Komi Republic: A New episode in the Garbage Story
December 29, 2022
In the latest chapter of Russia’s “garbage protests” saga, people in the Komi Republic protested against a local landfill project. The Republic’s head Vladimir Uyba, referred to the project’s opponents as “ecological garbage” – and it backfired.
The Head of the Komi Republic, Vladimir Uyba, has a reputation for insulting his critics. He has called political opponents “cowards” and “scum,” threatened “to bury” them, and earlier this year, he accused a communist deputy in Komi’s legislative assembly of being an admirer of Adolf Hitler. But more recently, Uyba leveled insults at ordinary citizens of Komi when describing opponents of a proposed landfill and waste processing facility as “ecological garbage.”

The waste disposal complex in question was announced in early December by Komi’s ministry of natural resources. The head of the ministry, Yekaterina Kiselevich, told journalists the new landfill and processing facility would be located in the Ezhva district of Komi’s capital city Syktyvkar. The district was previously home to a landfill built during the Soviet period, but in 2013 it was closed by local authorities. A few years later, as Komi faced growing problems with waste management, the regional government revealed plans to construct a landfill in the village of Mandach, situated several dozen kilometers away from Syktyvkar.

Despite years of talks, planning, and public funds spent, the Mandach landfill was never built. This partly explains why Ezhva residents reacted to the landfill plans with outrage. They had long expected a landfill to be built far outside the city. Moreover, locals say that Ezhva already experiences high levels of pollution from a nearby plywood factory, as well as a plant that produces feed for livestock.

Uyba added fuel to the outrage after issuing his “ecological waste” insult during a television appearance on December 14. The next day, in what may have been an attempt to contain the damage caused by Uyba’s comments, Komi officials organized an open meeting with the public to discuss the proposed waste disposal complex in Ezhva. However, the move backfired as residents used the meeting as an opportunity to grill officials over the landfill proposal. One local woman defiantly told the officials “I don’t trust you! I don’t trust Uyba!” Her words were greeted with a roaring applause from the packed auditorium where the meeting took place.

Yet another spectacle and PR bungle came just days later when Uyba himself appeared before the public, announcing that Komi’s ministry of natural resources would reconsider the location of the proposed waste sorting complex. However, he noted that expenses for garbage removal may increase since transportation to a more distant location would cost more.

At the end of the meeting, which reportedly lasted 15 minutes, attendees called on Uyba to apologize for publicly insulting opponents of the Ezhva landfill. “Settle down! Return to your homes!” demanded Uyba, only to have his words drowned out by shouts of “Apologize!” After telling the raucous crowd to return home to watch the World Cup, Uyba exited the auditorium.

The drama in Komi brings to mind protests against the Shiyes landfill site in the Arkhangelsk region that took place from 2018 to 2021. At the time, local officials announced plans for a 5,000-hectare industrial zone that included a waste processing facility to handle some 500,000 tons of garbage from Moscow each year. Thousands of residents protested the landfill project, whom the then governor of Arkhangelsk, Igor Orlov, dismissively called “rabble.”

Over the course of the two-year-long Shiyes protests, activists were harassed and assaulted by private security forces, and some even faced criminal prosecution. Eventually, Orlov was pressured to resign due to his tanking popularity, after which the landfill project was scrapped by the new governor. While Russian authorities show zero tolerance toward political opposition, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine, they do occasionally demonstrate some degree of leniency regarding protests motivated by socioeconomic and environmental grievances.

The Shiyes protests, and now backlash in Komi against the Ezhva landfill project, are not isolated incidents. For years, Russian authorities have struggled to get a handle on waste management. Back in 2018, protests erupted in the Moscow and Yaroslavl regions against the use of local landfill sites for garbage transported from Moscow. Residents of the Moscow region complained of an unpleasant odor coming from overfilling dump sites, an issue that was resolved only after Vladimir Putin thrust himself into the situation. Authorities in the Moscow region subsequently closed several landfills. But the question of where to ship off Moscow’s garbage glut remained.

Russia has also failed to adopt robust recycling programs. Systemic corruption often gets in the way of efforts to create effective and environmentally friendly methods of waste disposal. “The result is that many Russian regions are relying on yet more dumps to deal with their own waste,” writes Charles Digges for the environmental NGO Bellona, adding that “all while bigger cities push their own garbage out into the countryside.” For this reason, protests emerged in places like Shiyes and Yaroslavl, where residents refused to take on Moscow’s garbage.

In 2019, waste management reforms in nearly all of Russia’s regions took effect. Per the reforms, a single refuse and recycling provider is required to service each region. These waste disposal companies, chosen by public tender, are supposed to be responsible for the whole waste management chain in the region. However, experts have said that current legislation and economic conditions in the country do not incentivize service companies to invest in waste management infrastructure that is critically lacking in most regions, and it is very common for citizens to not pay waste disposal fees to service providers.

While the pandemic brought a temporary lull to Russia’s garbage protests, this year the issue has again resurfaced in regions throughout the country. Besides Komi, residents in Novosibirsk, Krasnodar, Arkhangelsk, Volgograd, and Altai have all come out in protest against the construction of landfills and waste disposal facilities in their communities.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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