20 years under Putin: a timeline

Environmental issues have led to unusually resilient protest movements in several Russian regions over the past years. According to the latest data, air pollution in the country has increased by three times this year compared to 2019—a record high over the last 16 years. What do these developments indicate and what do they mean for Russian politics?


On May 29, 2020, as a result of a rupture in a fuel tank in Norilsk, more than 21,000 tons of diesel oil spilled into nearby rivers an a lake. Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage estimated the damage at the record 147.8 billion rubles ($2 billion). Photo: YouTube. 


Poisoning concerns

Even as the СOVID-19 pandemic reduced consumption, kneecapped international travel, and scaled back industrial production across the planet, which led to cleaner air, on average, in many countries, fresh data tell a different story in Russia. According to Rosgidromet, a meteorological agency, in the first three quarters of 2020 Russia registered three times more significant air pollution events compared to the previous year. Pollution picked up after lockdowns were lifted in June, and the air was filled with the usual suspects—hydrogen sulphide, a by-product of the oil industry, and benzopyrenes, by-products of running engines and smelting—two highly important industries that jolted back to activity as soon as it was possible, or, in certain regions, never really stopped operating. The agency observed the most pollution events in Samara Region, an industrial powerhouse that houses the AvtoVAZ carmaking plant, and Buryatia, a far-eastern region home to big aviation plants.

The recent uptick, as some pointed out, may be partly due to more frequent measurements. Nonetheless, there is certainly a trend, and pollution is certainly an issue. According to the Ministry of the Environment, 8 percent of deaths in Russia have to do with it, slightly more than the top estimate in the US. No wonder, then, that it is front of mind with Russians. A January 2020 survey by the Levada Center found that 48 percent of them called environmental pollution the worst threat of the 21st century, more than did terrorism or war, marking a stunning shift in the attitudes of Russians who, as citizens and then heirs of a nuclear empire, have traditionally regarded war—especially nuclear war—as the top global threat. Twenty-six percent raised the issue of air pollution specifically, making it the single most concerning threat to the environment, according to Russians.

True, this was a slightly lower figure than ten years ago, but this is likely due, at least in part, to a busier agenda. Almost twice more Russians named, for instance, household waste as a serious problem, compared to 2010, as waste collection has become a heavily politicized issue on the back of protest movements in Volokolamsk (Moscow Region) and in Shiyes (on the border of Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic). One of the last major protests in Russia before pandemic-related lockdowns took place in March, when people across several regions protested against pollution and related environmental issues. 

The pandemic has understandably knocked the problem of pollution down the ranks: in September 2020 only 22 percent named it as a worrisome problem in another Levada survey, but in general people have become more attentive to environmental issues, even those that do not concern them personally: 66 percent said, for instance, that they had heard about the massive loss of marine wildlife off the remote coasts of Kamchatka and worry about it.

Not all regions suffer from pollution to the same extent. Metallurgical plants afflict regions such as the Vologda, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Kemerovo, and Lipetsk, as well as Krasnoyarsk Territory, while the oil-and-gas industry takes the biggest toll on the ecosystems of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, the Komi Republic, and the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. These regions account for more than 50 percent of emissions.


Fuming regions

But does this suggest that Russians are more environmentally conscious? Not necessarily. Larger issues whose immediate impact on people’s lives is unclear and where blame is more difficult to assign—such as Siberian wildfires or the thawing of the Arctic ice cap—did not elicit mass popular action. Green organisations with broad climate agendas also suffered in the government’s crackdown on civil society, and Russians have thus become less likely to donate to them. It seems that while Russians are indeed more likely to take to the streets due to environmental issues, these issues have to be concrete, affect local communities in tangible ways, and they have to be at least partially caused by poor governance.

It is no coincidence that when a localized environmental disaster occurs, Russians tend to blame officials and industrial establishments. This was the case in Kamchatka, even though scientists quickly identified that the cause of the event was most likely toxic algae rather than pollution. Industrial accidents happen frequently and are often covered up. At least ten significant industrial accidents that worsened air pollution were recorded this year. Of the incidents contaminating water sources, the fuel spill near the northern city of Norilsk—already infamous for its contaminated air—received the most attention. And while some companies have gotten more effective at neutralizing emissions and repairing damage, accidents keep happening and companies are trying to cover them up. According to I-Stories, for instance, less than one percent of 17,000 accidents involving oil spills were reported in 2019.

These localized environmental issues often feed into regional sensitivities. A 2019 protest in Irkutsk Region against a Chinese-backed bottling plant on Lake Baikal had thinly veiled Sinophobic undertones. But an issue does not need foreign interlopers to escalate. The Shiyes landfill project led to outrage not only due to concerns about pollution, but because the decision was taken surreptitiously and was seen as an infraction of Pomorye territory (as Russia’s northwest is known among locals) by the waste of “entitled Muscovites.” 

