Russia’s garbage protests raise central questions about the right to a clean environment

trash protests Arkhangelsk area protests against a landfill in the village of Shies. Credit: Vadim Kantor

A new spate of trash protests have rocked a small town in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia as some 5,000 locals turned out to oppose state plans for a landfill meant to house garbage from Moscow.

The village of Shies, which is the proposed site of the dump, is 1,125 kilometers north of the Russian capital. But it has become the center of a longer and more difficult argument over how Russia will ultimately break with old Soviet habits and embrace more modern methods of handling its household waste.

Part of what’s driving Russia’s emerging garbage crisis is arguably a good thing: Higher general prosperity in the country compared to Soviet times means Russians are simply buying goods that come in more packaging – which in turn strains existing trash disposal facilities.

Russia has also failed to adopt the robust recycling programs that its European neighbors have embraced in hopes of disposing of their garbage in an environmentally friendly manner. Corruption is stymieing these modernizing efforts. The political intrigues endemic to regional governments in Russia increasingly mean that costly incinerator projects and recycling efforts get shelved in favor of maintaining an entrenched status quo.

The result is that many Russian regions are relying on yet more dumps to deal with their own waste, all while bigger cities push their own garbage out into the countryside.

The drama in Shies began last summer when a group of hunters traversing the Arkhangelsk territory noticed that thousands of trees had been cleared near the Shies railway station. Within weeks local officials announced plans for a 5,000-hectare industrial zone that included a waste processing facility to handle some 500,000 tons of garbage from Moscow each year.

Protests were immediate but futile. People filed into Shies from regional towns like Severdivnsk, Urdoma, Yarensk and from the neighboring Komi Republic. In demonstrations that stretched throughout the frigid winter months, protestors attempted to block roads to the landfill and built tents on its site, only to be dispersed by an army of security guards patrolling the area.

Yet they persisted, and earlier this month, some 5,300 protestors gathered in Syktyvkar, the Komi Republic’s capital, to again demand that plans for the landfill be called off. Those at attendance carried signs saying “Moscow, keep your trash to yourself” and “We save the North together.”

It was the biggest demonstration against the Shies dump thus far, but it hardly seems that it will be the last.

protest-syktyvkar-kirillshein-7x74 Protesters demand a halt to the Shies landfill construction. Credit: Kirill Shein, 7x7-journal

Shies isn’t the only place in Russia seeing an upwelling of public anger over landfills. Throughout the whole of last year, local populations across Russia turned out against hazardous or unreasonable trash disposal points opening in their regions. In Chelyabinsk, for example, the opening of a new city dump resulted in the refusal by some trash carriers to pick up any more garbage ­­– which consequently piled up in the courtyards of local apartment buildings.

In December 2018, 3,000 people turned out in the village of Dmitrovka, in the Tambov Region, to protest the expansion of a landfill there. And last summer, in Volokolamsk, outside Moscow, dozens of children became ill from what their parents say were the effects of poisonous gases from a local landfill pushed to its capacity after another waste site in the area closed.

In northwest Russia, too, trash made headlines when a critical environmental situation arose as two million tons of toxic industrial waste were dumped in the Krasny Bor dumpsite in St. Petersburg.

While speaking at a government meeting, Igor Patrushov, the presidential envoy to the Northwest Region, placed the blame for the city’s woes on corruption in Russia’s trash removal industry.

Aktivisty-v-lagere-v-SHiese-foto-iz-arhiva-Antoniny Protestors who have pitched camp at the Shies landfill. Credit: Antonina Obednina

He’s not the only one saying so. Late last year, the independent investigative news outlet Meduza reported that numerous deals to develop landfills around Russia were being handed to companies with ties to Moscow City Hall. The article added that the tenders — worth a reported $157.5 million for the Shies facility alone — had not been made public, excluding any other companies from bidding.

Not incidentally, Meduza’s trash exposés were written by Ivan Golunov, the investigative journalist who was recently detained on trumped up drugs charges and then released in the wake of mass protests for his freedom.

Alexei Navalny, the famed anti-corruption blogger and thorn in the Kremlin’s side, has weighed in on the garbage woes as well. As far back as 2015, he reported that lucrative trash removal contracts were flowing to a company controlled by Igor Chaika, the then-26-year-old son of Yury Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general. A video Navalny released on Twitter in January asserted that the corruption around the awarding of trash collection contracts makes the possibility of meaningful reform doubtful.

Meanwhile, back in the Arkhangelsk region, authorities released a slick presentation on the proposed landfill in Shies, portraying it as a catalyst for Russia’s transition to modern trash collection methods used in Europe – and eventually the revival of the region as a whole, complete with new jobs and new cash.

But interviews with local citizens in Western media show they aren’t buying it. The authorities, they say, have yet to release an ecological impact assessment, which should have been published before construction of the Shies landfill even began.

“Where’s the expert appraisal? Where are the documents?” asked Yekaterina Kiseleva, an Arkhangelsk area beauty salon owner told Al Jazeera. “The construction began in silence, and it continues in silence too.”

Despite the protests, local authorities are pushing ahead. But it seems they might be doing so at their own peril. Though Russia’s trash protests are decentralized and largely non-political, they are united in their anger toward a general decline in living standards throughout the country.

Ever since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea sparked a wave of patriotism, approval ratings in the government have slipped to new lows as citizens express fatigue with Western sanctions and unresolved problems at home.

Real incomes over the past five years have fallen by some 10 percent while utility costs and taxes have gone up. A controversial hike in Russia’s retirement age – to 65 for men and 60 for women – has also stoked public rage over official corruption. And promised reforms for garbage disposal instituted earlier this year have left an already jaded public feeling ripped off.

So what is Russia to do? Once again, any real reform centers on addressing work-a-day question of living in a hospitable environment. Everyday Russians are paying attention.

A poll taken at the end of last year showed that the right respondents felt was most consistently violated by authorites was the right to a safe environment. Until those authorities start taking that right seriously, protests like the ones in Shies will continue.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no