Russia’s Trash Flashpoint

Landfills Become a Problem for the Kremlin
Environmental Protests Move from Local to Federal Level
Yelena Mukhametshina and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
April 1, 2018

guseva“Volokolamsk right now. Protest rally against the Yadrovo Landfill.” Screenshot of Olya Guseva’s Twitter page. Courtesy of Meduza

According to various estimates, 6,500 to 7,000 people attended this past Sunday’s protest rally in Volokololamsk against the Yadrovo Landfill. This was more than the number of people who attended the rallies on March 3 (approx. 5,000) and March 29 (6,000). (Volokolamsk’s official population is less than 21,000.)

Among the demands made at Sunday’s rally were the closure of the Yadrovo Landfill, the declaration of an emergency, the resignations of Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov and Andrei Vikharev, acting head of Volokolamsk District, and the release of activist Artyom Lyubimov, who was detained by police a day before the rally.

Protesters at the rally held up placards addressed to President Putin, including ones  bearing the message, “Putin, Help!”

On March 21, a strong release of landfill gas took place in Volokolamsk, causing schoolchildren to say they felt sick. Fifty-seven children were hospitalized in the Volokolamsk Central Hospital. Subsequently, Governor Vorobyov fired the head of Volokolamsk District.

Volokolamsk has not been the only town in Moscow Region protesting landfills. During the past year, people have taken to the streets in such towns as Balashikha (after the local Kupchino Landfill was closed there on direct orders from the president, the garbage that used to be transported to the landfill was redirected to Yadrovo), Kolomna, Klin, Sergiev Posad, Tuchkov, and Serpukhov.

A former federal official explained why garbage has recently become a hot-button issue.

“New laws were passed obliging the regions to adopt local waste handling schemes and select regional contractors. A market is emerging. There are different disposal strategies: incineration versus separate collection of recyclables. Different strategies require building different processing facilities, and the stakeholders backing the different strategies are also different, from the federal to the municipal level,” he said.

The stakeholders are in conflict with each other and with the regions. This is especially true of Moscow and Russia’s other major cities, he claimed.

Last week, it transpired that Tver Region Governor Igor Rudenya had warned all heads of municipalities in his region that if the regional authorities found garbage from other regions in local landfills, the municipal heads responsible for this would have problems with law enforcement and Governor Rudenya’s administration.

“You will not import garbage from other Russian regions for any amount of money at all,” said Governor Rudenya, as quoted by Tverigrad.ru.

The president’s retinue is to blame for the flare-up in Volokolamsk. When they were getting ready for his annual Direct Line program, they insisted on underscoring the subject of landfills by way of speeding up the construction of processing facilities. It was then the president ordered the closure of the landfill in Balashikha, argues a source close to the Kremlin.

“The landfill was closed. The garbage from there was shipped to nearby landfills, and the flow of garbage to these landfills increased manifold. First it was necessary to put the infrastructure in place, and then close the landfills,” he said.

Environmental protests by people concerned with specific issues are a considerable risk to the system’s stability, and the regime is very concerned about them, saif another source close to the Kremlin.

“The president pays great attention to the environment. Last year, he personally telephoned activists in Chelyabinsk to show he supported them. This is quite important, especially in circumstances when environmental measures are given short shrift to save money.”

Last year was officially the Year of the Environment in Russia. During the presidential campaign, Putin held meetings in Krasnoyarsk on improving the ecological situation and  reducing the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Political scientist Andrei Kolyadin argues the issue of landfills cannot be solved quickly. Several years would be needed to do that.

“This abscess has long been ripening, and now it threatens people’s lives. As the risks to people’s live increase, the risks to the regime increase as well.”

A final decision on the future of Governor Vorobyov, who faces elections in the autumn, has not yet been made, said Kolyadin.

“If the protests balloon, he could be made their scapegoat. He has been doing his best to wiggle his way out of the subject politically, but he has not been able to do this economically. If the elections are handled by the authorities, he will not have complications, but if they are run more or less honestly, the districts in which anti-landfill protests have been taking place will not turn out to vote for him.”

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov argues such protests ordinarily wane quickly. In this case, however, the boiling point has not yet been reached. Various grievances, such as Governor Vorobyov’s less-than-happy appointment of a new head of Volokolamsk District, have been building up.

“I get the feeling there will be a new wave [of protests] that will help solve the problems that have accumulated. People feel they are in the right, and it gives them a strong impetus to protest,” he said.

Given current conditions, in which protests have been de facto banned, any socio-economic protest takes on political overtones, Vinogradov concludes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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