Putin's war on garbage is really a battle for his political life

Some of the anti-trash activists at a protest camp outside Moscow have been based there 24 hours a day since March.

Natalya Syrovyatkina says she's never been part of a protest before, but deep in a forest 60 miles east of Moscow she's now ready to fight to the death.

"We're waiting for them," says the 41-year-old nurse and mother of two. "I'll do everything. Let them kill me."

Syrovyatkina is one of a group of 7,000 local residents trying to halt the construction of a sprawling plant that will process garbage from Europe's largest capital city. The most hardcore have been there 24 hours a day since March, first sleeping in cars and more recently camping among the trees.

The trouble for Russian President Vladimir Putin is that what may look like a run-of-the-mill show of anger has taken on far wider significance. Indeed, trash has turned into a lightning rod for discontent and an unlikely test of his durability as leader.

Public anger over pollution from mountains of waste piled up on the outskirts of Moscow and further afield has added to a sense among ordinary Russians that they are being ignored by the government.

There's also been a rise in the pension age, health care cuts and living standards have been on the slide because of falling incomes. Putin's popularity, traditionally unassailable, already hit its lowest in more than a decade this year.

"For many people, rubbish is more important than democratic rights," says Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Quality of life is now a top priority. If the population sees that officials won't listen, then social dissatisfaction will boil over into politics and threaten the system."

It's not been a great few months for the Kremlin. There were demonstrations over opposition candidates being barred from Sept. 8 municipal elections that brought 60,000 people onto the streets at their peak. After widespread outrage over a prison sentence for an actor arrested during a protest, prosecutors reversed course and appealed for leniency.

But the anger over garbage has been gradually escalating and is set to endure. During theRussian president's annual call-in show in June, trash was among the main topics. The Russian government is trying to defuse the unrest with an ambitious waste treatment and recycling plan between now and 2024. That's the year Putin is expected to try to stay in power after his term limit ends.

Russia now recycles only 1% of its refuse, compared with almost half in the European Union. The rest is mostly buried in landfills. The nationwide goal is to reach 36% recycling by 2024, achieving in five years what has taken several decades in Europe.

Even if the government does achieve its recycling target, "you still end up with 64% of trash," said Alexander Ivannikov, a former waste management specialist at Greenpeace Russia. "Where will it go? Most likely it will be incinerated. That means air pollution and inflamed social tensions."

Protesters like Syrovyatkina are part of a nationwide campaign against the policy for dealing with mounting trash. They say they don't trust the government to build environmentally friendly facilities and have endured police beatings and arrests to champion their cause.

The authorities expect protests to escalate as they establish 220 new garbage plants in Russia, according to a person familiar with the Kremlin's thinking.

Denis Butsayev, head of the Russian Environmental Operator, the state-run company responsible for the refuse program, dismissed any notion that they would contribute to pollution.

"We have some of the strictest sanitary rules in the world," Butsayev said.

Waste storage sites in Russia already occupy 4 million hectares, an area the size of Switzerland.

The need to dump trash elsewhere has provoked resistance as far away as Arkhangelsk in the north, where officials are planning to build a facility to process the trash of Muscovites. Locals say they don't want Moscow's garbage and last Sunday protest rallies took place across northern Russia, including by up to 2,000 people in Arkhangelsk.

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