Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated authority to such an extent that any form of mass public protest in Moscow is practically inconceivable these days. However, room for dissent exists in other regions of Russia.
A major environmental protest has reignited in recent weeks in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, a resource-rich autonomous republic in central Russia, situated between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. Protesters are opposing efforts by an Austrian-based global manufacturer of wood-based panels, Kronospan, to set up a plant in an Ufa suburb.
The plant is slated to make particleboard. Local residents worry that the plant’s heavy use of formaldehyde, a key element in the particleboard-making process, will result in the improper dumping of toxic waste and lead to a surge in health problems, including higher cancer rates, asthma and other lung-related health issues.
In addition, community outrage is growing over the way the company hastily obtained building permits for a large tract of land on the outskirts of Ufa that sits next to public housing units with national water protection status. Allegations of top-level corruption are widespread in this case.
“I cannot explain the reason for why senior officials would lobby for a disadvantageous investment project, which not only undermines federal law, but also goes against the orders of President Vladimir Putin,” said protest movement leader Pavel Ksenofontov in an interview with RIA Bashkortostan.
The roots of the protest go back to 2012 when Bashkir officials signed a $180-million investment agreement with Kronospan. Under the deal, the manufacturing plant was projected to begin operations in 2016, creating 250 new jobs. Reports surfaced later that Bashkir President Rustem Khamitov, who was appointed by Putin in 2010, promised tax incentives and a convenient site in Ufa for the factory.
Peaceful opposition demonstrations started early last summer after the city government granted construction permits while bypassing an environmental-impact assessment, which is federally mandated under the Urban Development Code of the Russian Federation. What began as a small sit-in protest eventually drew thousands. The protests helped attract the attention of federal authorities who in August ordered a halt to the project until it was in compliance with existing legislation.
A Greenpeace inquiry to the environmental procurator’s office in Ufa confirmed that Kronospan did not obtain the necessary documentation to begin construction. A further investigation revealed shady proceedings that raised questions about the implementation of mandated ecological safety measures. It was revealed that the “state-of-the-art equipment” secured for the Ufa factory was obtained from a facility in England owned by Portugal-headquartered Sonae Industria that closed after a series of fires. In addition, it was discovered that Kronospan had been repeatedly prosecuted for exceeding permitted emissions of formaldehyde, according to the Independent Center for Environmental Protection, a Romanian non-governmental organization.
In November, President Putin weighed in on the legal dispute and assigned his envoy for the Volga-Ural region, Mikhail Babich, to head a commission to review the investment agreement between Bashkortostan and Kronospan, as well as to assess the economic and ecological ramifications of the project. The move was considered a win for the protestors.
In light of the recent protests, it appears Kronospan and regional officials may be trying to circumvent federal legislation once again. Despite Bashkir President Khamitov’s assurances to activists that plant construction would not begin again until state experts conducted a thorough environmental review, Kronospan received new building permits in April from the architecture and urban planning office in Ufa.
Bulldozers accompanied by police returned to the work site to restart construction, compelling local residents to organize the second wave of protests. Cold weather did not stop dozens of people from packing together in an attempt to block the dump trucks. Amateur footage shows one demonstration that resulted in multiple arrests. Those detained faced hefty fines up to one hundred thousand rubles.
A few days after the incident, Bashkir President Khamitov announced that full-scale construction of the Kronospan factory would begin over the summer. Protestors continue to question the legality of the decision and legitimacy of the review.
Most recently, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan ruled that a court in Ufa’s Leninsky District must consider a lawsuit filed against state experts in February by activists seeking the cancellation of the Kronospan project. Emboldened by their legal victory, activists intend to continue their battle in court, as well as organize further protests.
Peter J. Marzalik is an independent analyst of Islamic affairs in the Russian Federation.