Cablegate: Siberian Oasis Balances Development and Preservation

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R 190815Z SEP 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

Sensitive but Unclassified. Not for Internet distribution.

1. (SBU) Begin summary. Sustainable economic development,
environmental protection, and preservation indigenous northern
cultures were the main themes of Consul General's visit to
Khanty-Mansiysk September 14-16. The city of 70,000, which is
about 650 km northeast of Yekaterinburg and could be described
as Dubai on the Taiga, gleams with new European-style
construction, reflecting its status as the administrative
capital of Western Siberia's oil and gas region. It seeks to
promote its image as a sporting and cultural capital with its
annual international biathlon competition, annual ecological
film festival and other international gatherings. End summary.

Riding the oil boom
2. (SBU) On September 15, CG met with Aleksandr Filipenko, who
was reappointed Governor of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous
Region by then President Vladimir Putin in 2005. Filipenko gave
a somewhat rambling introduction to his region, praising the
western companies that were active in the Western Siberian oil
fields for their reliability as partners. When asked, however,
to describe plans the region was making to prepare for the
eventual depletion of oil and gas reserves, Filipenko replied
that exploitation of fisheries and forests would provide a sound
basis for economic activity. His reply seemed out of step with
President Medvedev's recent calls for Russia to reduce its
dependence on resource-based industries. Filipenko, who at age
59 is a decade younger than the heads of other regions in
Yekaterinburg's consular district, seemed less focused and
energetic than his counterparts.

3. (SBU) In contrast, Khanty-Mansiysk Mayor Gennadiy Bukarinov,
47, was vigorous and gregarious. According to the mayor,
Khanty-Mansiysk's population is growing rapidly from labor
migration to the north, where jobs are still relatively
plentiful, and a growing birth rate. He said the city needs to
rapidly develop its infrastructure and build new kindergartens
and elementary schools to keep up with the population boom.
Bukarinov, who was elected mayor in 2008, was obviously proud of
his city's developing reputation as an international sports and
cultural center. Khantiy-Mansiysk lies 200 km west of the oil
industry center of Surgut. It's fresh air and clean streets
reflect the area's lack of industrial development. Moreover,
parks, fountains, sports facilities, and a stunning youth art
academy gives residents of the compact city modern amenities not
found in such concentration in other Russian regions.

Balancing Development and the Environment
--------------------------------------------- -----------
4. (SBU) Concern for the northern environment was expressed by
all of the CG's interlocutors. Sergey Pikunov, Director of the
region's Department for Environmental Protection and Ecological
Safety, spoke over lunch of the importance of his work with oil
companies to prevent, mitigate, and clean up environmental
damage. He said the situation has improved dramatically in
recent years with strengthened legislation and constant
environmental monitoring. He praised western oil companies for
introducing stricter environmental controls into the Russian oil
industry. He stated that cooperation between his department and
industry is excellent and communication is constant. The
practice of gas flaring remains a major issue in the region,
however, both because of its wastefulness and because it is a
major source of methane released into the atmosphere. On our
approach to the Khanty-Mansiysk airport as dusk fell, the orange
glow of numerous gas flares was visible on the terrain below.

Environmental Protection and Cultural Preservation Meet in
Western Siberia
--------------------------------------------- -------------------
5. (SBU) Indigenous minorities of the Finno-Ugric group,
including the Khanty, Mansiy, Nenets and Komi peoples, make up
about 2.2 percent of the region's population of nearly 1.5
million. Over dinner with an Open World alumnus who is an
advocate of the rights of indigenous peoples, CG explored the
nexus of environmental protection with the preservation of
northern cultures. Aleksandr Novyukhov, leader of the NGO
"Saving Ugra," concentrates his activities on strengthening
legislation and advising villagers of their rights vis-`-vis
both the government and oil companies. He explained that his
organization has been in existence since Soviet times and has
the strong support of the regional government. Relations with
the industry are more problematic, because, while oil provides
jobs for the local population, development degrades the
environment upon which these traditionally-based societies
depend for survival. Nevertheless, Novyukhov, who is a lawyer
by training, considered his relationships more cooperative than
adversarial and gave the impression that the long-term goal of
preserving these cultures is an accepted priority in the region.

6. (SBU) A spirit of cooperation was also reflected in the
comments of the young leader of the NGO "Northern Lights," which
organizes environmental activities among students at the Ugra
State University. Lilya Kasatkina, who is on the faculty of the
ecological department of the university and an alumna of a three
month environmental program at "Sea Camp" in Florida, said that
the government often enlists her group as a partner in raising
environmental consciousness among the population. She also
noted support from local business, which donated a snow mobile
to assist them in their activities. An active 44-member Public
Chamber, whose leaders described a range of programs
concentrating on youth development, advocacy of women's rights,
and promotion of social responsibility in business rounds out a
relatively positive picture of civil society activity in the

University Struggles to Establish Itself
--------------------------------------------- -----
7. (SBU) A visit to the university left the impression of a
relatively new institution struggling to break out of isolation.
Founded in 2001, the school of about 5,000 students is well
equipped and interested in expanding international cooperation.
Though framework agreements are in place with a couple of
American universities, actual programs have been limited to a
handful of student and teacher exchanges. According to
university officials, lack of funding appears to be the main
stumbling block. On the other hand, in 2007 UNESCO established
a center for the study of climate change and is sponsoring a
multi-media center for indigenous populations at the university.
University official expressed interest in cooperating with
American institutions in the fields of environmental studies,
indigenous cultures, and information technology.

8. (SBU) Comment: The benefits of the oil boom are evident in
both the outward appearance of the city and the attention paid
to the environment and social programs. Dark clouds loom on the
horizon, however, as Russia's oil reserves are exploited. It is
reasonable to ask whether in a generation, this northern oasis
will have found a sustainable alternative economic engine for
development or face inevitable decline as the boom times end.
End comment.


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