In 2018, waste management company Khartia, part of an alleged “garbage mafia” of officials connected to Kremlin, won a 500-million-euro ($635 million) contract to manage waste in Moscow and the surrounding region, establishing several massive open-air landfills. Khartia is owned by Igor Chaika, the son of Yury Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general . The dumps are overloaded, do not have adequate safety protections, emit toxic gases, and contaminate the groundwater. This is also a social and economic problem because of the emergence of illegal dumps and bad business practices monopolizing the waste management sector . Moreover, while Moscow and some of its elite residents generate more than twice the amount of waste as residents in the surrounding towns, the surrounding towns must deal with all the waste and are at the bottom of environmental ratings out of 85 Russian regions. Moscow itself ranks 23rd .
The garbage crisis provoked a wave of some of the longest protest movements since Putin came into power, mobilizing thousands in the towns around Moscow in marches against public health and air pollution concerns . Authorities, however, have responded by intimidating, beating, arresting, fining, and detaining “illegal” protestors for disobeying police orders. Additionally, regional officials are too afraid to negotiate a solution because Putin and other Kremlin-linked figures have been calling anyone sympathizing or even just having a dialogue with the protestors weak people, and traitors to Russia [1, 2].
One example of an official who faced consequences for supporting protestors is Alexander Shestun, head of the Serpukhov district near Moscow. In April 2018, he allowed activists to hold protests at a local landfill and used his Mercedes to block trucks from bringing garbage into the dump . The Kremlin detained him, and officials from the FSB security service and presidential administration threatened to jail him on false charges if he did not stand down, according to secretly recorded audio that he posted on YouTube . “They will steamroll you, and you will have bad f***ing problems. You’ll go to jail. Don’t you want to live?” a man Shestun identified as an FSB department chief can be heard saying . In June, armed police raided Shestun’s home and arrested him. He has been in custody ever since and faces up to 10 years in prison for refusing to follow orders. He has since been on a hunger strike in protest and was hospitalized for it in 2019. Other officials have also likewise been raided by police and warned by hitmen not to get involved in any landfill protests .
In March 2019, an estimated 50-200 children were hospitalized for gas poisoning from the landfill in Volokolamsk, 120km from Moscow. Parents and other residents marched in response, especially angered by official medical reports claiming that there had not been any poisoning. The protests continued for months and were sometimes violent, with one incident wherein some people hit mayor Evgeny Gavrilov and Andrei Vorobyov with snowballs and insults. In May, shots were also fired at one of the garbage trucks headed toward the dump. They are otherwise mostly peaceful, however, with over a third of the town population in support locally and across other towns in solidarity. A common tactic used is blockading landfill access roads and holding rallies, though residents also conduct their own studies in collaboration with scientists monitoring the environment, keep track of new landfill plans, campaign over social media, and more. Owing to their persistence, the town councilors held a referendum on the closure of the landfill in September, but this was merely symbolic and did not lead to any change .
In April 2019, locals held a peaceful demonstration at the Aleksinsky landfill near Klin, northwest of Moscow. The 32,000 m2 open dump towers over six stories and is only 400 meters from a school. The landfill holds millions of tons of untreated and unsorted waste trucked in daily from Moscow. Among other commonly reported public health concerns such as headaches and nausea, activist groups have reported that the high concentrations of nitric oxide and hydrogen sulfide from the dump’s air pollution sickens the children, who sometimes cannot attend classes because of the smell . As eco-activist Yelena Polyakova commented, “the mound of trash makes a mockery of officials’ attempts to attract foreign tourists to a house museum dedicated to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the 19th-century classical composer, who wrote some of his final works in the town … Can you imagine Mozart’s house museum in Salzburg standing next to an enormous pile of crap?” . Even more alarming is that Aleksinsky is controlled by crime boss Nikolai Nefedov. Indeed, most landfills are run by the criminal world allied with the government. They make huge profits from extorting money from locals .
Meanwhile, in Alexandrov, in March 2019, a group of protestors set up an informal checkpoint at the entrance to their local landfill after multiple demonstrations were ineffective. This was led by 90-year-old Misha Gorelikov, or “Grandpa Misha,” who lives 500 meters from the dump. Locals fear rising cancer raters at more than 30 times the average. The protestors stand guard day and night checking documents on each truck to turn away those coming from Moscow. Gorelikov hopes that the demonstration will get the attention of the President for a possible petition. Investigative journalists tracking the company responsible have had little luck, however. The company, EkoLine, is one of Russia’s top three beneficiaries of the waste contracts. Its owners are not disclosed in any public records, and there is a complicated ownership structure involving offshore firms from Russia to Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and New Zealand .
On July 15, 2019, police brutally beat environmental activist Svetlana Kareva with batons while she was protesting in Likino-Dulevo against Khartia for its construction of a new landfill. She was hospitalized with a concussion. The landfill will be built in a swamp critical to the well-being of the locals and the environment .
Since April 2020, Russian authorities have partly responded to the crisis by proposing 10 waste incinerators and sorting plants in some of the towns around Moscow. However, these projects, four of which are already under construction, are also controlled by the Kremlin and its government associates. New contracts were also awarded to Khartia ($522 million) and RT-Invest, a subsidiary ($1.6 billion) for another ten years of operation . The government has also been taking advantage of COVID-19 to arrest and intimidate human rights defenders and journalists for allegedly violating quarantine measures . Although mobilizations continue, locals have little faith that their protests will be effective or that they will be able to have dialogue with the government. They do not expect systemic changes but hope for a local solution even partly meeting their needs. This, however, gives the Kremlin and the President leverage to extinguish protests by only making partial or symbolic concessions, manipulating protestors, or intimidating and bribing the leaders .