority religions have had
problems. For example, other religions have had trouble acquiring
land to build churches or mosques as gathering places. For several
years, the Pentecostal church has fought in court over a piece of
land they bought at auction five years ago. In this case, the city
has used the legal system to prevent the church from gaining the
land despite the fact that some courts have ruled in favor of the
church. The Muslim community has unsuccessfully attempted to get
permission to build a mosque for 5-7 years. These groups point out
that the ROC has not had any trouble acquiring property or getting
permission to build. The ROC acquired a public park in the center
of the city to build a church. The church remains under
construction and the space is completely cut off to the general

11. (SBU) As in other parts of the country, a course on the
fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity will be taught in Voronezh
schools this year. Archimandrite Andrey defended this class telling
us that it is necessary in order to "fight for our national
interests." He described it as an "absurd situation" that other
faiths that are not traditional to Russia are able to have religious
schools, yet the ROC cannot offer a course on culture in Russian
schools. Pentecostal Bishop Boris Sinebabnov said the course has
been billed as voluntary but that parents must actively seek to have
their children removed. He said he will not let his children attend
this class.

Limiting Space for NGOs

12. (SBU) Representatives of NGOs in Voronezh complained that they
were often denied space to conduct activities such as meetings,
seminars, or press conferences. Andrey Yurov, of Youth Human Rights
Movement told us there is little infrastructure available, and what
exists is often denied to them by the owners, both public and
private. This severely limits their ability to gather a large
number of people and sustain their activities. In addition, Yurov
complained that the paperwork required by the 2006 NGO law requires
even small NGOs to devote one or two staff members to accounting and
report filing functions.

The Human Rights Picture

13. (SBU) Alyona Obyezdchikova, Program Coordinator of the
Inter-Regional Group for Human Rights told us that NGOs in Voronezh
are focused on two issues: racially-motivated crimes, and the spotty
implementation and enforcement of court decisions. In recent years,
Voronezh developed a reputation for xenophobia as a result of
numerous attacks on foreign students, including the murder of a
Peruvian student in 2005. While there have been more recent violent
attacks, the authorities have attributed them to hooliganism. Human
rights groups have attempted to work with law enforcement to get

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them to respond to these crimes more quickly and to recognize them
as racially motivated. Some say the situation has improved although
Andrey Yurov, of the Youth Human Rights Movement, noted that foreign
students largely choose to stay in their dorms.

14. (SBU) The government is not acting to improve the situation.
Yelena Gudkova of the Oblast Administration's Human Rights
Commission told us there are no human rights problems in Voronezh.
Yurov criticized the government and said that an enlightenment
campaign for the people is needed, but that so far the government
has only done things for show. The deputy editor of the local
bureau of Novaya Gazeta, acknowledged that some problems existed,
but that in general the situation has been exaggerated.

© Scoop Media

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