Tuesday, February 5, 2019

‘Send Garbage Back to Moscow!’ – the Problem of Trash Becomes the Question of Power

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 4 – Yesterday, Russians in 30 cities across the Russian Federation protested against Kremlin plans to dispose of the garbage the capital generates in their areas. They carried signs like “Send the Trash Back to Moscow,” another indication that this communal issue is rapidly becoming a political challenge to the center.

            Opposition outlets in Moscow and abroad covered these events while official ones either ignored them or played them down because so few showed up in this or that location (e.g., newtimes.ru/articles/detail/176695, http://www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5C57E141ABDCB, forum-msk.org/material/news/15398948.html and polit.ru/article/2019/02/04/russia_trash/).

            But that is to ignore the two most important features of these demonstrations, the way in which this fundamentally communal issue has been transformed into a political one and the all-Russian nature of the protest even though some regions, especially the Far North, where perhaps the disposal of trash is especially obvious at this time of year, are ahead of others in this regard. 

            In a comment for Radio Svoboda’s IdelReal portal, Iskander Yasaveyev, a Higher School of Economics sociologist who works in Kazan, observes that one of the most significant signs at the protest in the Tatarstan capital was “We are citizens, Not Slaves! We demand Our Opinion be Taken into Account” (idelreal.org/a/29750237.html).

            “In my view,” he continues, “this is the main argument. If citizens [of this or that location] are against construction [of trash-disposal sites], then the powers that be must find another solution.” That is the case in Finland and other countries; and it must become the case in the Russian Federation.

            Unfortunately, at present, “Russian and Tatarstan authorities exclude the participation of citizens in the resolution of the trash problem. As a result of this, the problem of garbage in Russia is rapidly being transformed into the problem of power.” People who only want the garbage to go away are now making political demands.

            And they are gaining allies: In Tatarstan, a large number of other interest communities have declared their solidarity with those opposed to the construction of a trash-processing facility. “If the powers that be do not take note of this, so much the worse for them,” Yasaveyev concludes.

            The Region.Expert portal, which tracks developments in Russia’s  far-flung regions notes that “as expected” the largest protests against trash took place in the Russian North and especially in Arkhangelsk oblast, the Pomor region, and the Komi Republic (region.expert/north-politics/).

            “Most today really is (or is trying to become) ‘the main supplier’ of trash to other regions,” the portal says. “Ecologists blame this on the uncontrolled growth of the Moscow agglomeration,” itself the product of the hyper-centralization of the Russian political and economic system.

            While the protesters in Arkhangelsk seemed less radical and were bought off at least for now by official promises to “study the situation,” those elsewhere are beginning to call things by their own names, with Pomor and Komi activists now speaking about this and other developments as aspects of “’Moscow’s colonial policy’” (region.expert/colonial/).

            There is a good precedent for environmental protests growing into political ones especially along the periphery of the country. At the end of the 1980s, environmental activism helped power the rise of the Estonian drive for recovery of independence (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/01/unresolved-environmental-problems.html).

            Region. Expert suggests that a slogan like “’No to Moscow Trash!’” would be “a very effective and important slogan that would be understood by residents of various oblasts and republics. Not only in the literal but in the police and thus in the political sense as well.”

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