Environmental Issues Drive Russians to Demand More of Their Leaders?

A recent opinion poll [ru] by VTsIOM (The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion) found that more and more Russians are concerned about the state of the environment in the country, with 56% of Russians saying they believe the environmental situation is currently bad and 9% saying that the situation is close to catastrophic. The head of VTsIOM presented these findings to Prime Minister Medvedev during the latter’s recent visit to Irkutsk. While there, the Prime Minister announced that the government would be shutting down the Baikal pulp and paper mill within the next two years, due to local concerns about the environment.

Meanwhile, in Voronezh, a group of protestors has banded together to oppose a proposed nickel mining project, claiming that mining in this area would damage both the environment and the agricultural industry.

In May 2012, a tender was granted to an opaque company called “Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company” (OAO UGMK) for the right to mine what are thought to be the last undeveloped nickel deposits in Europe. UGMK says it plans to invest 50 billion rubles ($1.53 billion) in developing two deposits. However, it is facing opposition from locals concerned about the impact on agriculture and the environment.

Over the last year, “Save Khoper” [ru] has held a series of protests to bring attention to the cause against the mining project. On Saturday, June 22, 2013, the latest demonstration turned violent [ru], after a splinter group of protestors set fire to two drill rigs and other geological survey equipment (see video below).

One person commented [ru] on the video:

Ребята я живу в Норильске, у нас идет добыча меди и никеля, город очень грязный, все выбросы газа попадают в город с ветром, земля выжжена. Наживаются на этом Потанин и Дерипаска. Отстаивайте свою землю для детей ваших.

Guys, I live in Norilsk, we have copper and nickel mines, the city is very dirty, all the gas emissions fall into the city with the wind, [and] the earth is scorched. Potanin and Deripaska are cashing in on this. Defend your land for your children.

Police arrested 25 people they said were involved in the violence, and held them for 10 hours with no explanation or legal representation. Hours later, police released everyone [ru], but said that they expect all to report back on June 26.

After the incident on June 22, Russia's Investigative Committee posted on its website a statement declaring its intention to conduct an inquiry into both the violence and the protest that precipitated it:

Следственный комитет тщательно разберется в событиях, произошедших в Новохоперском районе Воронежской области 22 июня 2013 года. В том числе следователи будут выяснять причины, из-за которых около тысячи местных жителей вышли на митинг, чтобы выразить свое несогласие со строительством никелевого предприятия.

The Investigative Committee will carefully sort out the events that occurred in the Novokhopersky region of Voronezh on June 22, 2013. In particular, investigators will find out the reason why nearly 1,000 local residents staged a rally to express their opposition to the construction of a nickel enterprise.

Back in Irkutsk, Medvedev announced he does not see anything bad about the increase in the number of Russians who are concerned about the country's environment. “This also means that these people have started attaching much importance to these issues. Society is becoming more demanding,” he said.

If Prime Minister Medvedev is right, and Russian society is demanding more of its leaders, then how will that leadership respond? The coming days in Voronezh Oblast may hold the answer.

Note: if you want a longer background on the situation in Voronezh in English, please see this excellent piece by Mark Bennetts in OpenDemocracy.

The thumbnail image for this post features one of the fires set by protesters outside Voronezh, on June 22, 2013, in a screenshot from YouTube.

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