Putin’s garbage challenge – POLITICO
KLIN, Russia — There’s something rotten at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Massive open-air landfills and the pollution they bring are stirring tensions across Russia, provoking some of the most sustained protests since Putin came to power almost two decades ago. Thousands of people have defied police bans to march against planned landfill openings, blaming the mounting piles of garbage for health problems and foul-smelling air.
One hotspot is the Aleksinsky landfill near the town of Klin, northwest of Moscow, where locals held a peaceful demonstration last week. The towering mound of rotting, putrid garbage about the height of a six-story house sits just 400 meters from a school. “When the smell from the dump is bad, parents keep their kids at home,” said a woman who declined to be quoted by name and whose teenage son attends the school. “The children get ill a lot.”
Originally designed as a dump for locally produced garbage, the open air landfill, which stretches over an area covering some 32,000 square meters — equivalent to roughly four-and-a-half football pitches — has been used since 2014 to dispose of millions of tons of untreated and unsorted waste that is trucked in daily from Moscow.
Locals complain that the often overpowering stench from the garbage causes headaches, nausea and other health issues, while eco-activists have reported dangerously high levels of nitric oxide and hydrogen sulfide in the air. Kombinat, the garbage disposal company that manages the landfill, insists the dump complies with all safety regulations and poses no health risk.
Protesters allege the landfills are controlled by a “garbage mafia” made up of Kremlin-linked officials
Critics are unconvinced. “What are we leaving for the children? For the future? Dirty air, dirty water, and dirty soil?” said Tatiana Bakhmetyeva, an eco-activist who attended the rally. Other protesters say pollution from the landfill is a violation of their right to a clean environment, which is enshrined in Russia’s much-abused post-Soviet constitution.
Just 4 percent of Russia’s waste products are recycled or reused, according to Greenpeace. (That’s compared to over 50 percent in European countries such as Germany and Switzerland.) Almost all of the country’s remaining refuse — around 70 million tons a year — is simply dumped in huge landfills that are frequently located dangerously close to residential areas. These landfills cover a total area of land that is four times larger than Cyprus. In 10 years, ecologists say, that area will double in size, unless urgent steps are taken.
A new tax hike on garbage collection introduced on January 1 is also contributing to growing discontent. “They raised taxes, but the [garbage] problem hasn’t gone away,” said Denis Volkov, the deputy head of the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow. “This is not just an ecological problem, but a social one, too.”
So far, Putin, whose approval ratings have taken a fall thanks to a wildly unpopular increase in the national pension age and falling living standards, doesn’t appear to be in a rush to change things. When pressed in December on the country’s poor record on recycling and waste reduction, he brushed off concerns, saying that implementing effective policies to minimize the amount of toxic garbage building up in Russian landfills would “require a huge investment and time.”
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Klin’s residents aren’t the only ones to be angry. Over the past 18 months, protests over the pollution spewing from overflowing trash dumps have taken place in around a dozen towns near Moscow.
Protesters allege the landfills are controlled by a “garbage mafia” made up of Kremlin-linked officials. Last year, a company headed by Igor Chaika, the son of Yury Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, won a €500 million contract to handle waste disposal in the region surrounding Moscow.
The “garbage protests,” as they have been dubbed by Russian media, are indicative of a major challenge for the Kremlin — identifying potential hotspots for discontent and resolving conflicts when they emerge — said Tatiana Stanovaya, a commentator for the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
In many cases, she said, regional governors are wary of entering into dialogue with protesters because they are afraid of being seen as weak, or even sympathizing with opposition groups, who have been dubbed traitors to Russia by Putin and other Kremlin-linked figures.
“Without a radical change in the approach to governing, there will soon be numerous mass protests in Russia’s regions, some of which will be crushed,” said Stanovaya.
“In essence, Russia is moving toward a crisis of Putin’s model of political governance, which is ceasing to function in the face of the growing alienation of the authorities from society.”
Similar demonstrations have also been held in Siberia and Russia’s far north. Earlier this month, in Arkhangelsk, a city in northern Russia, up to 5,000 people took part in one of the region’s biggest ever unsanctioned protests to oppose the construction of a landfill intended for garbage from Moscow. Protesters carried signs that read “The North Is Not A Dump!” and marched on the city governor’s office. Police detained around 20 people on charges of taking part in an illegal protest.
The protests haven’t always been peaceful. Last year, in Volokolamsk, near Moscow, furious locals turned on officials after toxic gases from a nearby open-air landfill poisoned almost 200 people, including scores of children. When Yevgeny Gavrilov, the Volokolamsk district’s top official, arrived at the local hospital, he was struck several times on the head by irate residents. Andrei Vorobyov, the governor, fled the scene after chunks of ice were hurled in his direction. In May, the driver of a truck taking garbage to the landfill in Volokolamsk was targeted by an unknown gunman, but escaped with minor injuries.
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The handful of officials who have dared to lend their support to the protesters’ cause have paid a heavy price for their defiance.
In 2017 and 2018, Alexander Shestun, the head of the Serpukhov district near Moscow, angered the Kremlin by allowing eco-activists to hold protests against a local landfill. He also used his Mercedes to prevent trucks from taking garbage to the dump.
Shestun was summoned to the Kremlin, where officials from the FSB security service and presidential administration threatened to have him jailed on trumped-up charges if he did not stand down as head of the Serpukhov district, according to secretly recorded audio that he uploaded to YouTube.
“They will steamroll you, and you will have bad f***ing problems. You’ll go to jail. Don’t you want to live?” a man Shestun identified as an FSB department chief can be heard saying. (The eco-protests weren’t the only reason the Kremlin wanted Shestun out; he was also embroiled in a row with powerful officials over plans to reclassify Serpukhov as a municipal precinct.)
“Can you imagine Mozart’s house museum in Salzburg standing next to an enormous pile of crap?” — Yelena Polyakova, eco-activist
In June, armed police raided Shestun’s family home and arrested him on fraud charges. He has been in custody ever since and faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of the charges, which he says are revenge for his refusal to follow orders. His family have posted a number of video appeals to Putin, but the Kremlin has not responded. Shestun is currently on hunger strike in protest, and was hospitalized last week after losing consciousness.
Pyotr Lazarev, who was mayor of Volokolamsk when protests against the landfill began in the town, has also suffered for his willingness to side with eco-activists. After he gave the green light to protest rallies, and even took part in several himself, his home was raided by police and he was warned by “criminals” to stay out of the row over the landfill, he told Russian media last year. He stepped down as mayor in October, citing problems with his health.
Back in Klin, eco-activist Yelena Polyakova said the pungent local landfill is as much a problem for the local administration as it is for local residents.
The mound of trash, she said, makes a mockery of officials’ attempts to attract foreign tourists to a house museum dedicated to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the 19th century classical composer, who wrote some of his final works in the town.
“Can you imagine Mozart’s house museum in Salzburg standing next to an enormous pile of crap?” Polyakova asked.
Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based journalist and author of “I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition” (Oneworld, 2016).