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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.