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 the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.