Staunton, September 1 – Over the last year, the Center for Social and Labor Rights says, Russians organized 482 environmental demonstrations, making that protest category second only to gatherings about political and civil rights and sparking expectations that ecological issues will form the next wave of protest activity (trudprava.ru/images/content/Monitoring_4_Quart_2019.pdf).
That is all the more so because in some of these cases, the authorities have made concessions, giving participants a sense of efficacy that they seldom have when protesting against other things, Russian journalist Ivan Aleksandrov (a pseudonym) says (russian.eurasianet.org/россия-приведет-ли-экополитика-властей-к-росту-числа-протестов).
The political protests in Khabarovsk have attracted more attention, but the environmental demonstrations in Bashkortostan and the Kuzbass may be more important not only because participants showed themselves willing to stand up to siloviki used by the powers that be but also because the powers that be ultimately decided to make some concessions, he says.
The authorities are clearly worried that environmental conflicts will “intensify the nationality question” and thus are seeking ways, especially in Bashkortostan but also in the Kuzbass, to defuse this situation, Aleksandrov argues. But they face an uphill battle not only in those two places but across the country.
According to Aleksandrov, “regionalist and nationalist attitudes are awakening everywhere the local population is forced to defend its land from major companies,” most of whom are viewed by the people as outsiders backed by Moscow even more than by the republic or regional elites (https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/columns/2019/04/10/798740-politizatsiya-regionalizatsiya-shiesizatsiya).
The companies involved often try to sabotage any talks between the protesters and the local political authorities, but that is backfiring because it emphasizes to both that they have a common enemy, big businesses backed by Moscow who all too often ignore local interests and even the law to get what they want.
That may make some regional officials more willing to cooperate in the short term. More generally, it may make them more disposed to see the protesters not as enemies but as potential allies in their efforts to win greater powers for themselves, a pattern more typical of environmental issues than of some others.
If the number of environmental protests continues to grow, then at least in some cases, such alliances between protesters and regional officials against business and Moscow may occur, creating new problems for the center and new possibilities for regional political and economic elites.