09ASTANA588, KAZAKHSTAN: LIFE IN A SMALL MINING TOWN

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09ASTANA588 2009-04-03 10:19 2011-08-30 01:44 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Astana

VZCZCXRO8682
OO RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHBI RUEHCI RUEHDA RUEHDBU RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK
RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLH RUEHLN RUEHLZ RUEHNEH RUEHNP RUEHPOD RUEHPW
RUEHROV RUEHSK RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHTA #0588/01 0931019
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 031019Z APR 09
FM AMEMBASSY ASTANA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5087
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE 1443
RUCNCLS/ALL SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA COLLECTIVE
RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 0821
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 1524
RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL 0508
RHEBAAA/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHDC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFAAA/DIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC 1006
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC 0919
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC
RHMFIUU/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 ASTANA 000588 
 
SENSITIVE 
SIPDIS 
 
STATE FOR SCA/CEN, EUR/RUS, EAP/CM 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: PGOV PHUM ECON EMIN SENV SOCI CH RS KZ
SUBJECT:  KAZAKHSTAN:  LIFE IN A SMALL MINING TOWN 
 
1.  (U) Sensitive but unclassified.  Not for public Internet. 
 
2.  (SBU) SUMMARY:  PolOff visited Ridder, a mining town in East 
Kazakhstan oblast March 8-12, and had an opportunity to observe the 
local socio-economic environment.  Close to the Russian and Chinese 
borders, Ridder seems almost like a living relic of the Soviet 
Union.  There has been little change to the town's infrastructure 
since Kazakhstan became independent.  No new buildings have been 
built in Ridder, the same mines continue to fuel the city's economy 
and pollute the environment, and Russian remains the dominant 
language.  The most significant changes since Kazakhstan's 
independence have been the installation of ethnic Kazakhs in 
positions of power throughout the city, and the introduction of the 
market economy, which has led to significant growth in trade with 
China.  Partially as a result in the influx of cheap Chinese goods, 
Ridder's cost of living is half of that in Astana or Almaty, 
although low wages outside of mining and high unemployment pose 
serious economic challenges.  Residents told PolOff that the global 
economic crisis is hitting the city hard.  Ridder's inhabitants said 
they are eager to learn English and interact with foreigners, and 
many reported that they travel frequently to Russia and China. 
Overall, most residents of Ridder seem attached to their small 
border town, but many of PolOff's interlocutors expressed concern 
about the pollution from mining and metallurgy, on which their city 
depends.  END SUMMARY. 
 
RIDDER:  STILL A SOVIET-STYLE CITY 
 
3.  (SBU) Ridder is a mining town with a population of 60,000, 
located in northeastern Kazakhstan near the border with Russia and 
China.  Emphasizing its roots as a Russian and later a Soviet 
pioneer settlement, many residents still prefer to call the town by 
its former name, Leninogorsk.  In many ways, Ridder seems frozen in 
time.  Mostly Soviet-made "Lada" cars ply streets named after Soviet 
World War II heroes and giants of Russian literature.  Mines and 
factories belch out smoke.  In the center of the city, housing 
consists mainly of concrete Soviet apartment blocks. In stark 
contrast to Astana or Almaty, PolOff did not observe any new 
construction.  Most locals still call Ridder's main thoroughfare, 
Independence Street, by its former name -- Lenin Street. 
Surrounding Lenin Street is a large, central town-square, with a 
monument to the many citizens of Ridder who gave their lives during 
the Great Patriotic War on one side.  On the other side is the the 
Palace of Culture, which, based on old photos in the Ridder City 
Museum, also appears to have remained unchanged from the Soviet 
period. 
 
ETHNIC RUSSIANS MAKE UP MOST OF POPULATION... 
 
4.  (SBU) The dominant language of conversation in Ridder is Russian 
-- a reflection of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 
population is ethnic Russian.  Even store signs, advertisements, and 
billboards in Kazakh were few compared to what's seen in other parts 
of Kazakhstan. 
 
5.  (SBU) Many interlocutors told PolOff anecdotes emphasizing their 
close ties to Russia.  One Russian woman told PolOff that although 
she had grown up in East Kazakhstan oblast, and had been to Russia 
only once to visit a sister who had resettled there, she planned to 
retire to Russia.  "There is too much of a focus on Kazakh ethnicity 
in Kazakhstan now," she said.  A Tatar family told PolOff, "we 
understand Kazakh, but we don't really like listening to, or 
speaking, it.  We consider ourselves to be ethnic Russian Tatars." 
Moreover, since there are no universities in Ridder, PolOff's 
interlocutors said most of Ridder's young people choose to attend 
university in the Russian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk.  While 
there is a Russian Orthodox Church in Ridder, PolOff did not see a 
single mosque there. 
 
