On Sunday thousands protested in Kotlas, a town of only 60 thousand in Russia’s Northern Arkhangelsk oblast against a landfill near the Shies station between Arkhangelsk and the Komi Republic, which is planned to absorb 46 million tons of waste from Moscow and the Moscow Region in the next twenty years. A smaller protest took place in Syktyvkar, the Komi capital. These were only the latest in a series of protests in several Russian regions triggered by an issue that has, to many, come to represent the problems with the Russian state more than anything.
The Shies site was selected in near total secrecy, without an environmental impact analysis or consultation with the local population who fear, with good reason, that the landfill, dubbed euphemistically an “eco-techno-park”, will contaminate groundwater that most northern regions depend on. Protests, which united activists of vastly different convictions and took on a regionalist character over time, started shortly after local residents found out about the construction, but just like in many other similar cases recently, it took Vladimir Putin to put the project on hold. Even so, clashes are commonplace between activists watching the site and the guards – private security personnel as well as National Guardsmen.
Shies, along with several other sites in relatively remote regions, was selected following a spectacular failure of waste collection in the Moscow region itself. Following protests in the town of Volokolamsk against an overburdened landfill that was leaking toxic gases in March 2018, officials in the capital simply decided to bring the waste elsewhere to unburden the capital and its commuter town, which had been in the focus of costly facelift operations – and from where news travel faster than from the regions.
Moscow produces around 20 percent of Russia’s waste: more than 13 million tons of solid municipal waste and industrial waste a year. While the Volokolamsk protests showed the gravity of the issue, problems started earlier. Since 2013, almost two-thirds of the 39 regional landfills in and around the Russian capital have closed. And most of the waste is indeed dead weight. Even though hundreds of recycling plants operate in and around the capital, these operate at about a fifth of their capacity. Nationally, between 90-95 percent of waste ends up in landfills, bucking the trend in the developed world. In fact, regional officials who take decisions on waste collection, are incentivised not to sort waste: their budget is determined on the basis of a standardised figure per inhabitant, which would decrease if the amount of waste to be disposed of were smaller.
Landfills, meanwhile, are proving to be a lucrative business. Following the Volokolamsk protests, contracts to “solve” the capital’s waste problem were awarded to companies with links to the Moscow City Hall. For the Arkhangelsk project alone 10.5 billion roubles were allocated. Guarding the site has cost more than a billion itself – so much that in the Moscow Region a local deputy of the Communist Party organised a protest against spending the regional budget on inefficient landfills. Meanwhile, local officials supporting protesters were punished. Pyotr Lazarov, the mayor of Volokolamsk who sympathized with protesters saw his home raided by police. Alexander Shestun, the head of the Serpukhov district who vocally supported the protests, was charged with fraud. This was enough to discourage officials in other regions – whom the Kremlin expect to manage, rather than govern their territories anyway – from supporting local protesters.
Similarly to last year’s protests in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a church, which only reached their goal when Vladimir Putin personally intervened in the matter, the president had to come up with a solution for this problem as well. In January Putin ordered the creation of a “Russian Ecological Operator”, which would oversee a new system of national waste disposal, as part of Putin’s ambitious “National Projects”. By 2024, the government wants to build more than 200 waste management plans to handle 36 percent of municipal solid waste. Nearing 2020, however, only rubbish collection fees seem to have been raised, along with plans for Rostec and VTB, a state-owned corporation and a bank, to build incinerators near Moscow together with Middle Eastern sovereign funds.
And people in the North are protesting again.
The issue of waste disposal has so far exhibited almost all symptoms of Russia’s dysfunctional policymaking. It is a chronic and systemic issue that should have been addressed long ago but the can was kicked down a road. The present policy gives undue preference to Moscow over remote regions. It causes enormous and tangible damage to Russia’s human capital. Attempts to solve it are hampered by powerful vested interests as well as hapless local and regional leaders who are accountable to their superiors rather than to voters and lack the necessary authority (and often the financial means) to solve the problem.
And thus citizens are likely to seek a direct line to the president, a rare political figure in Russia’s distorted political system who is both accountable and has the authority to solve problems. And over time, they will certainly also blame the president for problems that remain unsolved, be they local or federal.