Three stories dominated the news in Russia this week: the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from dozens of Western countries, the horrific fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo that claimed 64 lives, including 41 children, and the continuing protests to shut down a toxic landfill in the Moscow region of Volokolamsk. Here’s how these stories developed and what they mean in the Russian political context.

 

March 30, 2018: Russia's Foreign Ministry summons ambassadors of the Western countries that have expelled Russian diplomats to announce the government's response measures. Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko / TASS.

 

  1. The Diplomatic Fallout: A View from Russia

  • What happened: This week, 30 countries, including the United States, Germany and France, announced they would expel over 160 Russian diplomats in an act of solidarity with Britain, where former Russian spy Sergei Scripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a nerve gas of Russian origin.
  • The measures were discussed and agreed upon at the European Council Summit in Brussels on March 22-23. Ukraine is also expelling 13 diplomats, which is almost the entire staff of the Russian diplomatic mission to the country.
  • This unified Western response is unprecedented in both scale and level of coordination. The expulsions were implemented under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), denouncing the Russian diplomats in question as personas non grata. The measures don’t entail staff cuts, which means the expelled diplomats can be replaced by other Russians.
  • Russia has responded with “symmetrical measures”: it will expel 60 U.S. diplomats and shut down the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Other countries will face similar “mirror responses.”
  • It is noteworthy, however, that since 2000, the net count of expelled diplomats from Russia versus from Western countries (and a handful of former Soviet republics) falls heavily in Russia’s favor: 877 vs 319. Just last year, Russia expelled 775 U.S. diplomats in the largest cut of U.S. diplomatic staff in its history (RBC).

What does it mean?

How Moscow reads the news:

  • Andrey Kortunov, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC): “The U.S. reaction is much tougher… it is not symbolic, which may be related to the replacement of the Secretary of State and the negative reaction to Trump’s congratulating Putin on winning the elections. (Vedomosti)
  • Maxim Suchkov, RIAC: Expect the confrontation to spiral up leading to a flood of “measures and countermeasures.” On the shutting down of Russia’s consulate in Seattle: under the pretext of the “Skripal case,” the White House found a good excuse to resolve its concern about possible espionage in the proximity of a U.S. Navy base (RBC).
  • Konstantin Kosachev, Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee: Russia should respond with symmetrical measures to each country participating in the expulsion “until they wake up and get themselves together.” There is no point in expecting an apology for “this unprecendentedly dirty and sordid game” (Facebook).
  • Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia in Global Politics: This is the beginning of a “multilateral diplomatic war … Diplomacy is in crisis. Its purpose is to preserve communication channels even in the most difficult moments. What is happening today seems to be negating these very functions.” (Telegram)   

How independent experts interpret the situation:

  • Tatiana Stanovaya: This is the result of Russia’s growing “toxicity” and the West’s growing frustration with Russia’s unpredictable foreign policy. This geopolitical “toxicity” is perceived as foreign policy decisions (Ukraine, Syria, Russian trolls) that are spinning out of the Kremlin’s control. Expect more divisions and Russia’s deepening self-isolation (RBC).
  • Vladimir Frolov: Donald Trump may have finally changed his view on Russia as he now sees its policies as hostile—not just to the U.S. but to himself personally.
  • The White House demanded a policy correction from Moscow in order to continue cooperation, but this signal will be misread by the Kremlin, which is likely to interpret it as an ultimatum underpinned by the threat of regime change. The fact that this new approach is reminiscent of the U.S. stance on North Korea is hideous for Moscow.
  • It is not immediately clear whether Russian intelligence was behind the Skripal poisoning (“it would be extremely unprofessional”), but the dismissive, hysterical reaction by the Russian government surely made the situation much worse. If it were not Russia, the right response would be “condemnation, full cooperation at the top level and calm confidence in its rightness” (Republic).
  • Alexander Baunov: At the moment, Russia is in a more peaceful mood than the West (more so than in 2013-2015). The degree of confrontation is currently higher on the other side. The West initiated this response, but there are still many questions about the original trigger—the poisoning of Skripal. If Britain has evidence that it was Russia, why not publish it? If it doesn’t, how did it manage to persuade so many countries? There is a missing link here. (MBK Media)

One detail: 82 percent of Russians say they know of the Skripal poisoning, but only 3 percent believe that Russian intelligence was behind it. 38 percent think it was done by Russia’s adversaries (WCIOM).

 

  1. The Kemerovo Tragedy

On March 25, just one week after Putin’s reelection, a fire broke out at the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, killing at least 64 people, including 41 children.

  • It was the worst fire in Russia since 2009, when 156 people died at a nightclub in Perm.

What happened: Like the Perm fire, the deaths at Winter Cherry were a result of blocked exit routes, faulty fire alarms, poisonous gases emitted from prohibited construction materials, and a lack of knowledge among security to help evacuate the crowd.

  • Emotions ran high across social networks as relatives who were waiting for Kemerovo first responders to get into the burning mall received calls and messages from their children slowly suffocating inside. Hysteria spread at the lack of information about the tragedy—including skepticism about the death toll—and the delayed official response.
  • The public reaction aggravated as Putin did not declare a national mourning day until March 28. On the day prior, spontaneous memorial actions took place in many cities across Russia.   

