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Shut Your Mouth, Russian Bureaucrat

Sergei Belyakov, Russia's (now former) Deputy Minister of Economic Development. Images mixed by author.

Sergei Belyakov, Russia's (now former) Deputy Minister of Economic Development. Images mixed by author.

The Russian government is extending a freeze on payments to workers’ privately-managed retirement funds, freeing up 300 billion rubles (about $8.3 billion USD) for the federal budget in 2015. When the state first halted deposits into the Russian pension system’s investment accounts in 2013, it promised it was only a temporary measure. The government won’t be keeping that promise, and one high-ranking economic official is already out of a job thanks to a bizarre online apology.

Russia’s Deputy Minister of Economic Development, Sergei Belyakov, lost his job today after sparring on Facebook with Natalia Timakova, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s Press Secretary. Medvedev fired Belyakov after the latter announced on Facebook that he is “ashamed” of the government’s decision to extend the moratorium on pension investment deposits. According to Belyakov, the move will harm the economy and damage the public’s trust in the state. “I beg everyone’s forgiveness for the stupid things we are doing and for the fact that we don’t value our own word,” he wrote.

Within minutes of publishing his apology, Belyakov received a comment from Timakova (later deleted), telling him that working in the government means “collective responsibility.” Timakova added, presumably insinuating that Belyakov can always resign, “If it’s too shameful, you know what to do.”

Belyakov didn’t take the hint. Instead, he defended himself in a publicly visible comment thread, at one point writing, “We [in the government] have ceased to feel ashamed about anything, and this is very bad.”

Belyakov describes his apology as a personal appeal, but not everyone viewed it that way. When Medvedev dismissed Belyakov, he cited a federal law that forbids officials from criticizing or even discussing “in public or in the mass media” the activities and decisions of state agencies.

Was Belyakov’s Facebook note a public pronouncement because his apology was visible to all users? Does Medvedev consider it public because anything on Facebook qualifies as “published in the mass media”? These technicalities raise interesting questions about the government’s understanding of the public and private spheres of political discourse. Whatever the legal specifics, however, Medvedev’s message to state officials seems clear: put a sock in it, or pack your things.

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