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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building Castles or The Future?

The presidential property department has proudly announced that when European leaders visit Russia next year, they will be met in style.

Some 3,000 workers are toiling overtime to complete the renovation of the Konstantinovsky Palace, a regal 18th century residence that will serve as a presidential abode and an upscale center for international conferences. The 150-hectare complex near St. Petersburg will include a helipad, an intricate network of canals, piers on the Gulf of Finland and 20 two-floor mansions for honored guests.

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Official cost estimates have climbed over the past two years, with the latest figure given by Kremlin property manager Vladimir Kozhin as $200 million, although industry experts believe that to be unrealistically low.

Kozhin told reporters last week that not a kopek of the $70 million spent thus far on the project came from the budget.

Nonetheless, the irony -- some might say hypocrisy -- of the project is hard to overlook, considering the dreary shade of Russia's fiscal picture.

Just last month, President Vladimir Putin railed against the Cabinet for failing to pay state wages on time and lagging behind in payments in the so-called social sphere. He lamented that, despite pledges by the government to cut wage arrears by the summer, they "have grown, and considerably so."

The Finance Ministry said this week that public sector wage arrears as of July 1 totaled about $92 million -- only some $20 million more than the donations so skillfully solicited for the Konstantinovsky complex.

Moreover, while it is true that the money for the palace has come from corporate sponsors, many of those companies -- including energy giants Rosneft, Slavneft and Gazprom -- are state-controlled and, therefore, particularly pliable donors.

Officials in charge of the Konstantinovsky project have emphasized that the renovation of the palace is neither a whim nor a luxury, but a vibrant sign of Russia's rejuvenation and its integration with the West.

The goal is a laudable one. But actions speak louder than words. If Moscow would like to demonstrate a true commitment to the values of Western democracy, perhaps the Kremlin should consider using its finesse in fund-raising to help bolster hospitals and schools or pay doctors and teachers.

Otherwise, there is little doubt that come September, as the laborers at the Konstantinovsky Palace begin work on its interior, thousands of school teachers marching to their classrooms will not regard the project as a sign that Moscow is "turning its face" toward Europe. Instead, they will feel it is turning a decidedly different part of its anatomy toward them.