The Lowdown

the-lowdown

Despair as a Sign of the Times
The general mood of discouragement has been growing because Russia has shifted into idle, and it is unclear when and how it will end
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 6, 2016

Pain and despair have seized the country. Russians are losing their jobs. They cannot pay back their debts and feed their children. Due to constant problems and the lack of apparent prospects, families are falling apart. Some make desperate decisions, finally putting an end to their lives. Russia is losing people.

In July, an employee at a sports school in Trans-Baikal Territory committed suicide after he was not paid. In early August, a married couple in Blagoveshchensk, who were up to their eyeballs in debt,. jumped from a fourteenth-floor window, leaving their young child orphaned. This spring, a father of five in Kiselyovsk in Kemerovo Region hung himself because of debts. Large numbers of similar reports have been coming from different parts of the country.

Can you live on a wage of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles a month when prices are rising continuously? [15,000 rubles is currently equivalent to approximately 200 euros. — TRR.] Or on a pension of 8,000 rubles a month? How do you raise children on this kind of money? And what if, God forbid, you have emergency expenses, for example, for expensive medical treatment, whose cost exceeds the family budget many times over? Well yes, Russia has free medical care, so to speak, but we all knew what it is really like.

It has terrible consequences. The wave of cancer patients voluntarily departing from life continues. After a series of well-publicized cases in  2014–2015, the situation has not improved this year. In mid August, a man suffering from the cancer in the Moscow Region committed suicide with explosives. In June, another cancer patient committed suicide in Yaroslavl. Despite numerous similar suicides, the Russian Health Ministry continues to claim there is no link between the suicides of cancer patients and a deficit of pain medication. Just as there is no link, of course, between the despair felt by cancer patients in our country and the state of Russian medical care, which generally gives little chance to defeat the disease to those who have no money.

According to Rosstat, 24,000 to 26,000 people take their lives each year in Russia. But the causes of this and the means of remedying the situation are not discussed seriously. Instead, Rospotrebnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare) have drafted recommendations for reporters on how to cover suicides.

Fewer and fewer people in our country know what they are going to live on tomorrow, how they will pay for rent and medical care. Russia is plunging into poverty. People have lost their sense of stability and security. The government, on the other hand, ignores these problems. It clearly has no strategy or even tactics for solving them.

There are a gazillion “public servants” in Russia, more than in the Soviet Union, but they serve only themselves and their bosses. High-ranking officials and the business clans that have fused with them live in a secure and comfortable world, whereas the common people are forced to survive alone. The civil service has lost its effectiveness. It has turned into a caste of masters and lords from whom we cannot defend ourselves, because they are the power, while we are “cattle.”

Can fear of policemen really be a norm of a civilized life, of a civilized country? Yet lawlessness on the part of the police has remained. All the talk about combating it has been just that—talk. Here is a recent case. Igor Gubanov, a resident of Magnitogorsk, protested against police lawlessness by cutting off two of his fingers. He could find no other way of making himself heard. In January, Gubanov and his wife, who live in a communal flat, were taken to a police precinct where, according to Gubanov, policemen raped his wife. A criminal investigation was launched, but soon the police investigators closed it, accusing the victimized woman of making false charges.

Despair is felt not only by people who have decided to commit shocking acts. The overall mood of discouragement has been increasing due to the fact Russia has shifted into idle and got stuck in the doldrums, and it is unclear when and how it will end.

The national anthem and memories are all that remain of the once-great country: outer space, victories, and prestige. The country’s most recent major achievements happened fifty years ago. The “unbreakable union” has been replaced by “our great power Russia,” but what is next? Great and poor, great and impoverished. Do these notions go together? How long can we live like this?

The Russian welfare state exists only on paper. Such declarations, by the way, have also been inscribed in the constitutions of Latin American, African, and Asian countries. A Brazilian in his favela reads that he lives in an wonderful welfare state, and he is amazed. The same is true of our fellow Russians, with their miserable wages and pensions. True, unlike their brothers from the country “where many wild monkeys live,” they do not live in huts yet. But, as they say, the night is young.

