A few days ago, the British Broadcasting Corp, published what its researchers claim is the most accurate likeness ever made of the face of Jesus Christ.
The face of the bearded, thick-lipped youngish man reveals a slight asymmetry between right and left eye, and a disheveled look, as if he had just woken up and was deciding whether to go to the barber’s that morning.
Take a careful look, and ask yourself what you would think if that fellow rushed one day into your money-changing bureau, upturned the tables, and drove you out of business, proclaiming his right to do so came from being the Son of God,
You might know the prophecy of the messiah. You might even believe it. But the appearance of this particular man isn’t likely to be half as convincing as the immediate threat he posed to your business. Perhaps, if he were tall, with a piercing stare, a golden halo around his head, and rich garments, he might appear to you, and your fellow entrepreneurs, as a more serious prospect.
In the two millennia since the historical Jesus proposed his reforms, his adherents have made countless efforts to give his appearance greater credibility. Indeed, many of those who worked at illustrating his image have been convinced the hand that worked their icons was moved by God.
It hasn’t hurt the cause of belief for Jesus to be given supernatural attributes about the head and face. Rendering him according to the latest anthropological and forensic techniques tends to bring him much closer to normalcy. At that level, it is much easier to appreciate the skepticism that first greeted him, and still does.
It is the achievement of men who inspire popular belief that they can surmount the ordinariness of appearances. It is also the achievement of the political belief we call democracy that individual inspiration should not overpower the popular consensus, let alone repress it.
In Russia at the moment, President Vladimir Putin enjoys a level of popular trust and approval that is unusual, inasmuch as the trust in what he has yet to accomplish exceeds the approval of what he is doing at the moment.
It is to be expected, therefore, that the president should try to appeal to Russian hopes for the future by offering an outline of what he is planning to do, especially if he thinks his popular rating is about to go down. That is precisely what this week’s State of the Union address was meant to do – to preserve hope against the likelihood of disapproval and distrust.
The reason Putin is right to expect a decline in his rating is that, starting in January, national wage arrears began to rise. These are the payments to workers by governments at all levels and by enterprises that are withheld for whatever length of time the payers see fit.
A unique Russian tax invented by the Yeltsin administration, its rise always produces sharp criticism of the government and the president. For that reason, Russian politicians always try to reduce the arrears ahead of elections, allowing them to rise again after the polls. Last year, between May and August, that is exactly what happened, causing the first serious decline in Putin’s rating.
By the end of last December, however, the president had managed to bring arrears down to 31.7 billion rubles; that was a decline of 14 percent from the previous month. To put these numbers into context, during the Yeltsin period the wage arrears total peaked over 103 billion rubles after the election campaign of 1996. They fell during 1997, then started up again in 1998, peaking in October of that year, just weeks after the financial crisis, at 88 billion rubles.
It’s obvious that when arrears shrink, wage-earners have more money and their standard of living rises. This translates more directly into political support or opposition than the inflation rate, although they are connected economically,
It is now clear that in January the wage arrears level rose to 32.2 billion rubles, up 1.8 percent on the December level. Still, the official statistics show it was enterprises rather than government bodies that were to blame. Budget payment arrears continued to contract in January by 9 percent; payments to teachers, medical and transport workers improved even more.
This changed dramatically in February. Altogether, total arrears rose by 4 percent to 33.5 billion rubles. Arrears payable from federal, regional and local budgets grew by 9 percent; arrears owed to workers in social-welfare functions grew by 12 percent.
In short, while economists and administrators were publicly acknowledging a slowdown in economic growth, the Putin administration had begun to impose the cost of the slowdown on Russian wage-earners. It did not escape their attention that, at the same time as their pay-packets were delayed, the government was dithering over whether to repay several large foreign debts. As we now know, Putin tried to resolve contradictory positions in the government without stating a clear position himself – the foreign installments were paid.
There was nothing in Putin’s speech this week that acknowledged the return of the 100 percent wage tax. Instead, the president spoke of “the worsening of a number of key economic indicators [that] have been causing concern.” In response, he proposed pinning Russian hopes on a simple set of ideas – improving the operation of government, reforming a variety of state-controlled economic institutions, reducing bureaucratic regulation of business and improving the role of the courts.
One of the concrete proposals Putin offered for accomplishing all of this is a fundamental change of the federal budget. According to the president, the budget should be divided into two parts, an income and expenditure plan that parliament would be invited to accept or reject but would be barred from amending.
The second part of the budget is described as an accumulation of reserves from Russia’s foreign exports. This fund appears to be even less subject to parliamentary approval than the first, and because it would draw revenues from exports, it looks likely to be larger than the first. It is intended to preserve foreign-debt repayment from domestic political regulation.
If Putin proposes these changes to the Duma, it should trigger the strongest opposition seen there to date. If a battle over the budget occurs in parallel with rising arrears, the president is going to get very unpopular indeed. The cost of his inevitable compromise will be much higher than his current advisors dare to count.
The entire exercise will be futile, as it is based on the belief that Putin’s speech so clearly reflects – that through the “precisely functioning executive vertical,” he is in charge of the underlying income and expenditure flows that drive the economy and support his political foundation. After the Yeltsin decade, it should be obvious that the cycle of nonpayments and tax subsidies between the state, enterprises, and wage-earners is ruled, not by the executive, but by the enterprises, their managers, and allies.
They are the real power in the “executive vertical,” and the direction of that power runs in the reverse direction from the vertical Putin is trying to build.
Rising wage arrears demonstrate that a new cycle of nonpayments has begun. The faith Putin tried to instill this week is misplaced.