Cablegate: Tomsk: Ann Arbor On the Steppe - but Cynicism

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1. (SBU) Summary: As a university town and a former SPS
bastion, Tomsk has a small but stable liberal electorate, and
shows greater press freedom and tolerance for foreigners than
many other regions in Russia. This press freedom has had
little influence on local politics; most articles exposing
local corruption are ignored, widespread cynicism holds sway
among Tomsk's youth, and United Russia maintains its thorough
if tenuous grip on power. Conversations with liberal
oppositionists and government officials in Tomsk revealed an
undercurrent of elite support for Medvedev's expressed ideas
on top-down reform and increased democratization, which may
lead people in this city to discard their cynicism and follow
him if he can turn his soaring rhetoric into a concrete
program of systemic change. End Summary.

A liberal oasis?

2. (SBU) As the home to Tomsk State University, Tomsk swells
annually with an additional student population of 25,000.
Its "university town" atmosphere, along with a history of
innovation and the legacy of dissidents and their children
who lived in Siberia, provide liberal underpinnings to the
city. Aleksandr Krasnoperov, who writes for the state-owned
daily Tomskiye Novosti, told us during an October 1-2 visit
that Tomsk was formerly a bastion of the liberal party Union
of Right Forces (SPS), who won 9 percent and received two
deputies in the last Duma elections here. Many former SPS
members work there, including Right Cause deputy and local
Executive Committee chief Nikolay Salangin, who told us that
he still carried the liberal torch to the extent possible
(though Krasnoperov called Right Cause's work "useless").
Salangin estimated that Tomsk has a "very stable" liberal
electorate of 10-15 percent, or slightly higher. "In
Communist times, it was more free than Moscow," Salangin
said. "People form liberal ideas out here." He admonished
us to "forget the stereotype" of liberal big cities versus
conservative provinces.

3. (SBU) Offering some examples, Salangin said there is less
"telephone justice" in Tomsk than in other parts of the
country, as the Judicial faculty in the university exerts a
positive influence on local judges. Salangin has a close
friend who is a prosecutor, who he said is sincerely trying
to do his job. Tomsk Deputy Mayor for Information Policy
Aleksey Sevostyanov noted that although 20 countries are
represented among students in Tomsk, there have been no
attacks of any kind on foreigners. A large number of
government officials with whom we met in Tomsk -- of varying
political views -- had previously visited the U.S. as part of
exchange programs. (Note: They also consistently declared
that they were not United Russia members, although this
included the Vice Chair of the Tomsk Election Commission,
Yelena Obukhova, who delivered a pro-GOR broadside that would
have made Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov proud. End note.)

4. (SBU) Perhaps because of this liberal influence, Tomsk
allows its independent journalists to operate relatively
openly. The independent daily Tomskaya Nedelya (the other
main daily besides Tomskiye Novosti) airs its views generally
free of harassment -- Sevostyanov complained that they
"nightmarishly harangue" the government with impunity -- as
do the independent Radio Siberia and the local television
channel TV-2, which was cited as a shining example of media
freedom by oppositionists and government apologists alike
during our visit. Sevostyanov claimed that journalists make
a point of coming to Tomsk to work because of the increased
freedom. In contrast to journalists uncovering corruption in
numerous regions of the country, no muckraking journalists
have been beaten or attacked. According to Sevostyanov, the
Glasnost Defense Fund rated Tomsk among the top five regions
of the country for press freedom. Igor Yakovyenko, who in
February was ousted from the Russian Union of Journalists
because of his adversarial relationship with the government,
has been collaborating with the Tomsk city administration to
create a television station focusing on social issues.

5. (SBU) The picture is not completely bright; according to
Yabloko Duma Deputy and Regional organization leader Vasiliy
Eremin, independent journalists have received other forms of
bureaucratic harassment such as tax or fire inspections.
Aleksandr Deyev, an independent candidate who lost the March
mayoral election to United Russia incumbent Nikolay
Nikolaychuk in an contest marked by standard "use of
administrative resources" to ensure the "proper" result
(reftel), also complained to us that Tomskaya Nedelya, who
supported him in the election, had received pressure to
withdraw their support.

MOSCOW 00002559 002 OF 003

Free Press, But No One Cares

6. (SBU) Nonetheless, the greatest source of frustration for
oppositionists such as Eremin or Deyev was simply that no one
cared what they did. Krasnoperov told us that he had written
two pieces uncovering local corruption before the March
elections, but his reports were simply ignored. Noting a
recent case -- "only the tip of the iceberg" -- in which the
Deputy head of the Oktyabrskiy Rayon took bribes for showing
preference to certain budget programs, Krasnoperov expressed
exasperation at the lack of outrage it inspired. He pointed
to a blas attitude among Tomsk's younger population, saying
that young people pay no attention to political issues; don't
want to sacrifice or volunteer for anything; and "are all
careerists." He added that people generally close their eyes
to authorities' corruption, and that the government appears
to have "teflon" despite the economic crisis. Lamenting that
the best people avoid politics, Salangin quoted Yeats: "The
best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of
passionate intensity." (As for his own forays into politics,
Salangin said, "I'm Don Quixote.") He said that the younger
generation is not ready to take over, and are "allergic" to
political activity; "they'll say they're unhappy, but they
won't do anything.")

