Wed, Oct 02, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Putin’s war on garbage is a battle to stay in power

Anger over pollution from mountains of waste has added to a sense among ordinary Russians that they are being ignored by the government — there has also been a rise in the pension age, healthcare cuts and living standards have been on the slide

By Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Natalya Syrovyatkina said that she had never been part of a protest before, but deep in a forest 100km east of Moscow she was ready to fight to the death.

“We’re waiting for them,” said the 41-year-old nurse and mother of two. “I’ll do everything. Let them kill me.”

Syrovyatkina is one of a group of 7,000 local residents trying to halt the construction of a sprawling plant that is to process garbage from Europe’s largest capital city. The most hardcore have been there 24 hours a day since March, first sleeping in their vehicles and more recently camping among the trees.

The trouble for Russian President Vladimir Putin is that what might look like a run-of-the-mill show of anger has taken on far wider significance. Indeed, trash has turned into a lightning rod for discontent and an unlikely test of his durability as leader.

Public anger over pollution from mountains of waste piled up on the outskirts of Moscow and further afield has added to a sense among ordinary Russians that they are being ignored by the government. There has also been a rise in the pension age, healthcare cuts and living standards have been on the slide because of falling incomes.

Putin’s popularity, traditionally unassailable, hit its lowest level in more than a decade this year.

“For many people, rubbish is more important than democratic rights,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Quality of life is now a top priority. If the population sees that officials won’t listen, then social dissatisfaction will boil over into politics and threaten the system.”

It has not been a great few months for the Kremlin.

There were demonstrations over opposition candidates being barred from Sept. 8 municipal elections that brought 60,000 people onto the streets at their peak. After widespread outrage over a prison sentence for an actor arrested during a protest last month, prosecutors reversed course and appealed for leniency.

However, the anger over garbage has been gradually escalating and is set to endure. During the Russian president’s annual call-in show in June, trash was among the main topics.

The Russian government is trying to defuse the unrest with an ambitious waste treatment and recycling plan between now and 2024. That is the year Putin is expected to try to stay in power after his term-limit ends.

Russia now recycles only 1 percent of its refuse, compared with almost half in the EU. The rest is mostly buried in landfills.

The nationwide goal is to reach 36 percent recycling by 2024, achieving in five years what has taken several decades in Europe.

Even if the government does achieve its recycling target, “you still end up with 64 percent of trash,” former Greenpeace Russia waste management specialist Alexander Ivannikov said. “Where will it go? Most likely it will be incinerated. That means air pollution and inflamed social tensions.”

Protesters such as Syrovyatkina are part of a nationwide campaign against the policy for dealing with mounting trash. They say they do not trust the government to build environmentally friendly facilities, and have endured police beatings and arrests to champion their cause.

The authorities expect protests to escalate as they establish 220 new garbage plants in Russia, a person familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking said.

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