BERLIN – President Vladimir Putin’s standoff with the West has turned Russia into a corporate state in defensive mode, where dissent is tantamount to treachery. This makes the rebellion of a lone bureaucrat in the Economics Ministry all the more impressive.
Thanks to Western financial sanctions and the cost of integrating Crimea, the Russian government has lately been looking for ways to plug holes in its budget. The part of Russians’ 2014 pension contributions that was meant for private pension funds, for example, was confiscated and spent on Crimea. Now, the government has taken steps to channel the 2015 contributions — about $25 billion in all — toward current needs.
Deputy Economics Minister Sergei Belyakov fought the move, arguing that it would undermine faith in Russia’s pension system, discourage investment and slow down economic growth. He lost, because Putin is more interested in ensuring his political survival and Russia’s insulation against a hostile West.
Instead of gritting his teeth and going on with his job, which centers on wooing foreign investors and resolving their disputes with the Russian bureaucracy, Belyakov took to Facebook.
“I am ashamed of the decision to prolong the moratorium on investing pension contributions in private funds,” he wrote. “I beg everyone’s forgiveness for the stupid things we do and for going back on our word.”
Government spokeswoman Natalia Timakova lashed out at Belyakov in the comments. “Sergei, government work is collective responsibility,” she wrote (her comments have since been erased — not by her, she claims — but they are available in the form of screenshots). “If you are very much ashamed, you know what to do. If it’s tolerable, you’ve done all you could, a political decision has been made. Now it has to be followed.”
Belyakov — a favorite of Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s once powerful deputy prime minister for economic reforms — did not retract his statement. In fact, he confirmed it in a separate post. This amounts to a full-blown riot, unique in the stifling atmosphere of Putin’s third presidential term. Apparently he paid with his job: The state news service RIA Novosti reported that he has been fired.
Belyakov, 41, graduated from the FSB academy, run by Russia’s powerful domestic counterintelligence service. He had been a civil servant since 2008, rising quickly in the economics ministry. He had never previously dared to criticize Cabinet decisions publicly. Charged with getting Western chief executives to come to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum earlier this year, he slammed some of them for bowing to U.S. government pressure and declining the invitation.
Recently, however, irritation with the course Russia has taken appears to have gotten the better of him. On Aug. 1, he posted: “I suggest a ban on the following words since they undermine the foundations of the modern Russian state and point toward wrong goals: Investment climate; economic growth; the economy (in general); modernization; diversification; development of noncommodity sectors; economic stimuli and so on.”
Even Belyakov’s entire ministry is not powerful enough to stop Russia from adopting policies that place nationalism and imperialist geopolitics above the country’s economic well-being — including the ban on food and agricultural imports from countries that have leveled sanctions against Russia. Putin clearly intends to bulldoze the objections of experts such as the rebellious deputy minister. Nonetheless, it is heartening to know these people exist and dare to speak out. Perhaps they can help a future, more reasonable Russia rejoin the world.
Leonid Bershidsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Berlin.