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.
Illustration: Mountain People
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.
About 290 billion rubles (US$4.45 billion) of state and private funds would be required for their construction, said Denis Butsayev, head of Russian Environmental Operator, the state-run company responsible for the refuse program.
He dismissed any notion that they would contribute to pollution.
“We have some of the strictest sanitary rules in the world,” Butsayev said at his office in a Moscow skyscraper.
RT-Invest, a company partly owned by state-owned conglomerate Rostec, is building five waste incineration plants, most near Moscow, and six treatment plants as part of a separate program to generate electricity from garbage.
The incineration plants are designed by Swiss-Japanese group Hitachi Zosen Inova and are comparable in quality to those being built in the UK and the UAE, chief executive Andrey Shipelov said.
Waste storage sites in Russia already occupy 4 million hectares, an area the size of Switzerland. The annual volume of trash has more than doubled in the past two decades.
Moscow, with its population of almost 13 million, is the biggest culprit. The capital and surrounding province account for 17 percent of the waste produced each year.
Recycling is available to only 11 percent of its inhabitants, a Greenpeace survey showed, although Moscow City Hall is installing bins for glass, plastic, paper and metal for each apartment building from Jan. 1.
The need to dump trash elsewhere has provoked resistance as far away as Arkhangelsk in the north, where officials are planning to build a facility to process Moscow’s trash.
Locals say they do not want Moscow’s garbage and on Sept. 22 protest rallies took place across northern Russia, including by up to 2,000 people in Arkhangelsk.
A flagship example of a new refuse treatment plant is in Roshal in the Moscow region, built at a cost of about US$38 million, Butsayev said.
On a recent visit to the modern-looking complex located on the outskirts of the town, the stench of rubbish hung in the air. A stream nearby had a brown color.
Many inhabitants are furious about the facility, which will have the capacity to process more than 300,000 tonnes of waste a year. Roshal, which has a population of 20,000, produces only about 9,000 tonnes of trash a year itself.
Moscow Region Housing and Utility Infrastructure Minister Yevgeny Khromushin said the authorities had to put an end to what was essentially a “giant open air dump.”
At every location of a new waste treatment plant there are protests by the local population, “but where these plants are up-and-running, protests fade away because there are new jobs,” he said.
Back in the forest where the refuse processing facility is to be built, several rivers take their source and the area is close to a nature reserve where wolves have been seen, protesters said.
Earlier this year, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and the state agency for forest management both declined to endorse the local district’s development plan that included the project for the plant, documents seen by Bloomberg showed.
The ministry confirmed the authenticity of its document, while the forest agency did not respond.
Lawmakers approved the plan at a public meeting in May.
Syrovyatkina, whose husband is a former police officer and who used to vote for the governing party, is one of the volunteers who maintain a 24-hour presence at a small tent camp near the proposed construction site. Their task is to alert others so they can rush to the place as soon as needed.
Over the summer there were several standoffs, including when workers escorted by police came with heavy equipment to clear a path through the forest.
In one incident Syrovyatkina said she was hospitalized and had to take 21 days sick leave after a worker hit her in the face. She earns a basic monthly salary of 20,000 rubles working for a state hospital.
“Why did our state, which I love, abandon me and my family?” she asked. “It’s frightening when your children have no future. We’re fed up with living in shit like pigs.”
Additional reporting by Stepan Kravchenko
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