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Why Russia’s garbage protests turned violent

The bigger stink may be corruption, not trash.

Communist Party supporters wave red flags during a protest in the center of Moscow on Saturday. People rallied against the exclusion of some city council candidates from Moscow's coming election. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

In recent weeks, Russian security forces have arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators in ongoing rallies against restrictions affecting local elections. But earlier this summer, the police used violence to break up a different protest outside Moscow — when citizens fought a new landfill.

In fact, a string of protests, all against landfills, took place across Russia in the harsh winter months earlier this year. In a country where protests are restricted, where inciting protest activity among teenagers is about to become illegal — and prosecutors threatened to punish two demonstrators by taking custody of their child — why do people show up to protest garbage?

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And what do these protests mean for Russia? There’s a parallel: Lebanon’s 2015 “You Stink!” campaign.

Lebanon’s #YouStink protests morphed beyond garbage

Garbage collection can stir up protesters, and that’s not unique to Russia. Such protests have taken place in the United States and in China, Sri Lanka and Thailand, among other places. But the stories aren’t all alike.

The closest political analog to the garbage protests in Russia is the case of Lebanon. In the summer of 2015, a landfill just outside the capital, Beirut, closed down without providing citizens with an alternative. Garbage quickly began to pile up in the hot streets.

A lively protest movement with a clever slogan — “You Stink!” — emerged from Lebanon’s public-service crisis. The movement rapidly expanded to include more grievances — people demonstrating against corruption in general, as well as those calling for an overthrow of the government.

The protests turned violent after several weeks, and Lebanon’s security apparatus eventually shut down the unrest forcefully, sparking allegations of police brutality.

Lebanon’s experience can help us understand two main points about what is going on in Russia in 2019.

An apolitical issue quickly became political

While Lebanon mostly avoided participation in the 2011 Arab Spring, there was a wave of smaller-scale protests against the country’s political system. This, in turn, provided organizational experience for future protest movements.

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A similar trend may be unfolding in Russia. Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson, political scientists who study Russia, show in their recent book that 20 percent of participants in the #Nadoel (“Fed Up”) political protests of 2017 had participated in the 2012-2015 anti-government protests.

Increasingly, Russians are turning to protests to express their dissatisfaction. Annual polling by the Levada Center shows the number of people willing to take part in a political protest increased from 8 percent in 2016 to 22 percent in 2019. The number of people willing to protest a specific issue, such as a lower standard of living or an infringement upon their rights, increased from 11 percent to 27 percent in the same span.

As historian Mischa Gabowitsch explains, protesters in Russia represent diverse backgrounds. They are motivated to protest a wide range of grievances — homophobia, poor public services, the environment, unfair elections — all joined under the banner of protest the government.

All this makes it easier for established political forces to attempt to hijack the protests to serve their own needs. In Lebanon, Kataeb, an established Christian party, joined a sit-in against a planned landfill.

In Russia, Greene and Robertson describe how a small local protest construction in a beloved Moscow park attracted attention from Russia’s opposition parties. Explaining that they had come to recognize that “the majority of ecological problems in our country arise out of the politics of the state,” the protesters sent representatives to a larger “March for the Turnover of Power” organized by the political opposition. Similarly, Alexei Navalny’s opposition party and KPRF, Russia’s Communist Party, joined regional anti-garbage protests.

The bigger stink may be corruption, not garbage

Corruption is a common catalyst for political protests worldwide — and citizens in Lebanon and Russia alike have complaints about it. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks both countries toward the bottom: In 2018, the two shared the low ranking of 138 out of 180 countries.

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From the Arab Spring to the recent protests in Puerto Rico, corruption is a common driver of public outrage. This was also the case in both Lebanon and Russia. In Lebanon, the “You Stink” protests featured chants like “You stink, bye bye to the corrupt!” One protester noted to reporters, “It’s not about the trash anymore. Our demands are more — we want this corrupt government to resign.” A protester’s sign in Beirut read, “You failed in running the country, you failed in running worship, you succeeded at theft and corruption.”

Grievances against corruption also have driven Russia’s recent protests, linking the specific demands for trash cleanup with broad calls for political change. Navalny, Russia’s well-known opposition figure and the creator of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, suggested garbage contracts were mired in corruption. Protesters posted their garbage-related complaints on social media with hashtags like #thievesinpower. A local organizer of an anti-trash protest in the city of Volokolamsk told reporters: “Of course it’s corruption. Without a doubt.”

In both Russia and Lebanon, the anti-garbage protests have mostly died down, but the underlying public service crisis, allegations of corruption and public discontent remain. Analysts report Lebanon’s transportation sector, garbage collections, energy provision and many other public works remain ineffectual and wasteful.

With more austerity measures to come, Lebanon continues to be ripe for more protest. The same is probably true for Russia.

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Alla Baranovsky-Dewey a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University, studies Russian politics and information warfare.