Staunton, April 14—Today, protests against the ways officials have managed trash dumps are taking place in nine locations in Moscow oblast (mbk.media/news/v-devyati-svalok/) and in numerous other places across Russia (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5AD0EF48BB4B4) because trash disposal is a problem almost everywhere (kommersant.ru/doc/3600872).
The authorities are taking an ever harsher and more repressive approach in response (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/12/76151-musornye-manevry), and that has led to speculation that trash protests may become political (russian.eurasianet.org/node/65203) and thus the nucleus around which a new Russian opposition may coalesce (ura.news/articles/1036274556).
Because the possibility that what Russians classify as civic protests may grow into political ones, the views expressed in these last two articles are especially worthy of being attended to.
In the first, on the EurasiaNet portal, Tatyana Timoshenko notes that for two months, Russians in the Moscow region have been protesting about trash disposal and the authorities have been at a loss of how to respond. As a result, these ecological protests are “shifting into the political realm,” a development that does not bode well for the powers that be.
The reasons for the crisis are not hard to identify: The amount of trash in Russia has grown by 55 percent since 2006, most of it is not processed in a safe way, and officials in the Moscow region for example now openly admit that they will run out of space to bury the trash within the next three or four years. The situation elsewhere is almost as bad.
And making the situation even worse is the existence of numerous illegal dumps – some estimate there are as many as 60,000 of these – that don’t follow any rules at all but that appear to be in corrupt cahoots with the powers that be in the regions in which they are located (gazeta.ru/comments/column/bovt/11679067.shtml).
But what has really set Russians off is that people and especially children are suffering from runoff and the release of poisonous gases from dump sites – and know more about this problem given widespread distribution of the conclusions of the World Health Organization that up to 50 percent of health problems in Russia are linked to environmental contamination.
That makes what some had viewed a marginal problem an issue for everyone and raises questions about the failure of the authorities to take decisive and effective action. As a result, Timoshenko says, ever more analysts are suggesting that the trash issue is becoming politicized and a problem for the regime (svoboda.org/a/29120086.html and forbes.ru/biznes/359019-russkiy-bunt-zhiteli-volokolamska-brosayut-vyzov-vlasti).
And in the second, URA.ru journalist Marina Ivanova reports on the environmental factor as discussed in Minchenko Consulting’s report concerning the probable growth of public protests in Russia in the coming months and the way in which nominally “civic” actions are likely to grow into “political” ones.
At present, the consulting company says that “the high rating of the president and the long-standing crisis of the opposition minimize electoral risks, but they do not defend the authorities from spontaneous local protests” and the centralization of decision making mean that what starts as a local action can become a national one.
The regional authorities, the report says, “are not capable of dealing with the risks” because they do not have the power to make decisions or the ability to interact with the population. Without elections at the lower level, those in office are bureaucrats rather than politicians.
As a result, the repot says, “Putin is almost the only one who can speak with people ad deal with the de-escalation of such conflicts” that may arise. But he can’t be everywhere and so problems fester and grow, especially since most officials have little empathy for the population and the protesters feel that intensely.
There are obvious correctives to this situation, but the Kremlin isn’t prepared to take them because they would involve more elections, more openness and a more flexible power arrangement than Putin’s “power vertical” allows. And so both governors and Moscow are trying to control the situation by suppressing information flows.
But that won’t work: as soon as one set of channels is closed, people find another; and the experience of doing so helps make them political even if they had no intention of moving in that direction, Ivanova concludes.
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