Side Note

Piles of garbage could bring down Putin

A new report from the Russian political research group Minchenko Consulting argues that corruption isn’t the issue most likely to inspire citizen protest — trash disposal is. The study, which examined political movements in several Russian regions (including Moscow) from 2011 to 2018, concluded that problems relating to garbage disposal and industrial emissions pose “the number one risk” of citizen-led protest in the nation.

The concern is that haphazardly dumped garbage is creating widespread health problems. In Moscow, for instance, the city carts off 90 percent of its nearly 100 million tons of accumulated trash to the nearby suburbs each year, where dumping sites are dangerously close to schools and homes. This March, in the nearby town of Volokolamsk, authorities declared a state of emergency after dozens of children fell ill because of fumes from a nearby landfill. Thousands of citizens took part in rallies demanding reforms to the waste disposal — and in recent months, activists in Moscow suburbs have launched petitions, blocked roads, and staged hunger strikes.

In her analysis of the Minchenko Consulting study for The Conversation, Laura A. Henry, a scholar of modern Russian politics at Bowdoin College, suggests that these protests represent one of the biggest threats to Putin’s power: “I believe these garbage protests reveal a crisis of basic governance that potentially poses a greater challenge to Putin’s government than pro-democracy activism,” she wrote.

But some activists only want to draw Putin’s attention to the swaths of the country that Moscow has turned into a literal garbage dump. In March, a protester in Volokolamsk clarified that she doesn’t blame Putin for the garbage issue: “We aren’t against Putin, we’re even for Putin [...] We’ll get Putin on the case. We’ll get his attention. Only Putin.”