Russian protesters kick up a stink about landfill – but not against Putin | World news

The stench from the Yadrovo landfill is bearable only when it is downwind. When the breeze shifts, the fumes become overpowering, a mix of petrol fumes and a noxious sulphur smell that powers its way into your nose and down your throat.

For decades, it was a local dump viewed as a minor nuisance. But six months ago, dozens of trucks each day began hauling in garbage from Moscow. Levels of hydrogen sulfide and chlorine in the air rocketed, children began suffering skin rashes and respiratory ailments, and the town of Volokolamsk, 60 miles north-west of Moscow, became an unlikely centre of an ecological protest.

Yulia Odintsova, who has lived near the landfill for more than 40 years and seen neighbours abandon their homes because of the smell, said simply: “It has changed my life completely.”

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The Yadrovo landfill. Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass

With demonstrations to close landfills popping up across the Moscow region, the Kremlin is worried about these protests snowballing into a movement. But Vladimir Putin, who took 70% of the vote in this area in elections in March, is not the target of the protesters’ rage.

It may seem odd that a town can be so angry and yet support an incumbent president, but it is not uncommon for Putin to be seen as a potential ally against corrupt and inefficient local bureaucrats. In 2016, just 32% of Moscow region residents living outside the capital said they were satisfied with the performance of their municipal governments. And yet 75% voted for Putin in 2018.

“Good tsar, bad boyars [noble advisers]”, the Russian saying goes. If only Putin knew, locals sigh.

“We aren’t against Putin, we’re even for Putin,” interjected Elena Rumyantseva, 55, when a reporter asked about how the protests affected enthusiasm for the elections. “We couldn’t handle it ourselves. So we’ll get Putin on the case. We’ll get his attention. Only Putin.”

There were similar appeals to Putin in Kemerovo, where a blaze in a shopping centre on Sunday left at least 64 dead, most of them children. Demonstrations followed, with locals hurling abuse at several local officials and a vice-governor falling to his knees to apologise to the crowd.

Putin is seen as a potential arbiter in the case, despite appointing the governor, who has run the region as a personal fiefdom since 1997. A local “citizens action group” that met Putin had one major request: to take the investigation into the blaze under his personal control.

“The people want someone to be punished,” the official Kremlin transcript read.

“It will be so,” Putin replied.

Protests in 2011, the largest and most serious of Putin’s 18 years in power, were fuelled by small movements to fight corruption or protect a local forest coalescing with support from middle-class liberals and leftist firebrands. But the Kremlin has learned a lot about managing protest since then.

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Protesters hold placard with messages that read: ‘Down with Moscow’s garbage in Volokolamsk’ and ‘Moscow take away your garbage’. Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass

In an emergency tent at the landfill site, Marina Yudenich, the head of the Moscow region’s official human rights council, hustled a “citizen’s initiative group” of protesters into seats and told them to wait for a representative of the government. When he appeared, he launched into a lecture about cleaning up filtrate at the landfill site.

But as they went into the details, the government representatives had subtly moved the goalposts. Asked by the Guardian about calls by demonstrators to close the dump, Yudenich said: “I would say it’s extremely unlikely that they’re going to close the landfill. The trash has to go somewhere.”

There was a moment when it seemed the protests would spin out of control. When as many as 50 children sought medical treatment last week with symptoms of gas poisoning, the head of the district, Yevgeny Gavrilov, was hit several times during scuffles near the hospital. The region’s governor, Andrei Vorobyov, was also hit with snowballs.

“Yes, they got him on the head a few times,” said Andrei Zhdanov, a local campaigner against the dump. Gavrilov has since been dismissed.

The protest has become a media sensation, although its staying power is unclear. During a press conference, Tatyana Lozova, a local 10-year-old dressed in a pink ski jacket and bright pink ski hat, pointed two fingers at Vorobyov and then drew them across her neck in a throat-slitting gesture. She quickly became a meme on social media.

Tatyana Lozova makes a throat-slitting gesture at Andrei Vorobyov, the region’s governor.

The protests have been fuelled by a lack of trust in information given by the government. An emergency ministry truck parked on Volokolamsk’s main square beams out air quality stats in real time. “It’s lying even now,” Rumyantseva said.

Some think the government or landfill administration is hiding information from citizens, saying the refuse has caused a rise in the local rate of cancer.

“I think it is possible that they have nuclear waste in there,” said Yulia Zharova, a mother of two who attended last Sunday’s rally in Volokolamsk.

For others, the situation is clear: kickbacks have been given to local officials in order for them to allow new contracts or even illegal dumping of waste. “Of course it’s corruption. Without a doubt,” said Artyom Lyubimov, a local lawyer and organiser of the protests.