Vladimir Putin's New Big Challenge: Taking Out the Trash

Vladimir Putin's New Big Challenge: Taking Out the Trash

Homeless people scavenge for food on a rubbish tip near Moscow, Russia.

SourceOleg Nikishin/Getty

Why you should care

Russia’s president has ruled for nearly two decades, but now he faces an unlikely — and smelly — problem.

For the past few months, Ilya Tsaryov has regularly joined dozens of others at a large wooden cross in a forest near his hometown of Likino-Dulyovo, Russia, to stare down riot police and bulldozers.

Locals want to stop the construction of a waste processing plant in wet peatland forest that they say feeds local rivers and hosts endangered species. But the demonstrators have faced crackdowns, with reports of police beating and arresting protesters and on one occasion dragging an elderly man away by the arm after allegedly breaking it.

The residents of Likino-Dulyovo, a nondescript town three hours’ drive east of Moscow, have found themselves catapulted into one of the largest waves of protests Russia has seen in recent years. Since January, when nationwide reforms on waste disposal came into effect, tens of thousands of people across the country have demonstrated against measures they fear will inundate their towns, pollute the environment and make their homes unlivable.

“These oligarchs [who own the waste contractors] are not interested in there being order in the country, they want to make money out of the reform,” says Tsaryov.

Oligarchs are not interested in there being order in the country, they want to make money out of the reform.

Ilya Tsaryov, anti-dump protester

President Vladimir Putin’s flagging approval ratings have been pushed to their lowest point in more than a decade because of declining living standards. Mindful of this, the Kremlin has made rare concessions to provincial protesters, including halting construction of a cathedral in Yekaterinburg that would have destroyed a park.

Work to build a proposed megadump on what is pine forest in Shiyes, an abandoned village 20 hours by train northeast of Moscow, has been temporarily halted after locals from surrounding towns occupied a protest camp for six months.

This approach contrasts with the Kremlin’s stance on political opposition supporters in Moscow, some of whom are facing jail for “mass disturbances” during recent protests over city elections. Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of the Putin regime, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for encouraging the protests in the capital and was poisoned while serving the sentence, his lawyer and doctor said this week.

Putin attempted to address the waste issue on his annual phone-in show in June, where rubbish was one of the three most frequently raised topics. “We generate 70 million tons of waste. And nobody recycles waste industrially,” he said. “I hope we can sort out this issue. I will be looking out for it.”

But plans to revamp the waste industry are continuing apace as the Kremlin attempts to modernize Russia’s antiquated waste disposal system, in which less than 5 percent is recycled. Under the new regime, the government aims to store less waste in landfills and build facilities to recycle or burn it.

In practice, however, contractors are incentivized by fees they receive for disposing of rubbish by volume rather than sorting it for recycling, which encourages them to build landfills. Russia has also yet to pass measures that would compensate or rehouse people who live near new landfill sites, says Boris Morgunov, dean of the ecology faculty at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

New York also moves its trash out and they pay [local communities] to take it,” Morgunov says. “In Russia, this doesn’t happen. People get upset when a big landfill is built next to their house. They’re justifiably worrying about their health.”

The issue is particularly acute around Moscow, whose 20 million-strong population produces nearly 20 percent of Russia’s rubbish and where local landfill sites are overflowing. Plans to ship the capital’s waste outside the city limits have generated a controversy that is pitting the capital against its much poorer hinterland and has become emblematic of resentment against a city whose wealth gap with the regions is increasing year by year.

Moscow contributes as much to Russia’s gross domestic product as the next 15 largest cities combined, according to a study by Strelka KB, an urban regeneration consultancy. At 169,000 rubles ($2,600) a head annually, the capital’s budget dwarfs the average 23,000 rubles a head spent in other large cities.

The benefits have largely been confined to the capital. Moscow is building the largest road network among all global metropolitan areas except Beijing and plans to more than double the 2011 length of its metro system by 2023.

“Moscow is dumping its trash on other regions,” says Tsaryov.

The city is trying to reduce the problem by introducing a comprehensive recycling plan next year. Officials claim the site in Likino-Dulyovo will be used for a modern recycling plant. But public trust in the authorities is so low that Tsaryov is convinced the site will just become another dump.

Tsaryov says his pleas to officials have fallen on deaf ears. Local authorities have encouraged him to settle the matter in court, a step he says would effectively allow construction by giving workers time to cut down the forest. Nor was he able to get through to Putin in June.

“We sent thousands of messages and calls. Nothing got through,” he says. “We want Putin to know about it, but they are not letting the information get to him.”

+
By Max Seddon

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2019.

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.