Could protests over waste disposal really bring down Russia’s President Putin?

Don’t kill our kids: Protests in Volokolamsk, 120m west of Moscow, back in March. Image: Getty.

A steady stream of garbage-laden trucks moves the waste of Russia’s capital to landfills in the surrounding region. The resulting mountains of refuse emit noxious fumes and leach pollutants into nearby waters, endangering the residents of the region around Moscow.

Citizens living near these landfills have had enough.

Protests against garbage dumps have erupted in at least eight towns and villages around Moscow in the last six months. As a scholar who studies contemporary Russian politics, I believe these garbage protests reveal a crisis of basic governance that potentially poses a greater challenge to Putin’s government than pro-democracy activism.

Resurgent citizen activism

Russian activists have come under increasing pressure since Putin returned to office in 2012. Protests have been relatively scarce after the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya demonstrations in response to election fraud. Long-standing nongovernmental groups working on environmental and human rights issues, which relied in part on funding from abroad, have been labeled “foreign agents” by Russia’s Ministry of Justice.

At the same time, Putin’s government has cultivated more patriotic and apolitical forms of activism, such as youth groups that organise events memorialising World War II and socially oriented NGOs that work marginalised groups, including the disabled and orphans.

My research charts the changing nature of citizen activism in Russia. In the 1990s, foreign aid flooded into Russia to support democratic transition by funding causes that matched Western donors’ priorities – causes like human rights and environmentalism. Now, many of these groups struggle to survive.

In 2017, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, my research found a substantial increase in grassroots groups oriented around “civic pride” and local volunteer initiatives. These new groups focus on the preservation of green spaces, litter collection, recycling, urban beautification and historic preservation. These efforts represent a new “environmentalism of daily life” more acceptable to the government.

Local residents of Volokolamsk, protesting the noxious garbage dump in their city, throw snowballs at Governor Andrei Vorobyov in late March.

But these seemingly benign groups – and their expectations that citizens can partner with the government to address quality of life issues – may yet represent a political threat to Russia’s status quo.

Minchenko Consulting, a high profile Russian research and PR firm that focuses on political campaigns and elite politics, points out in a recent report that “health and children are two basic universal values” that can motivate otherwise apathetic citizens to take action.

When bread and circuses fail

All politics is local, but Moscow and its waste disposal challenges exert an outsize influence on the surrounding region, with outsized consequences for activism.

Since 2010, under the leadership of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow has transformed into a dynamic global city, fueled by oil wealth and urban redevelopment. Moscow’s growing population and unfettered consumption mean increased waste. A report by the environmental group Greenpeace calculates that Moscow is responsible for 11m tons of trash annually, approximately one-fifth of all waste in Russia. Only 4 per cent of Moscow’s waste is recycled.

To preserve quality of life in the capital, the Moscow’s government sends streams of municipal waste into the surrounding regions. Greenpeace reports that 90 per cent of Moscow’s waste goes to landfills in Moscow’s suburban region. Landfills created in the Soviet and early post-Soviet period, when there was little consumer waste, have been expanded, often with no community notification and despite being in close proximity to homes and schools. Air quality suffers as the dumps release fumes from decomposing waste.

In addition to established landfills, 52 illegal dumps were identified in the Moscow region in the first half of 2017.

As the stench rises and the public health risks – such as respiratory diseases that most acutely affect children – mount, citizen appeals to regional and national government officials have had little effect.

Local people are left with few options but protest. Demonstrations of more than 1,000 people occurred in at least eight towns and villages near Moscow. Citizens also have organised groups on VKontakte, a Russian social media platform, to coordinate petitions, block roads and even mount hunger strikes.

Children hospitalised

The biggest and most sustained garbage protests have occurred in the town of Volokolamsk, site of the Yadrovo landfill.

For months, residents have complained of foul smells, difficulty breathing, nausea and rashes. In early March 2018, local officials declared a state of emergency due to the release of gases from the dump.

Then on 21 March, more than 50 children were hospitalised with symptoms of poisoning. Ekaterina Volkova, the Volokolamsk district deputy head of education, said that the cause was presumably hydrogen sulfide seeping out of the landfill. Official measurements showed that the chemical was present at 10 times the maximum allowable concentration.

In late March, as Governor of the Moscow region Andrei Vorobyov tries to respond to protests at the hospital in Volokolamsk, people in the crowds cry ‘Close the dump,’ and Tanya Lozova, a 10-year-old girl, draws her finger across her throat at Vorobyov.

In response, 6,000 residents – more than a quarter of the Volokolamsk population – came out on the streets to demand that the landfill be closed – not simply “modernised,” as district authorities promised in the past.

Protesters carried signs with slogans such as, “Stop poisoning us!” and, “Don’t kill our children!” The town’s mayor pledged to try to close the landfill, even as local businesspeople supporting the protesters were detained by the police. Now Volokolamsk residents are pursuing their case in court.

The ruble stops with Putin

Garbage protests in Volokolamsk and elsewhere have exposed weaknesses in Russia’s system of political authority, often described as a “power vertical” in which government officials answer not to their constituents, but to their political superiors and ultimately to President Putin. Facing unresponsive or incompetent officials, citizens turn to Putin as the only one who can solve their problems.

In 2017, Yelena Mikhailenko called into President Putin’s annual “Direct Line” call-in show for citizens to complain about noxious emissions from the Kuchino landfill in her neighborhood which caused nausea and vomiting.

“Turning to you is our last hope,” Mikhailenko told the president.

Expressing sympathy, Putin ordered the Kuchino dump closed by presidential order.

The quick resolution of the Kuchino problem was covered favorably in the Russian media, but hardly represents a systemic response to the problem of municipal waste disposal. In fact, Putin’s recognition of what he called “the legitimate negative reaction of people” to widespread problems with trash disposal may have emboldened protesters near other landfills.

Meanwhile, Moscow regional government officials have placed tremendous pressure on those lower in the power vertical to quell the garbage protests and to allow continued transport of waste, including threatening district and town officials with arrest and loss of property.


One beleaguered head of a Moscow region district, Aleksandr Shestun, even issued a direct plea to Putin via YouTube video, outlining the threats made to his family and requesting the president’s assistance.

The fact that those on all sides of the garbage protests feel forced to “appeal to the tsar” illustrates simultaneously the president’s authority and the risk that Putin ultimately may become accountable for failures of basic governance at lower levels.

When well-intentioned citizens confront unaccountable officials, their activities can become more political. I interviewed a municipal civic group leader from St. Petersburg who works on urban ecology and waste. He commented that it has become clear that government officials are responsive not to citizens, but to those “from above” who put them in their offices.

City deputies are not influenced by elections, he lamented, implying that they owe loyalty to political elites, and are not accountable to the people.
Yet when questioned about whether he is ever concerned that the authorities will perceive his work negatively, the leader – who did not want to be identified – reflected on his vision of patriotism.

“It is my country, my city, my people,” he said. “That is more important than any bureaucrat.”

Garbage politics is nudging apolitical activism into a critique of the political system. Unabated, these trends could dent the Putin regime’s legitimacy.

When the government fails to protect citizens from toxic emissions, and citizens have to take to the streets to gain attention, they begin to ask: What is the government for?

Laura A. Henry, Associate Professor of Government and Legal Studies, Bowdoin College.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.