In Bashkortastan’s Kushtau, traditionalist groups joined forces with local conservationists and other citizens to protest against the mining of a sacred mountain, which many suspected would not benefit ordinary citizens. Since regions send mineral extraction tax revenues and part of income tax revenues to Moscow, it can easily appear that an “alien” company—which could even be based in the capital—has come to the region to pillage it, with no regard to local customs, the environment, or residents’ health. Compare this to the outrage over the arrest of Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal, who was spirited away and put on trial in Moscow, making residents feel robbed of agency over their own politicians by a remote center of power that is generally uninterested in the region’s affairs.


Toxic politics

The over-centralization of fiscal revenues and political power certainly does not help to prevent the emergence of such movements. In a less centralized system, regional governments could theoretically direct some of the taxes on mineral extraction or industrial production into conservation efforts or infrastructure development, establishing a visible link between the two.

In Russia’s present system, environment protection is not a focus of regional budgets, which mostly cover social expenses, healthcare, and education as well as authorities’ PR efforts, whose fiscal footing is unsurprisingly resilient to budgetary cuts. On average, only 0.3 percent of regional budgets is spent on environmental policy. And this is unlikely to change as money is expected to be increasingly tight in regional treasuries as the second wave of the pandemic sets in and government aid (most recently, an 80 billion-ruble, or $106.4 million, transfer to 39 regions) has so far amounted to little more than a fiscal sticking plaster.

Even before the pandemic, the federal budget was of little help, even though ecology is one of the twelve areas covered by the National Projects, a set of development goals adopted in 2018. The originally planned financing for this project was 4 trillion rubles ($53.2 billion) over six years (including non-budgetary funding), of which 133.8 billion ($1.78 billion) had to be covered from regional budgets. A federal program called Clean Air envisaged 500 billion rubles ($6.65 billion) to be allocated in 12 industrial cities to reduce air pollution by 22 percent.

But the National Projects’ deadline has been pushed back from 2024 to 2030—ostensibly due to the pandemic, but in fact acknowledgement that even pre-COVID their implementation had not been going well. In 2019, for instance, the Ecology National Project was only around 66.3 percent implemented as per the plan. As for the Clean Air programme, in 2019-20 virtually no funds were paid out. Тhe Ministry of Environment has repeatedly cut federal funds allocated for the project, and in the coming years of scarcity more cuts will take place—13.5 billion rubles ($180 million) in 2021 and another 13.8 billion ($184 million) in 2022. The Kremlin’s commitment to fiscal prudence amidst the ongoing pandemic also means that regions are unlikely to have much excess money to spend on projects to repair environmental damage or improve air quality. Unless, of course, the issue risks causing political instability.


Contamination risks

Resent research by Ekaterina Borisova and Israel Marques of the HSE University in Moscow looked at how Russian citizens assigned responsibility or blame for controversial policies. The study case—the renovation of residential buildings in Moscow—was a highly publicized, tangible, and politically sensitive issue. Citizens most likely assigned responsibility to Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who expended copious time and energy supporting and promoting the project, but many also linked the project to Putin, even though he came a distant second to Sobyanin and had barely participated in the debate on the proposed renovation plan. Putin thus likely has skin in the game when it comes to controversial issues on lower administrative levels—in most regions, likely, even more so than in Moscow, where the mayor is an entity in his own right. And especially, perhaps, when the issue is not a flagship investment, but the lack of safeguards to prevent a bad outcome, and in recent years the president has positioned himself specifically as a guarantor of stability. 

Unlike the protests in Khabarovsk, environmental and conservationist protest movements have so far remained neutral towards the president or, in certain cases, even called on him for help. And sometimes he did, as in the case of the Kushtau mountain. While there is evidence that these protest movements learn from each other (Kushtau activists established contact with Shiyes protesters, who shared their experience and offered advice on how to deal with provocateurs), their focus has remained local. Still, Putin may feel it risky or inconvenient to be too involved, but, arguably, there are limits to his approach. It is unclear what happens if local outrage runs up against projects too big to sacrifice, e.g. the development of Russia’s Arctic region, where the government’s strategy seems to pay little attention to environmental issues. How to deal with the “contagion” of frustration when local movements copy tactics and discuss strategies with each other? What happens with opportunistic regional elites who side with protesters, e.g. to prevent the incursion of unwanted investors or to raise distributable rent? And what happens when cultural sensitivities get involved?

Seemingly aware of the problem, the Kremlin is already trying to channel the energy of these protests into secure paths—for instance, by promoting the Green Alternative party, which, having acquired mandates in the Komi Republic and Chelyabinsk Region in the September regional election, will be able to run in next year’s Duma election. New laws on the abolition of regional constitutional courts—which, the Kremlin fears, may side with local interests in a dispute—and on “federal territories” that will allow the federal government to administer resource-rich territories directly, are aimed at eliminating risks. As usual, these are temporary solutions to the environmental problem, which the Kremlin regards as mostly political. But they will not make problems on the ground—either pollution- or protest-related—go away.