Cablegate: Murmansk - Prospering, but with Problems

R 231604Z DEC 08


E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) During a December 17-18 visit to Murmansk, DPO and
Poloff saw a city relatively unscathed by the world economic
crisis, and in fact saw a city hoping to capitalize on
opportunities arising from the crisis and building on its recent
economic growth. However, despite the apparent prosperity,
there are definite undertones of a heavy-handed government
stifling dissent and giving favorable treatment to
well-connected companies and persons. Also, the Russian media's
unrelentingly negative depiction of the United States,
especially with respect to differences over Georgia and South
Ossetia, have evidently borne fruit in the hearts and minds of
the city's youth.

Economy Doing Nicely, Government Programs Proceeding Apace

2. (SBU) The oblast government is proud of its role in
attracting foreign business to the oblast as well as improving
various quality-of-life-factors for the population such as
increased personal incomes and enhanced environmental
protections. One obvious point of civic pride was Prime
Minister Putin's December 8, 2008 decree regarding the future of
the Murmansk transportation hub on both sides of the Kola Bay.
This public/private project is expected to generate up to US$11
billion in port and land-based infrastructural improvements.
The government is also pleased with the city's demographic
turnaround. The massive population losses of previous years
have been slowed, and the oblast's population has stabilized.
In fact, it appears Murmansk is now a net importer of migrants
from other parts of Russia, as its vibrant economy, current low
unemployment rate, and growing personal incomes (projected to
grow by 14% in the next year to US$500 monthly) have proven very

3. (SBU) The government is acting proactively to head off
ill-effects from the world economic crisis, by having set up an
anti-crisis monitoring group which will keep tabs on regional
business activity, unemployment, and the inflation rate.
Development of the important natural gas reserves in the
offshore Shtokman shelf have not yet been officially delayed
(2013 is still the projected production start date), and the
10,000 jobs it is expected to generate should more than offset
any crisis-related job losses. The government has also assured
the population that the crisis will not cause any reduction in
social spending.

4. (SBU) The local government boasts an aggressive plan to
improve the quality of the environment and health of the people.
The oblast's main programs in this area are to implement clean
water and air regulations, improve the quality of the drinking
water supply by switching to underground sources; modernizing
the city's waste treatment and management program; and proper
disposal of radioactive waste. The oblast's environmental
improvement efforts have already had some success, as some
locally produced products (like reindeer meat) now qualify for
and receive European Union certificates of quality, and thus
command premium prices in the international marketplace.

Government Mischief

5. (SBU) Though economic development has been proceeding nicely
in Murmansk, civil society has often had to cede to the
bulldozers of progress. A prime example of this is the
controversial construction of a hypermarket downtown. The new
building is being built in an area not previously zoned for
retail space, and civic activists have protested its location by
claiming it would cause an excessive amount of traffic in a
residential area, infringes upon green, open space, and would
not be aesthetically pleasing. As part of the rezoning process,
a public hearing was held in which residents had the opportunity
to express their views. Activists opposed to the rezoning claim
the large majority of meeting attendees were opposed to the
rezoning. But, the chairman of the meeting, a local government
official, arbitrarily limited voting to those who were located
in the first few rows of the meeting hall - rows in which the
seats had been reserved for supporters of the zoning change.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

6. (SBU) After fixing the public hearing, the next hurdle to
overcome in building the hypermarket was to obtain approval of
the environmental impact study. The builder's designs were
submitted to the local governmental environmental committee for
approval, but the project was disapproved citing excessive
environmental degradation. Trying again, the builders submitted
the same papers to the same committee, but received the same
disapproval. But, third time being the charm, upon submission
of the same papers to the same committee the third time, the
appropriate approval to commence with the building was received
with no explanation given as to the reasons for the change in
verdict. So in spite of widespread opposition, the market is
going up. Our contacts in Murmansk stated this series of events
and others like it have greatly increased political disaffection
amongst the population, who are becoming convinced of the
futility of social activism.