The main problem nowadays is that the country lacks a locomotive capable of pulling it out of crisis. The regime is concerned only with self-preservation. Officialdom is corrupt, inefficient, and lacking any strategic benchmarks. The “elite” (which I put in quotations, because they really are not the best people in the country) have been thoroughly denationalized: they have no stake in developing Russia. Until a normal and non-corrupt state makes the “elite” serve the country, it will never move it forward. In this case, what is wanted is the bloody-mindedness of a Peter the Great, who once put an end to mestnichestvo and forced the boyars and gentry to serve the country, or the statesmanship of Alexander II, who abolished serfdom over the lamentations of the landlords.

Instead, pro-government spin doctors have been increasingly ratcheing up the propaganda machine, searching for enemies, and heavily sugarcoating reality. Jingoism has already bored everyone to death. The people directing the show do not believe in it themselves, and the audience has stopped believing in it as well, despite the sunny ideology foisted on them, because Russia is running in place, and no one is solving its problems. The propaganda spiel that enemies are to blame for everything is still functioning, but even it cannot serve as a perennial explanation for each new outburst of social turmoil and, especially, the government’s extremely poor performance. So fine, Obama is a bad guy, but what does that have to do with indexing pensions?

The only thing the regime can really boast about is reinforcing itself. But it is a regime presiding over a country losing its vitality. As a priority, the self-preservation of the “elite” deprives Russia of the chance to put itself back in motion. Yet the purged political arena, in which there is almost no opposition to speak of, much less plain old independent people who think about their country, has stopped generating leaders. There is only one leader left in the country, and he presides over a multilayered horde of bosses and oligarchs, embezzlers and dolts  perched on their estates and thinking only of themselves.

Except for United Russia, a product of the same regime, Russia’s political parties have no weight nationwide. The same goes for grassroots organizations. The media have been muzzled. Those who try and shout louder than the rest face either a harsh crackdown or a trivial payoff. Many people have taken to making oppositional noises in the hope they will be paid to shut up. Imitating protest has become a business, just like imitating patriotism. Amid the mob of clowns and crooks, the reasonable speeches made by the few real patriots who are rooting not for themselves but for their country are drowned out by the overall senseless din.

By eliminating potential enemies, the regime has also destroyed the very possibility of an alternative emerging, of a reboot. The current policies are clearly ineffective, but what and who should replace them? Reasonable prescriptions, for example, for supporting the national non-oil economy and import substitution, restoring consumer demand through social assistance to an impoverished population, ending capital flight, going after offshore companies, and clamping down hard on corruption have been voiced. These ideas, however, have come from second- and third-rank players who can advise the authorities but cannot demand anything from them. So the regime has ignored them year after year, thus exacerbating the crisis.

I am not trying to whip up a frenzy. I would like to say something positive, but the situation is firmly deadlocked. It is clear what reforms are needed. It also clear how to implement them and where to begin: with the “elite,” the civil service, the budget, and the tax system. The only open question is who would be capable of doing all this. We have already talked about the government. Russia’s active middle class is small, and it is extremely demoralized. We are left with the rank-and-file population, who have suffered most from the crisis and seemingly have a stake in launching reforms. But for the time being only a few ordinary people have been willing to take responsibility, allowing the regime quickly to localize protests, as happened with the farmers.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

In the current environment, self-organization, society teaming up with honest people in the civil service and law enforcement, could be effective. Those honest people are undoubtedly there, but not in leadership roles. The country needs a grassroots organization, a movement, a party that could unite people and impose its own rules on the authorities. Society has to make the first move itself, which will serve as a signal to the honest people inside the system. We have to get the ball rolling.

Responsibility for what will become of the Motherland and us tomorrow lies with each of us today. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

All we have to do is not be silent, not relinquish our right to speak and act to someone else, not to count on an unknown savior of the Fatherland showing up. If he has not saved the country already, why would he do it now? And, needless to say, do not be afraid. We have to overcome our isolation to put an end to the senseless suicides, severed fingers, and broken lives, to put an end finally to the shameless plunder of the people and the export of the loot abroad. Even the smallest action, as long as it is collective, carries more weight than the most desperate individual deed.

