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U.S. Envoy Scouted 'Social Unrest Potential' In Russian Car Capital

Nikolai Merkushkin

Nikolai Merkushkin

Governor of Russia's Samara Region

"The ambassador [to Russia] of the United States [John Tefft] stayed here in Tolyatti for three days in April-May... And why did he visit Tolyatti?... Because in the spring, Tolyatti was facing a very serious economic situation.”

...never visited Tolyatti

Merkushkin, a senior member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, made the statement at an August 19 meeting with residents in the central city of Tolyatti, an auto-manufacturing hub whose economy has been hammered by plunging car sales amid Russia’s economic recession.His remarks first garnered national attention after they were published August 23 by the Samara news portal Kremlin loyalists have long accused Tefft of helping engineer revolutions that swept pro-Western governments into power in Georgia and Ukraine. allegations that he dismisses. But while Tefft did indeed visit the Samara region for three days in early April, there is no record that he ever set foot in Tolyatti during the trip.

Tefft’s April 4-6 visit to Samara, the regional capital, was devoted in large part to cultural events, such as a photography exhibit about New Orleans and a concert of Broadway hits performed by the Samara State Philharmonic, according to the embassy and Russian media reports at the time. He also visited the city’s landmarks and met with business leaders, academics, and journalists working in the region. The visit was chronicled extensively by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, as well as local and federal news outlets. Russian state television even aired a report suggesting Tefft had ulterior motives for his trip to Samara, including stirring up political discord, but never suggested he had traveled to Tolyatti. Embassy spokesman Will Stevens did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether Tefft traveled to Tolyatti during the trip, though Novaya Gazeta cited unidentified embassy employees as saying that he did not. Given Tefft’s well-documented itinerary in Samara, it appears highly unlikely he would have had time to visit Tolyatti, much less spend three days there, as Merkushkin alleged.

It is possible that Merkushkin merely mixed up Samara and Tolyatti. But the context in which he made references to Tolyatti indicates it was no slip of the tongue. He repeatedly referred to Tolyatti as he accused Tefft of scouting the city as a potential site for social unrest. He added that the U.S. ambassador ultimately decided it would be pointless to try and orchestrate unrest there “because there is great support in Tolyatti for the [Russian] president and significant support for the governor as well.”

When a local factory worker complained about more than a year of unpaid wages, Merkushkin scolded her for her “tone” and told her to “go ask those who are stirring you up” for the money. An audio recording of the exchange published by the national Ren-TV network made it clear Merkushkin was talking about Tefft as among those “stirring up precisely these people.”

The comments were the second time in the space of a few days that Merkushkin accused the United States of murky meddling in Russia’s affairs. In the earlier speech he said fluctuations in the price of oil – which he said meant Russia could barely pay pensions – were the work of specialists in the employ of the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and a charity founded by U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a favorite bugbear of Russian officials and media, banned in Russia since last year as a “threat” to state security.