7. (SBU) Agreeing with Salangin's assessment, Deyev told us
that the greatest "academic liberal" influence in Tomsk comes
from the university's professors, while he found cynicism and
apathy (what he called "po fig-ism," or "to heck with
it-ism") to be rampant among Tomsk's young students.
Sevostyanov acknowledged that students' priorities lie with
finding jobs rather than politics, although he noted that
when they do apply themselves to politics, they do so with
greater passion. Just Russia regional organization leader
Galina Nemtseva agreed, saying that although young people are
"inert," their leaders are "real leaders," who understand
that politics "is not a game." Deyev noted that "students in
any country are a strong social force, and the vlast (power)
fears this"; but he lamented that students are not organized.
Still, he said, United Russia is not popular among young
people in polls, and they did support his candidacy in
greater numbers. He added that young people's use of the
Internet and travel helps foster cosmopolitan views as well.

Dima, Forward!

8. (SBU) With the exception of Krasnoperov, who expressed his
admiration for free-market pioneer Yegor Gaidar while
scorning Medvedev, both liberals and conservatives alike
stated their admiration for Medvedev's ideas as expressed in
his recent "Russia, Forward" article. Top-down reform, in
the minds of most people with whom we met, would be vastly
preferable to no reform at all, if it improved the climate
for rule of law and allowed small and medium businesses a
fighting chance against entrenched corrupt interests. Doom
and gloom were undeniably rampant among the liberals;
Krasnoperov complained that "all we did in 1989 was monetize
the Soviet system," while Salangin said, "Twenty years ago
during perestroika, we couldn't have imagined how far south
it would have gone by now." Deyev deemed a "Medvedev bunt"
(rebellion) in opposition to powerful siloviki unlikely.
However, Eremin stated his hope that Medvedev is "tired of
being a puppet," and that he is quietly installing liberal
allies at various levels of government in the hope of
challenging the ossified system of cronyism that, in Eremin's
view, is holding Russia back from developing. Given the slim
likelihood of grassroots-inspired change in the near future,
Eremin said, "Our best hope" for increased democratization
"is that more elites will gradually change their minds" about
the status quo, as happened historically in countries such as
England and Sweden. As Salangin said, "Politically, as a
country we're still young - we are only in our twenties."

9. (SBU) Certainly, according to Deyev, the intelligentsia
are placing their hopes in Medvedev. United Russia regional
organization leader and Deputy Speaker of the Tomsk Oblast
Duma Aleksandr Kupriyanets called "Russia, Forward" a "trial
balloon," with elites and intellectuals as the intended
audience. According to Kupriyanets, the idea is to replace
Surkov's "sovereign democracy" with the concept of
"competitive democracy," which they attributed to INSOR head
and Medvedev advisor Igor Yurgens. Noting that the
Decembrists, several of whom lived in the Tomsk area, were
themselves members of the elite, Kupriyanets suggested that
top-down reform might be just what Russia needs. On the
other hand, he said that by bringing their intra-governmental
debates on this issue into the open, the Kremlin co-opts any

MOSCOW 00002559 003 OF 003

debate that might take place among the public. He mused on
the difficult task of building a bridge of understanding
between liberal members of the elite, and the average
Siberian "muzhik" farmer, who feels pride of ownership of his
possessions in the post-Soviet context, but still may not
connect that to the increased freedoms that accompanied
perestroika years ago.

10. (SBU) Pointing to what he considered Medvedev's reformist
instincts and mild temperament, Kupriyanets compared Medvedev
to Tsar Aleksandr II, who freed the serfs in 1861. He said
that the government regularly carries out surveys, and pays
close attention to polls from organizations like Levada and
VTsIOM. The conclusion they draw from this research, said
Kupriyanets, is that societal attitudes are shifting at their
own pace, and that although "there is no panacea, no golden
key," people are gradually "taking more ownership" and
responsibility, and recognizing that they had a stake in the
development of the country, which he said was Medvedev's
ultimate goal.


11. (SBU) The attempt to fathom Medvedev's ultimate
intentions continues, no less in Tomsk than in Moscow.
However, conversations in Tomsk support the conclusion that
Medvedev would find ample support among local elites for a
reformist program, were he to choose to implement his soaring
rhetoric in a meaningful and concrete fashion. As we saw in
reftel, in March United Russia already had to struggle to
maintain its iron grip on power in Tomsk. If Medvedev
decides to take the country in a new direction, students and
professors alike in Tomsk will be ready to follow him --
although young people will first need to shake off their
cynical and apathetic malaise.

© Scoop Media

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