...BUT KAZAKHS DOMINATE THE OFFICIAL STRUCTURES 
 
6. (SBU) Another EmbOff also traveled to Ridder in March, and spent 
many hours observing local court proceedings.  The vast majority of 
officials in positions of power in the law enforcement and judicial 
 
ASTANA 00000588  002 OF 004 
 
 
system in Ridder whom EmbOff encountered were ethnic Kazakh -- which 
stands in
 stark contrast to the actual demographics of Ridder. 
Inside the courthouse, the ethnic Kazakh police officers, judges, 
and clerks addressed each other solely in the Kazakh language, even 
when an ethnic Russian was participating in the conversation. 
During the many hours spent in the courthouse, EmbOff did not 
observe a single ethnic Russian police officer. 
 
POLLUTION -- A SERIOUS PROBLEM 
 
7.  (SBU) Despite its small population, the city occupies an entire 
valley, stretching 20 by 27 kilometers.  Local buses require 30 to 
40 minutes to travel from one end of the city to the other.  The 
geographical center of Ridder is an electrical station on top of a 
hill, adjacent to which Communist Youth League volunteers built a 
park during Soviet times.  On one side of the hill is a smaller and 
wealthier residential community, and on the other side lies the bulk 
of the city, including several mines, Soviet-era apartment 
buildings, and the town's commercial center.  A local pensioner 
strolling in the park told PolOff that all the land from Ridder to 
Ust-Kamenogorsk (i.e., the capital of East Kazakhstan oblast) has 
been badly polluted by mining and metallurgy.  Pointing in the 
opposite direction, towards the newer residential community nestled 
in the foothills of the Altai mountains, he said, "The water is 
better up there, but look at how the trees have been clear-cut." 
Turning toward the site of another mine, the pensioner said, 
"They're mining gold and other minerals there.  There are gold and 
minerals under this very mountain, but at least for now we still 
have this park."  PolOff personally observed that the forest on the 
hill is not very healthy.  Without the biodiversity provided by 
leaving some older trees and ground cover, the many thin trees have 
grown too close together. 
 
PILLARS OF THE ECONOMY:  MINING, TRADE WITH CHINA 
 
8.  (SBU) Local interlocutors told PolOff that mines generate almost 
all of the city's income, and miners make approximately $670 per 
month.  In contrast, in service jobs outside of the mines, it is 
difficult to earn even $200.  Although the facilities of one of 
Ridder's largest mines looked old, it had a full parking lot, even 
containing a few Japanese-manufactured SUVs in addition to the 
Ladas. 
 
9.  (SBU) Trade with China is another pillar of the local economy. 
Out of twelve spontaneous encounters with local citizens, four men 
were engaged in trade with China, one young couple worked for the 
army, while others worked at the local nature preserve, the city 
court, and a store, and as an engineer and a nurse.  One woman was 
unemployed, and one man was a pensioner.  Of the four men trading 
with China, each had their own niche business.  One man ran his own 
small electronics shop in a local mall filled with individual shops. 
 His wares ranged from hearing aids and telephones to computer 
parts.  A second ran a local hotel and the attached Chinese 
restaurant.  His friend was also involved in trade with China, as 
was a talkative man that PolOff met in a barbershop, although PolOff 
never found out exactly what they sold.  All PolOff's interlocutors 
doing business with China said that their sales volumes had recently 
dropped by at least 50 percent since people are cutting back on 
non-essential spending in the wake of the global economic crisis. 
Of the four traders, two appeared to be ethnic Russian, and two 
ethnic Kazakh.  The restaurant owner, who employed a non-Russian 
speaking Han Chinese chef, told PolOff that while local ethnic 
Kazakh and Uyghur traders sometimes participate in trade, Han 
Chinese play the key role in cross-border commerce. 
 
EVERYTHING IS CHEAPER IN RIDDER ... 
 
10.  (SBU) In keeping with Ridder's low average income and proximity 
to cheap goods from China, prices for a meal in a restaurant or a 
haircut were at least 50 percent lower than in Astana.  Moreover, 
most residents told PolOff they buy inexpensive local produce, such 
as fresh fish, milk, and pickled cucumbers, sold on the streets 
every morning by elderly ladies supplementing their pensions.  In 
both of Ridder's main markets, local residents were also selling 
 
ASTANA 00000588  003 OF 004 
 
 
cheap Chinese clothing and shoes, including one middle-aged woman 
selling shirts, displayed on a clothesline strung between two trees, 
for only two dollars each. 
 
