Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Of Cosmic Pork and Military Chic

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has apparently been spending a lot of time recently with former Federation Council Senator Valery Goreglyad, either as part of a small group or one on one. But don't get the wrong idea. The men are meeting to discuss professional matters, though naturally they can't help but have friendly feelings toward one another.

Basically, the Duma speaker realized only recently just how important the process of putting together the federal budget is, and Goreglyad happens to be an auditor at the Audit Chamber. Gryzlov, as a fairly experienced politician, has a skeptical attitude toward the budget-writing and analytical skills of the current Duma majority, the pro-government United Russia party. Because of this, he is naturally disinclined to turn to his fellow deputies when in need of some expert advice. They are fully capable of voting obediently on command, even when it makes little sense, but they aren't required to think. They have never developed this particular skill. Thus, Goreglyad, as someone who is a capable thinker by current standards, is acting as Gryzlov's tutor on budget issues.

So, what exactly are these two dignified gentlemen discussing, these statesmen who, by the will of the president, have wound up in posts requiring them to solve complicated economic problems of the kind they never learned to address professionally?

People say that the main topic of their intimate talks is how to spend the money currently in the stabilization fund. This fund, where the proceeds from oil exports above a certain price land, has long exceeded the "untouchable" level. Above this level, by law, the fund can be spent with legislative approval on whatever the government deems necessary. This is why the Duma speaker is so caught up in the issue. But no one seems to know exactly what to spend the money on.

The stabilization fund seems to give the Russian political establishment a funny feeling.

The feeling is that Russia -- in contrast to, say, Norway, which also has a state fund thanks to high oil profits -- needs to start spending its money as fast as it can, not to save it for future generations. At least, this is what most of the political elite seems to think. The leftists among them are increasingly insistent that the money go toward raising the salaries of employees on the state payroll, pensions and economic assistance for those in need. Another group within the elite, which includes a significant portion of United Russia, says that the "extra money" should go toward some big infrastructure project like building roads.

But there is only one group speaking stubbornly, bravely and pragmatically against both of these points of view: the Finance Ministry, headed by Alexei Kudrin. Kudrin has firmly stated that injecting such a huge amount of money into the Russian economy could fire inflation, first of all, and that, second of all, this money would not do all that much good because most of it would be stolen. In response to the next logical question, "And what if we tried to monitor the process so that it wouldn't be stolen?" the inevitable answer is that this is completely impossible in Russia today. This is easy to believe, of course. There is nothing in practice contradicting this conclusion. We all know that the money would disappear.

Kudrin would prefer to use the stabilization fund to pay off Russia's sovereign foreign debt little by little. If you settle things with the Paris Club, for example, no one will steal the money and inflation won't rise.

Meanwhile, in the course of their conversations, Gryzlov and his tutor Goreglyad have examined a third possibility, potentially the most powerful direction in Russian political thought about what to do with the stabilization fund.

They say that as they were talking, they came up with an idea, which, according to several sources inside the Duma, originally belonged to Gryzlov. The idea is to set up a global satellite surveillance system. In its own strange way, the idea is fashionable: It's an answer to the United States and its Star Wars program; it's got some vague tie to fighting terrorism; and it coincides with the dominant government line at the moment and its desire to control everyone and everything. Gryzlov and Goreglyad basically want to launch the stabilization fund into outer space, far from any spending oversight.

The second possible way to spend the money that Gryzlov and Goreglyad have discussed is related to the first -- providing generous financing to the defense industry to build new weapons systems, new missiles and a fifth generation of fighter jets.

All this resonates with the brave image of President Vladimir Putin decked out in some kind of military uniform as he flashed across our television screens last week. One minute, he was flying a Tu-160 strategic bomber and personally launching a cruise missile at some abandoned house of culture in some abandoned village. The next, he was leading the large-scale war games of the Northern Fleet dressed in a sailor suit. And then, there he was again, this time commenting on the Cabinet while wearing a flight helmet.

Compared to this version of Putin, pallid Kudrin, who keeps harping on how improper it would be to start pouring money into the economy without adequate means to make sure it's being spent efficiently, looks ridiculous.

The Russian political elite is increasingly obsessed with military chic, it seems, which explains the calls to spend the stabilization fund on defense. Military chic makes sense to the elite. In the minds of the current ruling class, it's patriotic. It symbolizes might.

The first day of school, Sept. 1, also called the Day of Knowledge, is fast approaching. On this day, it would be good to remember that education should be a priority for state spending, and not the defense budget. The armed forces' budget will receive yet another hike of 20 percent next year. This increase has practically become a tradition in recent years. Education, however, is a lot less interesting for the current leadership. This is why we are unlikely to see any major increase in state spending for education, or even a single high-ranking official going to a class of first- or second-graders and actually teaching them something -- and no, just dropping by for an official ceremonial visit doesn't count.

Not even for the president, though he would gladly don a helmet to appeal to school kids and voters.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.