Staunton, November 2 – In the last decades of Soviet power, environmental protests were often the first stage toward more radical political movements. Because protecting the environment was superficially apolitical and attracted a wide variety of people, such protests allowed activists to acquire skills they later deployed in other, more political ways.
Many have wondered whether environmental protests in Russia now like those in Shiyes against the Moscow trash dump plan and in Bashkortostan in opposition to the despoiling of a symbolically important monument could play a similar role. (See Mari-Ann Kelam’s comments on what happened in Estonia in region.expert/mari-ann/).
And because of that possibility and the fact that the Internet works as an accelerator of this transformation, Tatyana Chestina, head of the EKA Environmental Movement, says, Moscow has been taking steps to prevent it (7×7-journal.ru/articles/2020/11/02/ekologicheskaya-povestka-obedinyaet-lyudej-s-raznymi-vzglyadami-lider-ekodvizheniya-eka-tatyana-chestina-o-politizacii-protesta-pobedah-na-shiese-i-kushtau-i-trende-na-ekopotreblenie).
During perestroika times, the activist says, “green protests” became the first independent mass efforts. These were headlined by the successful opposition by Russians to the plans of some in the government to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers in order to provide water to the Central Asian republics.
The environment matters to everyone, she continues. In 2000, when the Putin regime did away with the State Committee on Ecology, acting on the assumption that its regulations got in the way of economic development, activists collected “three million signatures” on a petition against this move – and did so without the help of the social networks which exist now.
Now, whenever environmental protests break out, the Russian authorities not only harass participants and especially leaders but prepare hostile articles that they succeed in placing at the top of Google searches lest the reports of the activist have the effect of mobilizing larger groups in the population, Chestina says.
That is one of the two things the powers that be fear, the development of empathy and support for environmental activism by people who live far from and may never have been in Siberia, the Transbaikal or Kamchatka. The other is that the protesters will recognize that they must become political to be successful.
For example, when the Shiyes protests began, participants insisted that they weren’t interested in having anything to do with politics. But “over the course of two years, the situation has changed.” Participants sought to nominate candidates who supported them and cast protest votes when there was no other possibility. “People understand that there are systemic problems.”
One thing that is further increasing the politicization of environmental protests, Chestina argues, is the emergence of allies within the government. “For me, the state is not a monolith.” The Accounting Chamber is supportive and activists can work with it against other parts of the state that remain more corrupt and hostile to the environment.
And another factor working toward the politicization of environmental activism, she adds, is that participants are sharing experiences with each other online, connecting the dots, and concluding that only a change in the Russian political system will allow them to achieve their goal of protecting the environment.
Window on Eurasia — New Series