After nearly three decades of transition the peoples of emerging Europe are starting to mature politically and hold their governments to account. But the issue that can put thousands of people on the street is not corruption or fixed elections but rubbish collection.
Moscow’s protests against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the September 8 city council elections have caught the international headlines as the police brutally beat peaceful protestors and attacked innocent bystanders without provocation.
However, the crowds have been much larger and authorities a lot more cautious in dealing with the string of protest in the last year against smelly landfills near residential areas in several Russian regional cities. It seems the Kremlin is a lot more scarred of these mundane protests than the hardcore politically motivated demonstrations.
Rubbish has brought the people onto the streets in Armenia too, where the residents of Yerevan have been taking to social media to vent their anger, posting pictures – and tagging city officials – of uncollected rubbish piling up in the heat, which has lately been hitting 40C, Eurasianet reports.
“Today it is 10 days since the garbage has been collected,” wrote Anuk Mkrtchyan, a journalist at RFE/RL, on her Facebook page on August 5 next to a photo of five overflowing rubbish bins. “The smell of the street is indescribable.”
In a recent International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in July that took the pulse of the country a year after the Velvet Revolution, in answer to the question of “What are the main problems your town or village is facing?” the respondents listed “rubbish collection” at the top of list, ahead of “unemployment” and “roads”.
The emotive power of poor rubbish collection has even been used as a weapon in the rough and tumble of Ukrainian politics as one of the new populist cudgels that can inflict real reputational damage on an opponent.
Last year Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv and the leader of the Samopomich Party and a presidential candidate in this year’s election, locked horns with former President Petro Poroshenko, accusing him of filling the streets of the UNESCO world heritage site city with rubbish to damage his reputation.
Sadovyi claimed that in 2016 the presidential administration had offered to help solve the city’s rubbish collection problem in exchange for supporting the president’s coalition in the Rada. A fire that year had forced the city’s landfill to close and rubbish was piling up in the streets. Sadovyi accused the president’s team of blocking the transfer of the rubbish to other cities’ facilities and fuelling the rubbish crisis.
Fix my issues
As bne IntelliNews has argued elsewhere, all the peoples of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) are maturing politically, but are more interested in fixing local issues than which political ideology is used to run the country.
Political maturity in the FSU simply means solving everyday problems such as paying a pension, providing adequate medical services, educating one's children and collecting the rubbish. The recent Moscow protests have garnered at most 20,000 on June 20, but the numbers have remained in the several thousands at most since then. Some of public protests against new landfills have been much larger and a demonstration in Ingushetia against a decision to give up some territory to Chechnya saw tens of thousands attend public protests that ran for over a week, yet this barely got mentioned in the international press.
Roads are another emotive issue that people care deeply about. In Ukraine some protestors took to filling the potholes in their local roads with potatoes to protest over the lack of investment.
In Romania a local oligarch, Stefan Mandachi, who owns a chain of fast-food restaurants, built a single metre of EU standard motorway to protest against the shoddy state of Romania’s roads in a PR stunt that resonated with the public.
Governments are starting to react, as they understand these local issues can be flashpoints that feed social unrest. Governments have already started to decentralise their administration of local services. Ukraine’s economy is struggling to recover from the dislocation caused by the EuroMaidan uprising, but one of the big successes of the change of administration has been the success of decentralising government and the improvement in the provision of services that has brought, according to another IRI poll released in February last year.
The story in Russia is similar, where the government remains very unpopular, but emphasis of regional competition and responsibility placed on regional government to fulfil the demands of Putin’s May Decrees means the popularity of regional governors has risen into the 60s and is only slightly behind that of Putin’s personal popularity, according to independent pollster the Levada Center.
And the Kremlin has taken the landfill protests very seriously – much more seriously than the opposition leaders Moscow protests again their exclusion from the city elections. Putin dedicated most of his annual phone-in in June to dealing with questions relating to rubbish and other social services.
Last year the government launched a federal waste disposal company, which is well funded and tasked with literally cleaning up the country. At the same time waste is high on the Moscow agenda, which has just introduced recycling for rubbish.But it is one of the those issues that Putin will have deliver on and where the people are effectively holding the government to account. Out of 1,155 registered refuse landfills in Russia, only 48% fully comply with the sector legislation, Vedomosti daily reported in July 23 citing the study for the RosPrirodNadzor watchdog.