... BUT A BARBERSHOP CHAT REVEALS PROBLEMS 
 
11.  (SBU) PolOff encountered a talkative and outspoken interlocutor 
in a local barbershop.  An ethnic Kazakh gentleman in his late 
fifties asked numerous questions about the financial crisis 
including, "Why did the crisis start?," "How long does America 
intend to allow its financial problems to affect the rest of the 
world?," and "How will America resolve the crisis?"  Drawing a 
middle-aged female customer into the conversation, PolOff's 
interlocutor complained about Ridder's poor economy and how many 
people were out of work.  The elderly gentleman, who said he was 
employed buying and selling various goods from China, blamed the 
financial crisis on Kazakhstan's leadership, saying "Our economists 
in the capital in Astana, what were they thinking when they made 
their budgets?  They expected to get $90 per barrel of oil, but we 
can only get $45 now.  And we can't even complain.  If I say 
anything, I'll get hauled off by the police.  Everything here is 
'without limits.'  This morning, I was a little bit drunk, and the 
police called me over to check my documents, and they took 
everything I had as a bribe." 
 
12.  (SBU) The man recollected that during the Soviet era, he had 
listened to American rock music, hoping for the freedom it 
represented.  "We were deceived, though," he complained.  "We 
thought that when the Soviet Union fell, we would have democracy -- 
but now, you see what we have?  It's not democracy, but it's not 
stable either.  The old days of having nothing to buy are gone, but 
so are our jobs.  We have everything we could want to buy now, but 
there is not enough work, and everything costs a lot of money." 
 
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF SMALL TOWN LIFE... 
 
13.  (SBU) Many of Ridder's young people told PolOff that despite 
the bad economy, they wouldn't want to leave, since the area has 
mountains ideal for enjoying year-round outdoor activities.  PolOff 
observed that stores were filled with sporting gear and young people 
were indulging in all sorts of winter sports.  Interlocutors also 
told PolOff that boxing matches pack in large crowds, while on a 
Sunday evening, a local hotel's billiards parlor was filled with 
loud music and patrons partying into the early morning hours. 
Despite our observations of possible ethnic divisions, particularly 
in the local administration, Ridder still appears to be a harmonious 
and low-crime environment, especially in comparison with large 
cities like Almaty and Astana.  Children were playing unattended, 
residents were strolling the streets at all hours of the day and 
night, and PolOff personally
 observed two young ethnic Kazakh youths 
helping an old ethnic Russian woman across the main street. 
 
14.  (SBU) For those interested in English, PolOff's interlocutors 
praised the role of the Peace Corps in providing Ridder's youth with 
opportunities to develop their English.  PolOff observed that 
residents gathered every Sunday in the local library to practice 
English with all the foreigners in town.  PolOff also met with three 
families who had hosted Peace Corps volunteers, all of whom said 
that the Peace Corps Program is critical to helping the people of 
Ridder.  One local resident, who sold fish out of a container truck 
in the local market, reminisced at length about her close personal 
relationship with the young woman who had lived with her family. 
She said that it was because of this experience that her son, who is 
studying English and Chinese in Ust-Kamenogorsk, already speaks 
excellent English, and had even interpreted for an ambassador 
visiting the region. 
 
... BUT MANY DOWNSIDES TOO 
 
15.  (SBU) Despite palpable pride in their community, PolOff's 
various interlocutors also voiced concerns about the economy, 
pollution, and social problems in Ridder.  Serious mining accidents 
reportedly occur almost every month.  Residents told PolOff they are 
very concerned about pollution associated with the mining and 
 
ASTANA 00000588  004 OF 004 
 
 
metallurgical industries.  They also told PolOff that there are many 
"sudden deaths" of young male residents in their twenties and 
thirties, which may be related to cases of alcohol-poisoning, 
although local residents attributed the deaths to heart-disease and 
cancer (sic).  Perhaps exacerbated by economic hard times, 
alcoholism appears to be a major problem in Ridder, which is also 
the case elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.  EmbOff observed 
several instances of daytime public drunkenness in Ridder, mostly 
before noon. 
 
16.  (SBU) COMMENT:  The opportunities and challenges of life in 
small towns like Ridder speak volumes about how Kazakhstan and its 
citizens are struggling to expand its economy, protect its 
environment, deal with changes in ethnic relations, and balance the 
influence of its powerful neighbors, especially China and Russia. 
The global economic crisis appears to be negatively affecting even 
people living in relatively isolated towns such as Ridder.  Many 
residents share the Russian view that the crisis is of American 
origin, and look to the United States to end it.  These sentiments, 
however, do not appear to have translated into any evident 
bitterness against the United States.  For residents of Ridder, 
especially for its ethnic Russians, relations with Russia remain 
close.  The local populace also appears to have grudging respect and 
cautious optimism about relations with China.  END COMMENT. 
 
HOAGLAND

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