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.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.