Thousands of residents of the Moscow suburbs have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest foul odors from overflowing trash dumps, in an unusual surge of anti-government activism that’s set off alarm bells in the Kremlin.

Authorities in the city of Volokolamsk began giving out gas masks to locals after demonstrators bombarded the regional governor with snowballs and demanded a state of emergency be declared. Residents of Kolomna, south of Moscow, this week defied riot police to block trucks carrying trash from the capital.

Coming just weeks after Vladimir Putin’s lopsided re-election victory, the rising wave of unrest is a worrying reminder for the Kremlin of popular discontent simmering below the surface. In the Siberian city of Kemerovo, a shopping-mall fire last weekend that killed dozens of children brought thousands of protesters to the streets blaming local authorities.

Officials and activists say the trash crisis is also a by-product of Putin’s highly centralized rule, where even seemingly local decisions like closing an overfilled dump outside the capital are made by the president, often on the spur of the moment.

The latest wave of anger around Moscow over garbage traces to last summer, when Putin ordered one of the largest dumps serving the capital shut down. Local residents had complained of the smell and pollution on a live national television “Direct Line” to the president. “Turning to you is our last hope,” one woman told Putin as millions of Russians watched the broadcast.

While Putin’s snap decision to close the aging landfill got overwhelmingly positive coverage on state TV, it left the capital desperately short of space to dump its trash. Landfills in the surrounding region were suddenly swamped, while the high-tech incinerators he promised viewers won’t be built for years.


“What happened is just the price of the system,” said Andrei Kalyadin, a political consultant who advises the Kremlin. “These Direct Lines are one of the most vivid demonstrations of how the great leader solves problems. They bring him and the country satisfaction.”

But they’re not well suited to complicated issues. “Putin’s decision was absolutely right but the question is how it was implemented,” said Anton Khlynov, an environmental activist in the Moscow Region, which surrounds the capital. “The waste needed to be redirected, but not with ad hoc decisions, and in a way that people didn’t get hurt.”

With a population of more than 20 million, Moscow and the surrounding region create about a fifth of all of Russia’s trash, according to official data. About 90 percent of that goes into landfills, as recycling and incinerators are dramatically more expensive. Putin’s decision last summer set off a wave of closures of dumps around the region, however, leading to the trash overflow.

In Kolomna, trucks from Moscow started flooding in after Putin’s decision, according to residents. Early this year, locals began blocking the road to the dump, triggering crackdowns from police.

“There’s never been demonstrations here but the rally against the dump drew thousands,” said Irina Naletova, a resident of the city of 144,000 who’s become an activist over the issue.

In Volokolamsk, a particularly large emission of foul gas from the local landfill sent dozens of children to the hospital last week, drawing much of the adult population to the main square to confront local officials.


“I don’t see any desire on the part of the Kremlin to deal with the garbage issue,” said Artyom Lyubimov, a local activist. “Unlike freedom of speech or assembly, the trash crisis affects people’s right to life and if it’s not fixed soon, they will demand change.”

For the moment, the Kremlin is following the issue closely, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday. “Everyone understands this is a difficult problem that can’t be solved overnight,” he said.

Kalyadin, the political consultant, warned that if the authorities crack down too hard “these protests could turn into a political movement against the Kremlin.” So far, though, the unrest is locally focused and the government seems to be trying to defuse the pressure, he said. “Anger and frustration are accumulating in society,” he said.

Activists outside Moscow are now coordinating efforts and vow to continue their protests until the flow of trash ebbs. The rank vapors are likely to get worse as weather warms. In Kolomna, they’ve written to Putin to intervene and are seeking a referendum to close the dump. “Nobody hears us,” Naletova said.

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