Cablegate: Penza Oblast - Governor Weak Authoritarian

DE RUEHMO #5268/01 3100442
R 060442Z NOV 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

SUBJECT: Penza Oblast - Governor Weak Authoritarian

MOSCOW 00005268 001.2 OF 003

REFTEL: Moscow 03839


1. (SBU) Penza governor Vasiliy Bochkarev at first glance appears
comfortably ensconced in his power position, enjoying favorable
ratings from the population, which credits him with improving the
regional quality of life, and nods of approval from Moscow for his
energetic support of the National Priority Projects (reftel).
Bochkarev has largely eliminated any real political challenge from
within -- a campaign assisted by the fecklessness of his opponents
-- and has corralled the media in such a way as to limit any
substantive criticism of his regime. Nevertheless, Bochkarev
appears to be politically weak, at risk that his performance in
office does not meet the full approval of Kremlin. His
administration has been rent by arrests and investigations for
corruption and graft, some of which were connected to finances for
the National Priority Projects. The expectation is that Bochkarev
will seek to strengthen his position vis-a-vis Moscow by boosting
the fortunes of the President's party, United Russia, in the
December 2 elections for the Duma. END SUMMARY.

Penza: Economic Fortunes Rising

2. (SBU) Editor-in-Chief of the local branch of the Ekho Moskvy
radio station, Semen Vakhshtayn, credits Governor Bochkarev with
having good instincts for the changing political currents from
Moscow. His programs in support of the National Priority Projects
for health and social welfare -- including the network of sports
centers and the establishment of a heart center -- have won praise
from central leaders. Premier Viktor Zubkov and Deputy Premier
Zhukov have both made well-publicized trips to the region, with the
former praising the "energetic" efforts of the government in
promoting social conditions in Penza oblast (reftel)

3. (SBU) Penza has enjoyed a rise in living standards under
Bochkarev's leadership. Bella Akmaykina of the ROMIR Monitoring
firm told Embassy that their marketing data and polling shows that
Penza inhabitants enjoy more disposable income and are spending
their money on automobiles and other high end consumables. She
further noted that competition on the regional market had increased
sufficiently to require the services of her company, which helps
manufacturers develop marketing strategies. Many equate Bochkarev
with this economic dynamism, according to noted regional political
scientist and publisher Valentin Manuylov. Across the capital city,
cranes tower over new building projects and a growing retail sector.
The governor's office encourages others to make the link between
the administration and economic growth; banners herald a major
project to repair and repave the town's roads as a gift from
Bochkarev's United Russia.

...With the Politics of Weak Authoritarianism

4. (SBU) Despite those successes, Bochkarev appears politically
weak. The YR party leadership chose not to have him head the YR
party list for Penza Oblast -- a decision that reportedly troubled
him -- and he is rumored to be up for replacement after the
elections. Bochkarev may believe that meeting the Kremlin's goals
for election results in December could help to strengthen his
position as governor. Many in Penza's political elite expect a
robust use of administrative resources to boost the turnout for
Putin's United Russia. Manuylov predicted a maximum vote of 70
percent for YR, in part driven by the "illusion" that a stronger
turnout for the party of power will result in increased financial
support from the center.

5. (SBU) Penza's other political parties face additional challenges
that have hampered their Duma campaigns. The Communist Party of the
Russian Federation (KPRF) continues to have a strong showing,
especially in rural districts, and is expected to receive 15 to 17
percent of the vote, according Ekho Moskvy's Vakhshtayn. However,
the death of a leading local KPRF figure, Boris Zubov, in September
has undermined party's competitiveness. Now, Viktor Ilyukin, a
sitting Duma deputy who lost the governor's race to Bochkarev in
2002, heads the party list for Penza, but he does not enjoy the same
popular support that his predecessor did.

6. (SBU) A former Bochkarev ally, Lyudmila Lezhikova, who helped
him to win election in 1998, has lost the confidence of the governor
and now heads the opposition party "Just Russia." She and her
business partners in "Stroidizain-konsalting" -- a local
construction firm -- enjoyed the benefits of control over a concrete
fabrication plant that gave them advantages in Penza's building
boom. According to Aleksey Panin of "Lyubimaya Gazeta," Lezhikova's

MOSCOW 00005268 002.2 OF 003

firm ran into legal problems in September after she publicly
criticized administration bureaucrats for ineptitude and
malfeasance. Other rumors suggest that she refused to pony up for
administration-sponsored programs, perhaps because she realized that
the projects would be manipulated to support United Russia's
political campaign.