We can, of course, wait for the moment when the country finally goes to hell in a hand basket, as in Tsarist Russia or the late Soviet Union. But do we really have to go through turmoil and destruction every time we need a new impulse to development? Are victims so necessary to the process of recovery?

The country is at a standstill, and the dump truck of history is rushing toward it. There are two options. Either we start the engine and drive, or we wait to get run over and tossed onto the roadside.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I published a translation of his column “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” in June 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader

Back to School Daze: Non-Russian Surnames Spark Racist Social Media Panic

List of “Non-Russian” First Formers in Suburban Moscow Provokes Nationalist Brouhaha
Commentators Divided on Issue of Assimilating Migrant Workers
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 1, 2016

Publication of a list of pupils in a first form class at Kotelniki Comprehensive School No. 3, in suburban Moscow, most of whom have “non-Russian” names and surnames, has set off a row on the web.

Screenshot of facebook.com/adagamov
The photo of the list, as reproduced on facebook.com/adagamov.

The photograph quickly spread among top bloggers and various socio-political discussion groups, garnering a slew of nationalistic comments.

The children’s names, such as Habiba, Medina, Malak, Idris, Yufusjon, Muhammadyor, and Beghod (there are a total of twenty-eight children in the class) goaded users into making nationalist statements.

However, [the Twitter account] Decadent West, for example, which ironically passes off Russian realities as foreign, commented on the photograph as follows: “A school in the German city of Cologne. Thank you, Angela Merkel, for your excellent refugee policy. Cologne, Germany.”

Screenshot of "Decadent West" (Zagnivaiushchii Zapad) Twitter account entry
Screenshot of Twitter account entry on the topic by Zagnivayushchii Zapad (Decadent West)

Nor all user, however, supported the nationalist rhetoric. Thus, Mitya Aleshkovskiy, director of the website Takie Dela, wrote that “people who are outraged children of migrant workers go to school are animals and a real shame to our country and society.”

He reminded his readers that schooling the children of migrant workers was the best means of assimilating them and claimed that Russia was a country where fascism had emerged victorious.

This prompted users to deluge Aleshkovskiy with nationalist comments.

Commenting on the photograph as posted on blogger Rustem Adagamov’s Facebook page, other users noted that Adagamov himself did not sport a “Russian” surname.

In 2013, residents of Kotelniki wrote and distributed a letter, complaining to the president, prosecutor general, and governor of Moscow Region that their town had “turned into a ghetto of illegal migrant workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other CIS countries, as well as Vietnam and China,” due to the fact it was close to the Sadovod Market.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Medvedev: A Bad Cop Setting Losers Straight in the Kleptocratic Police State

Dmitry Medvedev at Terra Scientia youth forum. Photo courtesy of Zebra TV
“Bad cop” Dmitry Medvedev at Terra Scientia youth forum. Photo courtesy of Zebra TV

Medvedev: It Is Wrong to Compare Low Salaries of Schoolteachers and High Salaries of the Security Services 
This was the premier’s reply to complaint from resident of Dagestan at Terra Scientia
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
August 3, 2016

Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a bold statement at the youth forum Terra Scientia on the Klyazma River. Replying to the question of why a teacher’s salary in Dagestan is four or five times lower than that of a security services officer, the politician said it was wrong to compare the two professions.

As reported by Zebra TV, a young man from the Caucasian republic posed the question to the premier. According to the young man, a teacher in Dagestan might earn 10,000 to 15,000 rubles a month [approx. 130 to 200 euros a month], while an employee of a law enforcement agency could earn 50,000 rubles a month [approx. 675 euros a month].

In response, Medvedev noted the two professions were not comparable. As an example, he cited his own experience. When he finished university, his monthly salary [during Soviet times] was 90 rubles a month, as opposed to 250 rubles a month for policemen.

However, noted Medvedev, his priority was graduate school, not a career in the Interior Ministry or the prosecutor’s office, although he had received an offer.

Ultimately, Medvedev concluded, an “energetic” teacher will always find an opportunity to supplement his salary. The premier advised young people to follow their vocations. Such was his reply to another question, about whether it was worth going into social work given the extremely low wages in the field.

