Chanting “We’re in charge here!”, residents of Khabarovsk, a Russian city of 633,000 not far from the Chinese border, took to the streets for the 15th day on Saturday, July 25 in an effort to push Moscow to return to office their elected governor, Sergei Furgal, now awaiting trial in Moscow on murder charges, and to remove his Kremlin-appointed successor.
But at their core, Russian analysts interviewed by Current Time say, these demonstrations are not so much about the 50-year-old Furgal, dubbed “The People’s Governor,” but about a tug-of-war with the Kremlin over recognizing that Russia’s regions can handle their own affairs.
As of this week, the protests in Khabarovsk, which began shortly after Furgal’s July 10 detention, had become the largest in the area in decades. Police estimated the turnout at Khabarovsk’s July 25 morning demonstration at 6,500 people, but participants insisted that its real number was far larger.
The demonstrations, carried out twice on July 25 through the city center, build on years of frustration over a pull-of-war with Moscow over how much autonomy Russia’s regions should have from the central government. Following recent constitutional amendments that strengthened President Vladimir Putin’s powers, some analysts interpret the Khabarovsk protests as a political challenge to the Kremlin itself.
With that in mind, political analyst Leonid Gozman emphasized that, rather than the size of the turnout, what matters is whether these demonstrations, located seven time zones to the east of Moscow, in an area where Chinese, Japanese, and Korean influences run strong, resonate with other Russian regions.
“What’s important here is not how many people come out, but that people throughout Russia sympathize with them and not with the authorities,” commented Gozman, former head of the center-right opposition party Just Cause.
So far, the resonance has appeared to be relatively limited. In Moscow, police on July 25 detained 30 protesters rallying in front of the mayor’s office and another downtown location in solidarity with the Khabarovsk marchers. In the Pacific Ocean port city of Vladivostok, several hundred supporters came out to the streets, while in the Siberian city of Chita backers also gathered, claiming they were “feeding the pigeons.” Law enforcement reportedly did not intervene in any of these locations.
Regional elections scheduled for September 13, though, will show to what extent Khabarovsk’s complaints actually can spread beyond Russia’s Far East region, Gozman said. Voters nationwide will choose 18 different governors or regional administrative heads as well as deputies to regional and municipal assemblies and to the federal parliament, the State Duma. In the Far East, the Khabarovsk region, or “krai,” will not hold gubernatorial elections until 2021.
Gozman maintains that the vote will show “that the people of Khabarovsk have already won.” The protesters, he said, are not calling for higher salaries or an environmental cleanup, but for “human dignity” – a concept to which other Russians can relate, he believes.
But while various protests have broken out recently in Russia’s regions, they all have focused on site-specific issues: a garbage dump in Arkhangelsk or the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, cautioned independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
Moscow’s large-scale unauthorized protests in the summer of 2019 also focused on a local issue – the registration of non-government-aligned candidates in elections to the Moscow City Duma that became “a fight over rights.” Regional populations, though, perceived them as something for “Moscow eggheads,” he added.
Former Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, an outspoken Putin critic, though, believes that the Khabarovsk protesters could gain some national momentum if they focus more on regions’ longstanding demand that Moscow respect them as capable of governing themselves.
He also advised zeroing in on another familiar regional complaint – that the local tax money they gather goes directly to the central government, which, in turn, redistributes it to the regions.
“The regions should stop being the colonies of Moscow, where Moscow chooses who will rule,” Gudkov stressed.
By law, the independent outlet Meduza recently outlined, President Putin can dismiss an elected governor if he or she is has not performed up to par, is involved in corruption, a clash of interests, or had foreign financial interests when running for office.
As yet, none of those criteria fit Furgal, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, who was elected in 2018 with roughly 70 percent of the vote, defeating a candidate from the ruling United Russia party.
Political analyst Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program, contends that the Kremlin’s desire to show during the September elections that Khabarovsk Krai now tows the line is connected to Furgal’s arrest.
Following just a few months after the constitutional reform vote that strengthened Putin’s powers, Moscow will want to “give a signal to the regional elites” that “Moscow will no longer tolerate” those regional bosses who defy its will, Petrov claimed.
The Kremlin charges that Furgal allegedly was involved in the 2004-2005 murders of businessmen Yevgeny Zori and Oleg Bulatov and may be connected to attempted murders in Khabarovsk Krai and two other regions. Now held in pre-trial detention for two months in Moscow, he maintains his innocence.
On July 20, President Putin appointed Mikhail Degtyaryov, a 39-year-old lawyer and fellow member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), as Furgal’s temporary replacement.
Though protest banners declare “We voted for Furgal! We’re for justice!”, analyst Pavel Dubravsky cautioned that the protests are not so much about the former governor himself. Rather, he said, in their struggle to oust his replacement, Furgal has become a symbol for locals as “our guy.”
“These are people who are used to counting on themselves, and not on some uncle,” agreed independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
Degtyaryov, who reportedly had only visited Khabarovsk once before his appointment, is seen as “obviously not a local,” observed analyst Abbas Galyamov. He is known best for once proposing that the dollar and euro be barred from use within Russia.
The fact that Degtyaryov fired some of ex-Governor Furgal’s staff and replaced them “with his own people” only worsened the situation, reinforcing his image as “a Muscovite, who’s dragging in still more Muscovites,” he added.
“In essence,” continued Galyamov, in reference to the anti-Degtyaryov demonstrators, “this is the revolt of a teenager who’s grown up and no longer wants his parents to talk with him like with a child. He’s already become an adult.”
Although Degtyaryov going out to talk with protesters might reduce the tensions “a little,” said Oreshkin, no sign exists that the acting governor is considering that option.
Citing supposed police evidence, he has denounced the protests as stage-managed by unidentified “foreign citizens” and categorically refused to speak directly with the participants, stating that such an exchange would show “disrespect” to his office and that of President Putin.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has rejected the idea that the demonstrations are entirely coordinated from abroad, but, responding to a Kommersant FM reporter on July 24, commented that “quasi- and pseudo-opposition members, special hooligans, and so on, who feed on this, of course, flew in there.”
Among the public, Degtyaryov’s claims about foreign instigators appear only to have made him a target of mockery.
He spent July 25 assessing needs in the region’s municipalities, posting a video summary of his day’s work on his Instagram account. In response, at least one Instagram user sarcastically urged him to return to Khabarovsk because “foreign agents are stirring the waters, and you need to figure out what’s going on.”
Demonstrators in Khabarovsk also indicated on Saturday that they have bigger concerns in mind than his claims of alleged foreign intervention.
Said one young, green-haired woman carrying a placard that called for Putin’s resignation: “We want changes.”