Early lessons:

  • Negligence is the reason for this tragedy. When public administrators are corrupt, ineffective, and neglectful of the lower level bureaucracy, like in the case of Kemerovo, tragedies are doomed to be repeated. The state system of “collective security,” which Russians already know is inefficient, proved fatal. (Vedomosti)
  • Russians live in a third-world country. No state can totally prevent fires, but the key difference is that some have the infrastructure to minimize the number of victims. Kemerovo was a result of outdated construction materials, a prohibitive level of corruption and the perceived low price of human life. (Republic)
  • Ivan Davydov, journalist: Kemerovo wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. This tragedy is a typical story of bribes, slovenliness and greed. The news coverage in the state media is equally cynical, focusing on the greatness and wisdom of Putin, and quick to label Russia’s foreign enemies as potential suspects. Officials are prioritizing the slander of national enemies before their own people. (The New Times)
  • Maxim Trudolyubov, columnist: The people don’t believe the authorities, the authorities don’t believe the people. Because all communication in Russia comes along the “vertical of power,” it has been hammered in everyone’s head that trouble only comes from outside, from a foreign enemy; that responsibility can only move upwards [in the chain of command]; that information cannot be independent—it is always manipulated by someone. The Kemerovo tragedy exposed this vulnerability—not of the people, but of the authorities—to think within these lines. (Republic)  

What happens next?

  • Alexander Goltz, columnist: “The way officials reacted to this tragedy underscores that we are from a different world.” Any normal person would empathize with the horror that Kemerovo families experienced during the fire, but the lack of any human reaction from the local authorities, notably from the veteran governor Aman Tuleyev (who accused the victims’ families of self-promotion in the midst of tragedy), makes them Putin’s “wooden soldiers.” (The New Times)
  • Oksana Moroz, Russian Academy of Sciences: “Kemerovo is, perhaps, the most traumatic event for modern Russia.” Russians are realizing that no one is ready to take responsibility for their security in the public sphere, except themselves. In the wake of the tragedy, people have flocked to social networks for collective mourning. It’s the acknowledgement that the cause of the tragedy cannot be outsourced to a foreign power and that everyone is a potential victim. (Republic).

Of note: The day after the tragedy, journalist Yevgenia Albats called Russia “a country of revenants,” which she reasoned is the explanation for the tens of millions of people who voted for “unfreedom” in the March 18 presidential election. “Revenants do not seek a better future: for them the main thing is that it should not be worse… The conclusions are obvious.” (The New Times).

 

  1. The Landfill Upheaval

The protests regarding the dangerous emissions from the Yadrovo landfill in the city of Volokolamsk (Moscow Region) continued this week. 6,000 people (more than a quarter of the city population) went out to protest in Volokolamsk on March 29 demanding that the local authorities introduce a state of emergency in the city.

  • While even official numbers confirm that the level of hydrogen sulphide emissions is 10 times higher than the maximum allowable concentration, people who measured the emissions with their own devices claim that the level is in fact 87.5 times higher (Vedomosti).

The story:

  • The protests sparked in early March when, following a three-month-long struggle with the local administration about the quality of the air in the city, about 5,000 people took to the streets demanding that the Yadrovo landfill be shut down due to the high concentration of landfill gas emissions.
  • As a compromise, authorities introduced a state of emergency at the landfill. The problem deteriorated when on March 21, 57 children were hospitalized with gas poisoning symptoms. The head of the Volokolamsk district was forced to resign.
  • But the protests continued and spread to a few other Moscow Region districts where people likewise demanded the closure of local landfills. (RBC)

So what does it mean?

  • This is a case in which a local environmental crisis turned political. The real reason behind this crisis is money: the waste business has prospered in the last five years, especially so in Moscow Region (Novaya Gazeta).
  • People of Volokolamsk are self-organizing—they skip online petitions and are ready for live protests. They conduct their own investigations, spending their own money and time on this protest. They no longer ask for change—they demand it. “There is no more trust,” they say. This is real politics, something that is missing at the federal level (Novaya Gazeta).
  • NB: Igor Chaika, the younger son of Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, controls the largest waste recycling facility in Moscow Region, which recently became a client at the Yadrovo landfill (RBC).

In-depth:

  • Vladislav Inozemtsev, Centre for Research on Post-Industrial Societies: Operating landfill sites has become one of the most criminalized activities in Russia. The usual practice is to create them illegally and then deposit waste at their locations without any authorization. In 2016, 153,000 such sites were identified, with overall penalties for operating not exceeding 1 billion rubles, which showcases how small these penalties are (RBC).
  • Journalist Andrei Pertsev: the Volokolamsk protest exposed several systemic problems of the Russian power vertical—the inability of officials to communicate with the people and the practice of appointing heads of regions not from the local bureaucracy, which creates additional tensions. It also showcased that the power vertical is based on the principle “we don’t abandon our own” even at the expense of the ordinary people (Carnegie.ru).
  • Journalist Andrei Sinitsyn: The majority of Russian landfill sites were created in Soviet times and need to be modernized. The reform has been long overdue. Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities are all facing a waste-related crisis. Grassroots action is not something that the Kremlin wants, but given the current state of the power vertical, it has nothing to offer to the people except for geopolitical “victories” (Republic).

Dig deeper: Kommersant covers Russia’s waste reform in this detailed special project.

 

Other stories that mattered this week

 

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