For more than one year, conservationists and activists have kept their ground in several tent camps near a train station in northwestern Russia.
The construction of a planned garbage landfill near Shies, deep into the Russian woods, has become the symbol of a growing environmental awareness in the Russian population.
Activists refuse to budge and the situation escalates and gains force. People from all over Russia have traveled to Shies this summer to participate in the protests. Last weekend, demonstrations against the authorities’ waste management were held in more than 30 Russian cities.
New protests have been announced for November.
The demonstrators’ fear subsides. The authorities fear that.
The Northwest-Russia Garbage War
A 5,000 decares (appr. 1,234 acres) garbage landfill is planned near Shies railway station in the southern part of Arkhangelsk county.
The construction works commenced in the summer of 2018.
The landfill is to receive 500,000 tons of unsorted waste annually from the Moscow region for a period of 20 years.
The plans have sparked major local protests. Since the end of February, local activist groups have physically blocked all roads leading to the construction area in order to sever fuel supply lines.
Inna Sangadzhieva is advisor at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and is familiar with Russian politics and civil society.
- People understand that the state is not working. So they have to do it themselves. When they are not allowed to have a transparent dialogue with the authorities, they take a more radical approach. We are approaching a peak in which a major conflict between society and the authorities will be impossible to avoid, Sangadzhieva says to High North News.
About 16,000 people turned up in the 30 places were demonstrations were held last Sunday, according to the activists' own calculations. The figure may not be impressive in and of itself, given that Russia has more than 140 million inhabitants. However, the interesting part is that there is a new kind of Russians demonstrating now, Sangadzhieva says.
- Protesters’ fears subside. That is what the authorities fear. The new aspect is that celebrities start engaging too now, people who were never political before. This is a generation that has grown up under Putin, but has never experienced the Soviet Union or political suppression, and they are now out protesting. That is new.
- Are they not running a risk?
- Yes, but the people who protest today are no longer afraid. It is an interesting development and a big difference from protestors ten years ago. When you engage with an issue and fight for what you believe to be right, you are willing to sacrifice for the cause. Russia has recently seen several examples of people being arrested, then released again. Civil society has demonstrated a high level of self-organizing, in particular when it comes to the spreading of information and legal assistance. You can win if society supports you, Sangadzhieva says.
The protests are the current mark that Russian authorities are not doing what they say they will do. In Shies, Arkhangelsk county, this conflict has come far.
- In Shies, there is also a center-periphery conflict in which people in the region feel that they are not taken seriously. Whatever they do, they have no way of making the government lend its ear, she says.
Three people were arrested in Arkhangelsk during last week’s demonstrations, according to the 29.ru online newspaper. And even though demonstrations have been largest in the northern Russian cities, if measured by turnout, there have also been demonstrations to support Shies in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Sangadzhieva does not believe the Shies situation will be resolved in the shorter term, however, that some form of compromise will be forced.
- Shies will probably be remembered as public resistance against the construction of garbage landfills. I believe we will see a solution in which waste from Moscow is processed in Moscow, not shipped out to the regions. It is hard to predict the future, though there is hope that in a longer-term perspective, Russia will once again see the rule of law and Shies will be resolved. However, in the shorter term, it will be hard. Neither side will budge, she says.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.