Earlier at Terra Scientia, a female participant had complained about her inability to get a mortgage although she had two university degrees and worked in an orphanage. The discussion’s moderator chided the young woman for asking such a question while holding an iPhone. The woman claimed the smartphone had been a gift. However, she never did get an answer to her question.

Translated by the Russian Reader. PM Medvedev’s “outrageous” behavior in this case is wholly consistent with Nikolai Mironov’s analysis, two months ago in the same newspaper, of Putin’s need for a “bad” prime minister, a fall guy and scapegoat for all purposes and seasons.

The Stability Pit, or, Bend Them like Gandhi

Screenshot of a photograph on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva
Screenshot of a photograph found on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. The man in glasses displayed on the screen is identified as “M. Gandhi.” Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva

Russia in the Pit of Stability
The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 22, 2016

The country has been handed the bill for Crimea, Donbass, and “stability.” The bill includes unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. The petrodollar dolce vita is over. The only things growing now in Russia are prices, taxes, and utility bills, while incomes, purchasing power, and the standard of living are falling. Nineteen million Russians live below the poverty line. Yet the minimum monthly cost of living in Moscow is 14,413 rubles [approx. 200 euros], and 9,452 rubles nationwide, meaning that a huge number of people who are not officially poor are barely making ends meet. Thirty-nine percent of families do not have spare cash; they spend their entire incomes on groceries. The worst thing is that these people cannot afford to buy not only things but also medicines. Almost fifty percent of the population suffers from structural hunger. And that is not is the limit: the crisis is not over yet.

On the other hand, no one in the government has been sacked, there has not been a single bankruptcy on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and the number of dollar millionaires in Russia has not changed. “We picked the sweet berries together, but the bitter berries I pick alone”?

“Berries Are Sweet,” a song from the film Earthly Love (Yevgeny Matveev, dir., 1974)

The propagandists have, of course, been trying to powder the ugly picture with “poll results” claiming that eighty percent of Russians consider themselves happy, ninety-four percent look to the future with optimism, and eighty-two percent support the president’s policies. Not even the most desperately optimistic patriots believe in this anymore, however. Universal jingoistic boldness has given way to a heavy hangover, and instead of talk about Russia getting up from its knees, you more often hear the saying, “It won’t be worse than the nineties.”

It will be worse. In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state. More and more new taxes will be introduced: on property, land, vehicles, securities, and anything that moves. More and more bureaucratic dodges will be devised so the state can get its share, but from everyone and for nothing. There will be more and more new construction projects whose price tags will be doubled or trebled so the “elite” can maintain their prosperity. Phrases like “Crimea tax,” “payment for an extractive economy and decades of incompetent sloth,” and “money for officials and security forces” will be inscribed in invisible ink on each new levy, requisition, and massive construction project.

Sensitive to change, since they have something to lose, and quick off the mark, because they are able to leave, the middle class has quickly realized that hard times are coming. Since the introduction of sanctions, its ranks have thinned: some have been ruined, while others have fled. Even before the crisis, the regime did everything it could to make doing business more or less honestly in Russia unprofitable. Even the sanctions and promises to support domestic producers have changed nothing. Those who steal have it good, those who work have it bad, and the smaller the business, the more it gets fleeced. Due to the government’s anti-western rhetoric, many entrepreneurs who do business with other countries also got scared they would be targeted with everything from travel bans to confiscations of money and property. Hedging their bets, they have taken refuge in the Baltic countries, where it is easy to get a residence permit, as well as in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. So many economic emigrants have left the country in recent years that we could speak of “economic steamships” bearing them out of the country. Many have purchased citizenships in other countries, and many of those people plan to renounce their Russian citizenships due to the passage of new laws. (The question of whether Russia needs such citizens and whether we should mourn their departure is beyond the scope of the article.)

But what will happen to those people who stay here? Will the nineties seem like a piece of cake to them?