7. (SBU) The local authorities also seem to have been cracking
down on foreign NGO activists, using the ambiguity surrounding
what sort of visas visiting foreigners must obtain in order to
attend meetings or assist with NGO work. The most recent
example of this cracking down process was an incident this past
summer wherein twelve Scandinavians joined in on a Russian NGO's
activities to pressure the government into declaring the Khibiny
mountains, in the center of the Kola peninsula, a protected
area. The twelve were arrested for violating visa rules because
they had entered Russia on tourist visas, but were accused of
conducting business activities. The twelve were roughly
interrogated overnight, fined, and expelled from the country.
Interestingly, the activists later appealed to the court system
to overturn their expulsion orders - and won. However, despite
this court ruling, the authorities seem to be intent on
harassing "undesirable" foreigners based on visa regulations.
In November of this year, two Scandinavian reporters, who were
attending a human rights conference in Murmansk, were detained
and expelled from Russia for visa violations. In this case,
though, it doesn't seem the authorities had their cover story
quite straight, as one of the reporters entered Russia with a
tourist, but the other had entered with a business visa, so it
is unclear exactly what supposed violation of the visa
regulations the reporters ostensibly committed. Both reporters
are planning to appeal their expulsion orders.

Lapps Struggling to Save Culture

8. (SBU) Our visit to Murmansk came just two days after the
Kola peninsula Lapps held the first congress in post-Soviet
history. Though it took place in out of the way Olenegorsk, the
seventy four attendees voted to create their own parliament,
along the lines of the Norwegian and Finnish Lapp model, which
would help them maintain their cultural integrity. But, this
will be an uphill fight, as there are only 2,000 Kola Lapps left
in Murmansk Oblast, with the majority living in the remote town
of Lovozero. Throughout the entire oblast, only one boarding
school in Lovozero instructs children in their native Lapp
language. Additionally, the oblast administration does not
appear willing to give more than lip-service to the idea of
supporting Lapp culture - much less Lappish autonomy - as
indicated by the its recent downgrade of the Committee on
Northern Peoples (created in 1992) into an amorphous and
inefficient Oblast Enterprise.

Students Desire Better U.S./Russia Relations, but Lack
Understanding of Real Differences

9. (SBU) DPO and Poloff spoke with two dozen English-speaking
international affairs university students and professors at one
of the city's major universities. In addition to the normal
interest in U.S. work/study exchange programs, the attendees
also showed a keen interest in how the United States perceived
Russia, and especially whether or not the U.S. believed it could
work together with Russia as a partner. They also expressed
interest in the American Presidential transition, and how
President Bush's foreign policy legacy will be perceived. The
general tenor of the meeting showed they were optimistic the new
Obama administration will be more cooperative and friendly
towards Russia.

10. (SBU) However, it was also evident the students' optimism
was not based on any grounded understanding of actual potential
U.S. policy changes so much as on non-specific hopes for an
improved future. In fact, it is possible they will be
disillusioned with future U.S. foreign policy advances, given
their lack of understanding of true American motives. For
example the attendees were nearly unanimous in proclaiming that
the proposed Poland and Czech Republic based missile defense
system does in fact present a clear threat to Russia Also, the
Russian government line regarding its rationale for intervening
in South Ossetia - that it had to act to prevent "genocide" -
appeared to have been widely accepted.


11. (SBU) The city and oblast of Murmansk seem to be doing well
economically, and it was encouraging to note that the benefits
of economic growth do seem to be trickling down. However, the
stories of government intransigence and heavy-handedness, in its
dealings with local activists, foreign NGO workers, and the
indigenous Lapps indicate that the relative economic prosperity
has not translated into political and social freedoms. The need
for intensified U.S. public diplomacy and outreach efforts is
also evident, given how well-educated university students,
capable of thinking for themselves and having free access to
information (including foreign and English-language press), were
more than willing to believe the worst about the United States,
and inclined to the groupthink they are fed on a daily basis by
the mass media. The Murmansk region may be growing
economically, but growth in the social and political spheres and
in understanding and tolerance of others is still lacking.


© Scoop Media

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