Fearful of its own populace and systemically incapable of shoring up Russia’s deepening economic woes, the Kremlin has resorted to burning the bread of appeasement just to keep the circus going.
In a country where absurdity is deeply woven into the fabric of political discourse, this has been a week which gave pause to even the most jaded of Russia watchers. Two images, one of a presidential spokesman wearing a $620K watch at a wedding befitting of a mafia don, the other depicting tons of food being burned amidst deepening poverty, provide the perfect symbol for modern-day Russia.
There once was a time when Russia’s elite had their cake and the rest were content to live off of the crumbs. Now the masses are forced to watch them burn those crumbs for the sake of political theater. As Ilya Gaffner, a regional lawmaker from the ruling party United Russia said earlier this year, if you don’t have enough money for food, “eat less.”
Now one might add, “if you don’t have enough food, burn more.” But sacrifice is clearly a one way street in Putin’s Russia. Cut off your nose to spite your face, yes, but only if you are one of the 99 percent. The government’s priorities are clear. Protect the wealth of the elite, keep key industries (many of which provide the source of elicit gains) afloat at all costs, and ramp up military spending amidst an ongoing clandestine war in Ukraine.
The proposed so-called Rotenberg Law, which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses, was the first indicator of where Moscow’s priorities lay. And speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek, Dmitry Polevoy, chief Russia economist at ING Bank Eurasia in Moscow, recently speculated that Russia will divert funds from a $75 billion dollar wealth fund —intended to shore up Russia’s pension system —to provide corporate aid in the (increasingly likely) event that a separate $73 billion sovereign wealth fund is depleted.
It wouldn’t be the first time Putin sold out society’s most vulnerable for the sake of his revanchist policies. Last year, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov admitted that Russia was funding the annexation of Crimea with $7.2 billion siphoned off from the state pension fund. No worries, Russians are a robust people, right? Granny will sell dog hair socks or sing you a tune outside the rail station to make ends meet. Or not. For while the government was gleefully televising images of a seven ton mound of suspected EU-cheese being burned, earlier in the week, deplorable conditions in a prison masquerading as an old folks home left one pensioner dead and 18 hospitalized. And it will only get worse. In a country that calculates the poverty line at 10,400 rubles a month (just over $160 after the Russian currency took a huge hit this week), 22.9 million people are now living below that ridiculously low benchmark. Across the board cuts will continue to hit almost every sector of the economy. Reductions in healthcare spending are already believed to have caused thousands of extra deaths throughout Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported. A hike in household utility costs pushed inflation up to 15.6 percent in July. Annual food price inflation is over 20 percent. Capital flight is expected to exceed $100 billion for 2015.
Russia’s GDP is set to contract 3.25% this year. And while revenues from oil and gas comprise half the federal budget, oil prices are near a six-year low. Things are bad, and about to get worse. And yet they are burning food. Not only burning it, but investing in 6 million ruble mobile crematoriums to keep the circus of pain on the road.
Much like scholastic arguments about the nature of God and evil, Putin is either unable or unwilling to diversify the country’s economy, stamp out corruption and give civil society a chance to develop. But while much of the world might have a less than positive view of Putin’s leadership, his sky-high popularity rate reflects the parallel reality that most Russians, suffering from a form of national Stockholm Syndrome, appear to inhabit. As I As I wrote previously, this can by and large be explained both by Russia’s inherit cynicism, and the nationwide phenomenon of “ressentiment”, which can be can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills. How long the Kremlin can keep up this shell game of misdirected blame is anyone’s guess.
In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Augustus instituted a system whereby grain handouts and caps on food prices, coupled with free entertainment, were employed to keep the plebeians in place. The satirical writer Juvenal turned his ire on commoners for selling out their freedom and civil responsibilities for bread and circuses.
Russia, with its long tradition of absurdism and maximalism, have even turned that old maxim on its head. For while the elites’ bellies will continue to be full and their children will continue to dine across Europe on Russia’s stolen wealth, the common man is now expected to be content with the spectacle of his own plate burning.
Who ever imagined that the bread would become the circus? Only in Russia…