People had no money in the nineties, but neither they did have any debt. Today, around thirty-eight million people have outstanding bank loans. This is fifty-nine percent of the working population, and it excludes people in debt to semi-underground micro lenders. Moreover, eight million people have at least three outstanding loans, and every sixth person has no way to pay back his or her debts. More than half the loans taken out in 2016 were used to pay off outstanding loans. In addition, people raised on the ideology of consumption cannot kick the credit habit even in hard time. Impoverished and unemployed, they mechanically keep on acquiring debt, using the money they have left to buy appliances or a trip to a resort, thus getting bogged down ever deeper in debt. The laws are written in the interests of the banks, and the inaction of the police and the connivance of the authorities favor the debt collectors. Banks get away with things mere mortals could not get away with. Billions are spirited out of the country annually using crooked banking schemes, and these crimes go to trial only in exceptional cases. It is one thing, however, to move capital abroad and not returns millions in loans to the treasury. It is almost a safe thing to do.

It is another matter not to give back a bank 100,000 rubles on time. True, a law regulating the work of debt collectors has finally been passe. As of 2017, absolutely criminal methods of forcing people to pay their debts will be prohibited. The law is quite timely, but you can count on laws only in countries where they are obeyed. Debt collection will thus shift from the legal realm to the semi-legal realm. Instead of official bank employees, debtors will now be getting visits from shaven-headed wise guys who supposedly have no connection to the banks.

By the way, bailiffs have recently been permitted to garnish the bank accounts of debtors. No one could care less whether you need the money for a life-or-death operation or you have a whole house of children to feed. The bank needs the money more than you do. The more the debt burden of the population increases, the more such measures will be adopted to help banks get their money back.

In the nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, utility rates had not yet skyrocketed, and people could put off paying bills for years on end, until better times. There were no methods of debt collection, and besides, the housing and utilities sector had not yet been divvied up among contractors, many of whom are now in the hands of officials and their “subsidiaries,” only minus any government liability.

Nowadays, people who are overdue paying their utility bills for a couple of months are threatened with having their gas, electricity, water, and heating turned off, sued in court (which in Russia is always on the side of the strong), and can legally be evicted from their apartments. The regime, of course, serves the interests of the property management companies by increasing fines and simplifying debt collection procedures. Trying to carve up a meager budget, people wonder whether to pay the utility bills or make their loan payments. They base their decision on whom they fear most: the extortionists from the utility companies or the gangsters from the banks. The water and the power will probably not be turned off nationwide, but targeted outages and evictions will definitely kick off, and the most defenseless will be at risk. In my landing, a pensioner living with her sick son has had her electricity shut off, and the widow of a man disabled during WWII has received a “polite” threat from the housing service.

For the time being, Russians are keeping on top of their bills, but according to experts, the numbers of overdue utility bills will skyrocket and grow exponentially. Already sensing the profits to be made, collection services have taken an interest in the matter. (The new law on debt collectors, by the way, does not extend to people in debt to utility companies.) Considering their methods, this is definitely frightening. The website of the Debt Collection Development Center features a special section on extorting utility bill debts that lists such methods of pressuring debtors as special notices in the media and leafletting, participation of debt collection specialists in general tenant meetings, legal threats, and unorthodox options [nestandartnye varianty].* The last point gives me the creeps. What exactly are these unorthodox options? A clothes iron? A soldering gun? Matchsticks under the fingernails?

Another sign of the times that did not exist in the nineties is that no one feels sorry for anybody nowadays. A young family with a child has no way of paying back its foreign currency mortgage? Parents cannot pay for their son’s eduction? People have to sell the TV, car or dacha to pay off the loan used to buy that selfsame TV, car or dacha? You shouldn’t have borrowed money from a bank! You have no money to pay your bills? Sell your flat and buy one you can afford! You cannot pay for medical treatment or pay your university fees? Get a job! There are no jobs? That is your fault!

People have no sympathy for others or sense of solidarity. Nor should we expect protests and rallies in support of these who have gone into debt, even when the whole country ends up in that pit. The police and judicial system insures our government against any disturbances.

In fact, the punitive apparatus (from the police and the courts to bank debt recovery departments) is a single sector in which the state is present in one way or other. But what does the state do for its own people? It squanders state funds, including the pension fund. It cuts spending on everything not associated with the military, abroad and domestically. It has been exiting the social sector, shutting down hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, eliminating further and supplemental educational programs, canceling benefits, and reducing welfare payments that as they were amounted to kopecks. 24,000 schools, 4,800 hospitals, and 4,800 medical clinics were closed in Russia from 2001 to 2013 alone. (There is no data on the Rosstat website after 201. Apparently, it was decided to classify the information.)