7. (SBU) Lezhikova's SR team seems consigned to their fate, with
only limited access to the media and insufficient financial backing
for a more robust campaign. Curiously, the SR officials would not
themselves broach the issue of YR's use of administrative resources
until Poloff raised it as a possible concern. Lezhikova, for her
part, told Embassy that her party would win up to 15% of the vote --
a contention that few other regional experts would support. She
steadfastly maintained that Putin's decision to head the YR party
list had "no real impact" on the chances of her party in the Duma
election and dodged questions on the possible defection of the
Pensioners' party from the SR coalition. Lezhikova's vision for
Russia, including a paternalistic censorship of the media to protect
families, a critical view of Western culture in general, and an
unfavorable view of U.S. foreign policies, differs little from that
espoused by United Russia.

8. (SBU) Vakhshtayn and Manuylov see the SRs as unlikely to receive
enough votes to cross the 7 percent threshold for the election.
Regional polls show the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR),
which enjoys the support of perhaps 9 percent of the voting
population, as more popular in Penza oblast. None of the other
parties of the "liberal right" are registered to run in the Penza

Corruption Wave

9. (SBU) The curious case of former First Deputy Governor Aleksandr
Pashkov may also be a sign of trouble for Bochkarev. Pashkov had
responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the National
Priority Projects in Penza oblast and was tightly connected with the
region's construction industry, both from his time as the chief of
the department for construction and highways and from his tenure as
Mayor of Penza city. Authorities arrested him in August at Moscow's
Domodedovo airport as he attempted to flee the country. At the time
he was under investigation for misuse of his office to the tune of
$1.6 million. Not one Embassy contact in Penza knew Pashkov's
whereabouts today, nor the proceeding of his case. According to
Vakhshtain, the regional branch of the FSB carried out the
investigation of Pashkov as part of a broader campaign against
regional leaders. Young journalists Aleksey Panin and Sergey
Poplyovin of the local paper "Lyubimaya Gazeta" reported that rumors
of divisions within the oblast leadership had led to the arrest,
with Bochkarev tiring of Pashkov's relentless self-promotion as the
governor's heir apparent.

10. (SBU) The administration has botched its first efforts to
replace Pashkov. In early October, the governor's office announced
that Yuriy Aksenenko, the former Mayor of Saratov, would become the
new deputy. However, Aksenenko served for just one day; the
regional press office denied that he had ever been "officially"
appointed. Embassy contacts say that the reasons for his
"non-appointment" have never been fully explained.

11. (SBU) The case against Pashkov is not the only corruption issue
in Penza, indeed a wave of arrests and investigations has swept
through the oblast in recent months. Vakhshtain reports that 4 of
the region's district leaders have been investigated, as well as the
Minister for Finance Olga Atyukov and the head of the regional
Rossiya Television station. The oblast court in August sentenced
the former chief of the Penza division of the Federal Property
Agency, Vasiliy Petrushin, to 6 years of hard labor for taking a
bribe for $32,000 in a case initiated by the FSB.

Media Corralled

12. (SBU) Corruption in Penza takes place in part because of a lack
of free media to expose those crimes. Bochkarev seems afraid to
allow any dissent, perhaps a result of his own success in using the
ballot box to become governor in 1998 and to hold onto power in a
tough election in 2002 against a popular Communist leader.
According to regional journalists, he has since turned against the
businessmen who supported his initial bid for the governor's office
and his administration has essentially eliminated any independent
print media. As in other regions, television remains firmly under
the administration's control and provides little access for
opposition parties to air their views, mainly by maintaining high
costs for political advertising.

MOSCOW 00005268 003.2 OF 003

13. (SBU) Aleksandr Yakhontov of the former regional edition of
Novaya Gazeta claims his newspaper was essentially starved of
advertising revenue as a result of administration pressure even as
he fought what he termed a "spurious" legal case for defamation.
Twelve officials from the Penza administration filed charges against
Yakhontov and three other editors of local newspapers in response to
an open letter to Putin that claimed the region was "gradually being
turned into a private holding controlled by Governor Bochkarev and
people close to him." (The Strasbourg court in late July ruled that
the case against Yakhontov and his co-defendants had no legal
merit.) Other editors were more adaptable and have "trimmed" their
coverage to hew more closely to the demands of the governor's
office. Even so, Bochkarev continues to monitor the media, going as
far to call in during an on-air program on inflation in the region
to argue against official statistics that showed higher prices in
Penza than in other regions.

14. (SBU) COMMENT: Bochkarev has publicly denied that Penza has any
problem with corruption, since it remains a poor region without oil
or valuable mineral resources. Indeed, without powerful business
and industrial interests, Bochkarev has been able to exert a level
of control that governors in other regions, like Nizhniy Novgorod or
Samara, could only dream of. Penza like other oblast "boats" is
rising on the broader tide of national economic growth and has
enjoyed an infusion of cash from Moscow, in part through the
National Priority Projects program. The extent to which the center
will tolerate the corrupt practices of the regional elite remains to
be seen, particularly if Bochkarev is able to "bring home the bacon"
in the coming election season.


© Scoop Media

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