Garbage protests in Volokolamsk and elsewhere have exposed weaknesses in Russia's system of political authority, often described as a "power vertical" in which government officials answer not to their constituents, but to their political superiors and ultimately to President Putin. Facing unresponsive or incompetent officials, citizens turn to Putin as the only one who can solve their problems.
In 2017, Yelena Mikhailenko called into President Putin's annual "Direct Line" call-in show for citizens to complain about noxious emissions from the Kuchino landfill in her neighborhood which caused nausea and vomiting.
"Turning to you is our last hope," Mikhailenko told the president.
Expressing sympathy, Putin ordered the Kuchino dump closed by presidential order.
The quick resolution of the Kuchino problem was covered favorably in the Russian media, but hardly represents a systemic response to the problem of municipal waste disposal. In fact, Putin's recognition of what he called "the legitimate negative reaction of people" to widespread problems with trash disposal may have emboldened protesters near other landfills.
Meanwhile, Moscow regional government officials have placed tremendous pressure on those lower in the power vertical to quell the garbage protests and to allow continued transport of waste, including threatening district and town officials with arrest and loss of property.
One beleaguered head of a Moscow region district, Aleksandr Shestun, even issued a direct plea to Putin via YouTube video, outlining the threats made to his family and requesting the president's assistance.
The fact that those on all sides of the garbage protests feel forced to "appeal to the tsar" illustrates simultaneously the president's authority and the risk that Putin ultimately may become accountable for failures of basic governance at lower levels.
When well-intentioned citizens confront unaccountable officials, their activities can become more political. I interviewed a municipal civic group leader from St. Petersburg who works on urban ecology and waste. He commented that it has become clear that government officials are responsive not to citizens, but to those "from above" who put them in their offices.
City deputies are not influenced by elections, he lamented, implying that they owe loyalty to political elites, and are not accountable to the people.
Yet when questioned about whether he is ever concerned that the authorities will perceive his work negatively, the leader – who did not want to be identified – reflected on his vision of patriotism.
"It is my country, my city, my people," he said. "That is more important than any bureaucrat."
Garbage politics is nudging apolitical activism into a critique of the political system. Unabated, these trends could dent the Putin regime's legitimacy.
When the government fails to protect citizens from toxic emissions, and citizens have to take to the streets to gain attention, they begin to ask: What is the government for?
Commentary by Laura A. Henry, an Associate Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College. She is also a contributor at The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.
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