The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future, but it still costs a lot to its people. In the nineties, the regime attempted to spend the Soviet inheritance, which was so rich that part of it is still left over today. In the noughties, it cashed in on resource extraction.  Today, it has no choice but to shake down its own citizens for money. The entire state vertical, the entire system of power, from the government to the security forces, has focused on this. And since it often has to shake the last kopecks from people’s pockets, the process will be cruel and painful.

Translated by the Russian Reader

* In the interests of fairness, I should mention I could not find this exact wording on the Debt Collection Development Center’s website, although I did find the page where the other methods listed, above, were discussed. TRR

Whipping Bear

Bears
Bears

Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a “Bad” Prime Minister
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 1, 2016

Remember the Soviet joke about the plumber who comes to an apartment to fix a leaky radiator?

“The entire system is rotten here: the entire system has to be changed!” he concludes.

The joke is as topical now as it was then, because the system, it seems, has hit rock bottom. But the nation is clearly of two minds. It is seemingly aware of what has been happening in the country, but at the same time it maintains its loyalty to the regime that has brought us to this pass.

On the one hand, we see a president with a huge rating. On the other hand, we see a rapidly failing economy, a deteriorating social sphere, and, consequently, a high degree of public dissatisfaction with the regime. How can it be that as the foundation crumbles, the president manages to maintain his popularity?

The logic of this social attitude was, I think, nicely expressed by a cabbie who recently gave me a lift.

“Putin is going like gangbusters: the West, America, Syria, Donbas. And Medvedev is supposed to be taking care of the economy instead of fiddling with his iPhone.”

And right then and there he served me up a helping of bad news. He has been getting less work. Prices are rising. Who knows where the hell we are headed.

The taxi driver in fact reproduced the classic propaganda formula he hears every day on the TV. Aside from America, bad officials and liberals are the root of our troubles. The government is clearly underperforming, while the president is terribly busy with foreign policy and lifting Russia from its knees. He is the country’s sacred patron, its guardian angel, and the shortcomings of officials do not stick to him.

If you are thinking straight, cognitive dissonance must kick in, of course. The president has a huge number of powers. He appoints the government, and he could, if he felt like it, sack any minister, including the prime minister, without consulting with anyone. He has the power to kickstart any reforms via presidential decrees. And the Duma is at his beck and call, for United Russia holds the majority of seats there. Why does Putin not appoint a good team, dismiss corrupt officials, and announce a policy shift for the country? How will he lift the country from its knees if the economy tanks? If he is weak and incapable of doing it, why should we support him? If he just does not want to do it, that is another strike against him. But the nation, which has a weak grasp of political institutions and sees no credible alternative in sight, is willing to believe that “Putin has it rough,” that “he is fighting,” and that “they  are getting in his way.”

The massive brainwashing on this point allows the regime to keep a tight lid on the system and change nothing fundamental about it, thus preserving the current inertial scenario, which is favorable to the elites. It is favorable to them because, were the government to decide to undertake economic reforms, the economic interests of the elites would inevitably take a hit, forcing them to surrender some of their comforts and excess profits.

However, while the costs of the crisis are primarily borne by the masses, somebody has to be made the fall guy, the virtual whipping boy. With the exception of defense minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the cabinet has been appointed to this role along with abstract liberal circles, who, allegedly, have a behind-the-scenes influence on officials.

It is obvious that today the head of state cannot officially support the current course, which has resulted in rampant poverty among the population. Equating this policy with the president would be, if not tantamount to suicide, then certainly a powerful blow to his popularity. But Putin has no intention to change course for the reason given above: the interests of the elites. For this reason, on the eve of the election campaigns, the plan is to deliberately unhook the domestic agenda from the president and hang it on Medvedev and his government. Consequently, the prime minister will no longer be the number two man in Russia, but an expendable, a scapegoat.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

Moreover, we should not identify Medvedev with United Russia. Their identities are not blurred in the propaganda, and this is no accident. All the negativity towards officials and the head of the government must not devolve on the party tasked with winning a majority in the Duma in September. United Russia members have thus even been criticizing government ministers, pretending that they and the executive branch are different animals, despite the fact they have the same leader (Medvedev) and a majority in parliament, allowing them to make any and all political appointments and legislative decisions.

