Russian MPs' gravy train even includes the cutlery

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The Independent Online

A Brussels-style fat cat scandal is brewing in Russia after the economics minister held his wedding in Peter the Great's sumptuous summer palace in St Petersburg, the political elite raised their own salaries 10-fold, and the country's MPs were accused of carrying their freeloading to absurd lengths.

Not satisfied with enjoying free housing, unlimited domestic air travel, free international phone calls,and an astronomical income by the standards of ordinary Russians, MPs have even been stealing the cruets and cutlery in the parliament's canteen. So widespread is the thieving that metal has been replaced with plastic cutlery to discourage the elected kleptomaniacs.

The revelations could hardly be more badly timed, coinciding with government moves to cut state benefits for pensioners and spending on healthcare. And all this in a country where pensioners receive a mere £35 a month and more than a third of the people live below the poverty line.

Even in a nation inured to the grasping ways of elites down the years, the wedding of economics minister German Gref has shocked Russia. The nuptials could almost have been designed to thumb a privileged nose at ordinary citizens. The ceremony was conducted in the 18th-century Peterhof palace outside St Petersburg, a favourite retreat of the tsar and a state museum today. Mr Gref and his guests cruised the river Neva on motor launches used by President Putin for the city's 300th anniversary last year, and the jollifications were concluded with a party in a state dacha on one of the northern city's many islands. Federal security agents shut off public access to the island for the occasion.

The affair left Communist deputy Svetlana Savitskaya, a former cosmonaut, fuming about his "cynical and amoral" behaviour. As she told parliament: "I don't give a monkey's about his wedding but when an official uses his position to arrange a banquet in a museum where ordinary people can't enter, no matter how much money they pay, then something has to be done."

The enfeebled Communist Party claims to have received a flood of complaints from citizens struggling to scrape by on the average national wage of £120 a month, while Russia's popular newspapers are filled with indignant letters about the huge pay increases which "chinovniki" or officials have awarded themselves.

Mr Putin's rationale for the pay hike was to reward people properly so that they would be less tempted to accept bribes, which have long been a routine part of drawing up legislation in Russia.

But Russians are unconvinced. "In a country where the average pensioner gets £35 a month, raising salaries for officials by a factor of 10 is a complete outrage," an angry reader told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "What's the matter? Don't they get enough bribes already?"

The last straw for many was the revelation that the country's deputies have been stealing from the parliamentary canteen. "In the past, half a dozen spoons would go missing each week," one employee said. "But now they're nicking 30 or 40 spoons and 15 forks as well. They also run off with the salt cellars."

There is also growing disquiet about MPs abusing their perks. They may make just £350 a month but, with privileges such as housing and air travel, their salary packages are estimated to be worth a good £30,000 a year.

United Russia deputy Oleg Kovalyov is one of those who believe it is unjustifiable and has drawn up legislation to curb expense accounts.

"Some deputies are able to regulate themselves but others spend as much money as they can," he told the Moscow Times. "Expenses for transport and phone calls should allow deputies to perform their jobs but not to use government money for their own business."

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