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Garbage Grenades: Activists Say Police Raids Aimed At Laying Waste To Landfill Protests

A truck dumps garbage at the Yadrovo site outside Moscow.
A truck dumps garbage at the Yadrovo site outside Moscow.

KOLOMNA, Russia -- Maksim Chernykh was on his way to work one morning earlier this month when he got a frantic phone call from his mother. A dozen police officers were standing at the gate outside their house, she told him, saying they had a search warrant. Chernykh didn't make it to work that day.

The police didn't spend much time searching the house in the Moscow region village of Stepanshchino on February 7, Chernykh recalled. After what he called a perfunctory examination, they said they needed to see the other buildings on the property. Ignoring various sheds, they headed almost directly to the banya and, after that, announced they needed to check a snow-covered wood pile on the other side of the fence behind the sauna.

"They went straight there and spent quite a long time there," Chernykh told RFE/RL. At one point, they asked Chernykh to fetch a shovel to remove the snow. After some searching, the officers claimed to have found two hand grenades. Chernykh is under investigation.

Chernykh says the grenades were not his. He is being harassed by the authorities because of his vocal opposition to a controversial trash-incineration plant the government plans to build in Svistyagino, some 3 kilometers away from Stepanshchino, he says.

Stepanshchino activist Mikhail Chernykh
Stepanshchino activist Mikhail Chernykh

A week earlier, on January 31, law enforcement officials searched the homes of 14 activists working against the project in the nearby city of Kolomna. The early morning raids were part of an investigation into charges of "repeatedly violating the regulations on public events."

"The police were interested in data drives, documents related to the [No Dump in Kolomna] initiative group, and the newspaper published by [opposition politician and former Duma Deputy] Dmitry Gudkov," according to the No Dump in Kolomna group.

A criminal case was filed against activist Vyacheslav Yegorov, who is under house arrest facing charges of organizing unsanctioned protests via social media. In September, Yegorov told RFE/RL that police had threatened him with "a three-year term, like [Ildar] Dadin got."

Playing Hardball

Dadin was arrested in December 2015 and sentenced to three years in prison for repeatedly participating in one-person protests, becoming the first person prosecuted under a 2014 law banning repeated violations of the law on public assemblies. In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the law should only apply to people who endanger others or property while participating in unsanctioned protests.

"By opening this case against Yegorov, the Investigative Committee of Moscow Oblast is publicly spitting in the face of the Constitutional Court," human rights activist Alla Frolova told RFE/RL. Yegorov "is a public citizen of Kolomna who has lived and worked there his entire life."

Vyacheslav Yegorov
Vyacheslav Yegorov

Moscow-based rights activist Lev Ponomaryov says the authorities are moving aggressively from charging activists with relatively minor administrative violations and punishing them with fines or short jail terms to using the 2014 law to file serious criminal charges punishable by real prison sentences.

When opposition politician Aleksei Navalny organized national protests against raising retirement ages in September, Ponomaryov says, the authorities responded by "illegally" arresting organizers and "fabricating administrative cases against them."

"This was a perfectly working machine of administrative political repression," he says, "and society barely reacted. So they have moved on to mass criminal political repressions. We are now at the beginning of these repressions."

Moscow's Waste Problem Goes National

Protests against solid-waste-disposal plans swept Russia in 2018, particularly after March 21, when dozens of children in the Moscow region town of Volokolamsk were hospitalized with suspected poisoning caused by noxious gases emanating from a local landfill. Several thousand people turned out for a demonstration there in early April.

Nationally, Russia recycles just 4 percent of its waste. Moscow, with less than 10 percent of Russia's population, generates about 20 percent of its solid waste, according to government statistics.

About 90 percent of that waste is sent to landfills in the surrounding region. Many of those landfills have exceeded their planned capacity but continue to receive shipments from the capital. Government plans to ship large quantities of Moscow's garbage by train to a vast new landfill in Arkhangelsk Oblast have been met with anger from locals there.

In January, Putin ordered the government to develop a national system of waste disposal and a national oversight agency called Russian Ecological Operator before the end of 2019. Activists say the government's planning is opaque and the concerns of local residents are systematically ignored.

On February 3, thousands of protesters in about 30 Russian regions took to the streets in a national demonstration under the slogan "Russia is not a dump."

WATCH: Protests against waste disposal sites in Russia have prompted a wave of police raids. Protesters say they're being targeted for raising legitimate environmental concerns.

Wave Of Police Raids Amid Russia's Trash Protests
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Kolomna -- a city of some 145,000 people about 100 kilometers southeast of Moscow -- threatens to become the next problem for the Kremlin. It is within a dozen kilometers of an existing landfill at Volovichi, a planned new landfill at Myachkovo, and the planned waste-incineration plant at Stepanshchino.

Moreover, it is the hometown of Gudkov, a charismatic and experienced liberal politician with a national reputation.

"Imagine a pile of garbage taller than the Kolomna kremlin," he tells RFE/RL, explaining that the Myachkovo plan calls for the accumulation of garbage to a depth of more than 40 meters over nine years. "And the waste incinerator will affect all of Kolomna and all of Voskresensk. It will be an ecological catastrophe.

"We have created a platform, sort of an ecological Uber, that serves all residents of the Kolomna and Voskresensk regions," he continues. "We have more than 2,000 members.... Our goal is to gather 10,000 and then we will call a protest demonstration."

"We have got the whole city listening to us," he adds. "And what can [the authorities] offer in response? Only repressions, because there can be no dialogue with residents. They have no intention of changing their plans to build the incinerator, and they are not going to close any landfills.

"But the people are defending their health, their lives. They don't want to breath dioxins. What the government is offering is just that we should all die of cancer or some other illness. It will be worse here than in Volokolamsk if the authorities don't start talking to us."

Protesters rally against waste disposal in Kolomna in April 2018.
Protesters rally against waste disposal in Kolomna in April 2018.

Kolomna resident Roman Nalyotov says the city is wondering "to what lengths the authorities will go to stop this."

"No one knows what they will burn in that plant or what will be released into the atmosphere," he adds. "And that worries me. My child has to live here, and I want him to live in somewhat better conditions. I think that is reason enough to protest."

Svetlana Yakunina is a Kolomna resident who has a dacha about a kilometer from the Volovichi landfill.

"No matter what, people are going to do whatever they can [to protect themselves]," she tells RFE/RL. "But when the authorities use such forceful methods, things get scary.... For 15 activists who are fighting to get the truth out, they mobilized 100 police officers."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Ivan Voronin of RFE/RL's Russian Service. Alina Pinchuk of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report from Moscow