Russia

A Pro-Putin Town Explodes in Anger

Volokolamsk's foul air is a direct consequence of the Putin system, but the Russian leader is not the target of popular discontent.
Corrected

"Don't kill our kids."

Photographer: MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

This month's events in a small town northwest of Moscow show there's massive anger bubbling just under the surface of Russians' seemingly endless patience with autocratic governance. But they won't turn that anger against President Vladimir Putin, even when his billionaire friends are directly responsible for their woes.

Volokolamsk is a town of 20,000 on the edge of Moscow Region, the area surrounding Russia's vast capital city. Next to it is the Yadrovo dump, one of the region's 37 which absorb some 9,000 metric tons of Moscow garbage a day. The dumps are overflowing, and even a few officially closed ones still receive trucks full of solid waste. They're part of a nationwide problem of which Putin is well aware. Back in 2016, he complained that only half of Russia's garbage was being processed, while the rest was merely being buried or left to rot, including in thousands of illegal dumps. In November 2017, Putin forced Moscow Region governor Andrei Vorobyov to close one of the dumps, located so close to a residential area that people living there could hardly breathe.

At the same time, Putin's friends have an interest in the Moscow garbage business. According to the Anti-Corruption Foundation run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Gleb Frank, the son-in-law of Gennady Timchenko, a close Putin friend who is under U.S. sanctions, is a beneficiary of one of the biggest garbage removal operators in Moscow. Other market leaders are reportedly linked to Igor Chaika, the son of Putin's prosecutor general, and to the families of well-connected bankers Herman Gref and Vladimir Dmitriev. Kremlin-friendly billionaire Roman Abramovich was an investor in the business too, until he exited the investment last year. 

For Volokolamsk, the Yadrovo dump has recently become a major problem. Since February, the town has consistently smelled foul, and locals started protesting. On March 3, a quarter of the town's population joined a rally, demanding that the dump be shut down. On March 8, some local activists blocked the road that led to Yadrovo and got arrested. Two days later, Vorobyov demanded that his underlings resolve the problem within three months, just as the region's environmental services tried to convince locals that there was no danger to their health and harmful substances in the air were within the norm. 

On Sunday, 70.27 percent of the votes cast in Volokolamsk were for Putin. This was a thoroughly rigged election, of course, but independent observers didn't receive any reports of blatant vote manipulation from Volokolamsk. 

Two days later, a local court ruled to keep the dump open, fining its owner -- a former regional official -- about $2,600 for violating sanitary rules. And on Wednesday, dozens of children around town were hospitalized with acute poisoning symptoms such as dizziness and vomiting. Officials continued to insist there was no danger to people's health, but locals gathered around the hospital to demand the truth, and Vorobyov and the head of the Volokolamsk District were forced to make an appearance. The district head was shoved and threatened. Some pretty hard snowballs were thrown at the governor as he got into his car to make an escape.

Video of the protest traveled wide across the social networks; 10-year-old Tatyana Lozova, filmed pointing at the governor and making a throat-cutting gesture, became an instant heroine. She said in an interview she wanted the dump closed because she didn't want to keep wearing a respirator on her way to school.

To those wondering about Putin's lasting popularity in Russia or believing the election results were completely falsified, Volokolamsk provides some valuable insights.

What's happening to the town is a direct consequence of the Putin clique's way of running the country. The future only exists in speeches, while business is made today and for today, regardless of the consequences. Officials lie even when the truth is obvious to everyone, and courts won't protect ordinary citizens even when the case for such protection is so clear-cut that it's enough to sniff the poisonous air to see it. Ordinary Russians are treated no better than the garbage dumped right next to their houses by well-connected government contractors. And yet the inevitable anger isn't directed at Putin. Ksenia Sobchak, the self-styled liberal candidate who ran against Putin (in what most see as Kremlin-approved tokenism to create the appearance of pluralism), showed up in Volokolamsk before the election and promised help in getting the dump closed; she got 3.65 percent of the Volokolamsk vote -- more than the 1.68 percent she received nationwide, but hardly an endorsement.

Putin, the symbol of Russia's international resurgence is teflon when it comes to the problems his system has spawned throughout Russia. Putin-allies like Vorobyov, a former functionary of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, may serve as lightning rods for popular anger, but criticizing the national leader won't get you anywhere. Regional authorities are now promising to stop dumping garbage at Yadrovo at the end of this week; if the stink goes away, the anger will subside. Life will go on.

(Corrects reference to Roman Abramovich's investment in third paragraph of article published March 22.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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