This is a quite important part of the spectacle. Medvedev has to be a lightning rod for Putin, and yet United Russia, which Medvedev chairs, has to make it successfully through the campaign for the new seating of the Duma. Since this is the task at hand, the regime will do its utmost to control the volume of criticism leveled at the prime minister, including criticism voiced by opposition parties. As for attacks by forces close to the regime (e.g., the Russian People’s Front’s usual philippics against bureaucrats), they will most likely come down to a matter of tweaking the picture to help the president avoid the impact of potential criticism for the current situation. But the propagandists will avoid belittling the government excessively during the election period. “Local officials” will bear the brunt of the negativity. The government, moreover, will be given carte blanche to spend budgetary funds for populist purposes and to mitigate the crisis, including through a temporary increase in dividends paid out by large corporations. (The figures currently quoted range between 300 and 400 billion, which should be quite enough to get through the summer.)

Thus, during the Duma campaign, Medvedev will draw fire upon himself. So-called managed democracy, however, will ensure this fire will not turn into a conflagration and burn the regime and the elites. The president must remain unharmed, since his main play strategically is the 2018 presidential election, a key election for the elites.

The next act in the political spectacle will be Medvedev’s premiership after the Duma elections in September and in the run-up to 2018. Here, too, he will function as a whipping boy and political expendable, readying the way for the launch of Putin’s next presidential campaign.

After the election, the prime minister, having received formal carte blanche from the voters, can undertake unpopular measures. (Unless, of course, the oil price suddenly rises miraculously.) It is inevitable. Someone has to pay for the crisis, and, apparently, the elites are still not this someone. In any case, it is Medvedev who will have to make ends meet in the 2016 budget, with its whopping 14.7% deficit on the expenditures side, and then rob Peter to pay Paul when drafting the 2017 and 2018 budgets.

If the situation gets ugly, and the populace’s complaints attain a critical mass, Putin can dismiss Medvedev on the eve of the presidential election, appointing him to some cushy post. And he will again profit from the decision, because in the eyes of the electorate, the president will be seen as a virtual national savior. Having dampened tensions in society this way, he will be re-elected to another six-year term as president, winning an acceptable percentage of the vote. The opposition will again be confounded, and someone like Alexei Kudrin can become prime minister. This will nicely symbolize the compromise between “liberals” and “conservatives,” while also functioning as a nod to the west, whose cheap money we need desperately.

The alpha and omega of all this complicated maneuvering is preserving the system, and thus preserving the privileges and assets of the supreme elites, their lifestyle, and their ability to peaceably transfer their wealth to their children. They will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and once again enjoy the sunsets on the French Riviera and in Italy.

Only time and economic conditions will tell what comes next. If the country’s currency reserves run out, and the oil price does not increase, intrigues around choosing Putin’s successor will kick off. Or a new scapegoat will be found, and so on ad infinitum. Generally speaking, the current regime just does not plan that far ahead.

Only one question remains. What is in all of this for Medvedev himself? Does he enjoy being expendable? Here it is like the line from the classic Soviet comedy film The Pokrovsky Gate: “Life is lived not for pleasure’s sake, but for the sake of conscience.”

I think the answer that immediately comes to mind is also the most likely to be the right answer. Medvedev does his job and is loyal to his boss. He cannot imagine himself outside the system, much less as the creator of a new system.

Another joke comes to mind in this connection. President Medvedev wakes up in a sweat. His wife asks what the matter is.

“I dreamt I fired Putin,” Medvedev replies.

2011 clearly showed that staging a revolution or even serious reforms was beyond the prime minister’s scope. Medvedev’s political career consists of brief ascents followed by a series of humiliations. However, his job has numerous upsides, too. Is it so bad being prime minister of such a rich country as Russia for a whole six years?

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up.