KHABAROVSK, Russia -- In this remote Russian city near the border with China, political protests have become a daily ritual. On weekday evenings, dozens of people march along the main road, cursing the Kremlin as cars swerve past and amused passersby take photos. On Saturdays, a carnivalesque mood takes over with thousands treading a circuit around the city center, chanting, "We need the support of the whole country!"
The arrest on July 9 of the region's popular governor, Sergei Furgal, sparked an unexpected outpouring of public anger that has persisted ever since, gradually shifting in focus from Furgal's arrest to a denunciation of President Vladimir Putin's continued rule and, while dwindling in size, laying the foundations for a political movement the Kremlin may struggle to rein in.
"Putin has turned Russia into a pariah state," Aleksei Libatov, a Khabarovsk native employed in logistics, said at a recent protest. "And Khabarovsk should become the root of a new political system."
Two years after a controversial pension reform that accelerated a decline in Putin's approval ratings, Russia's Far East as a whole continues to whir with a palpable undercurrent of discontent. Ahead of regional elections on September 13, Libatov and other protesters hope to set an example for voters in other parts of Russia that desire change.
Amid falling real wages and economic stagnation compounded by fallout from Russia's devastating coronavirus crisis, few expected the city of Khabarovsk to become the hotbed of protest; the surrounding region of Khabarovsk lies seven time zones and 6,500 kilometers from Moscow, a physical distance that compounds the sense of detachment from Russia's capital. But a widespread sense that Moscow has not addressed protesters' demands has prompted many to keep coming out till it does.
"There's a sense of resentment, that no one needs us, and all this spills out in the protests," said Ildus Yarulin, a professor of politics at Pacific Ocean State University in Khabarovsk. "A process of political maturation is taking place among those who join them."
In September 2018, the Khabarovsk region voted overwhelmingly for former scrap-metal trader Furgal, dealing a humiliating defeat to a candidate backed by the ruling United Russia party. It was the expression of a democratic choice cherished by a local population that feels neglected by Moscow -- so when Furgal was pulled from his SUV in July and whisked to the capital charged with ordering a slew of murders he denies involvement in, voters in Khabarovsk felt robbed of their chosen leader and now increasingly feel ignored by the political center.
But it was Putin's appointment on July 20 of a replacement governor, Mikhail Degtyaryov, that tied the Russian leader personally to Furgal's downfall and incensed a protest movement that had initially avoided citing the president's name. Among activists in Khabarovsk, the bumbling and uncouth Degtyaryov became an object of ridicule that only exacerbated their sense that Moscow cared little about their views.
"They've been silent for two months, acting as if we don't exist," Andrei Botal, an amateur musician from Khabarovsk, said of the Kremlin. "It shouldn't be that way."
On September 5, Botal, 50, headed up a column of several thousand people, playing on his guitar a song -- titled There Will Be More Of Us -- that he penned to reinvigorate the protest movement. Botal, like others who came out that day, acknowledged the dangers of participating in what Russian law deems an illegal event, but said the rare feeling of unity trumped the risks.
"There is joy about the fact that people are united, and speaking with one voice," he said. "But there's also fear about what might happen. We know how the authorities may react."
Indeed, while the rallies have not been broken up by police, many outspoken or high-profile participants have been fined or arrested. According to the mayor's office, at least 170 civil lawsuits have been launched for participation in the unsanctioned protests, and 22 people have been detained since July 11.
Against the backdrop of a political crisis in Belarus, what spooks the Kremlin most about the ongoing unrest in Khabarovsk is that it coincides with local elections that the opposition has succeeded in turning into a contested political event, and one that threatens United Russia’s stranglehold on regional politics.
Residents in 23 of Russia's regions will go to the polls to elect local governors and parliament deputies - Khabarovsk will not be one of them, but its protests are fueling tensions ahead of the vote. Last year, it was the Khabarovsk region that demonstrated its potential as a force of political disruption -- United Russia suffered a big loss in the region, with Furgal's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party recording a landslide victory and the ruling party only winning two seats in its 35-seat parliament.
The authorities appear to be taking no chances. This week, the Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the offices of opposition groups across Russia. In Novosibirsk, two assailants threw a glass jar containing a foul-smelling chemical liquid into a room where activists were training election monitors for the upcoming vote, causing two people to fall ill.
In Khabarovsk, the local chapter of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has opted to play the long game, choosing not to try and head up the protest movement but rather monitor carefully the sentiments that underpin it. Aleksei Vorsin, its 32-year-old head, was recently released after serving 10 days in jail for urging a general strike at a protest on August 15. He concedes that Saturday turnout has fallen but insists Khabarovsk will not settle down.
"I had said that if we don't find a new form of protest, then it'll fade. But protest moods will remain into the future," he told RFE/RL in an interview. "Putin has lost Khabarovsk forever."
The Khabarovsk protests have in many ways subsumed the agendas of other popular movements and events that have dominated the news cycle in Russia. Navalny, convalescing in a Berlin hospital after being poisoned in Russia with what Germany says was a Soviet-produced military-grade nerve agent, features on posters carried in Khabarovsk. Mass protests in Belarus, now into their second month, are cited here as an example to follow.
For many protesters, the huge rally of July 27, when an estimated 60,000 gathered in Khabarovsk and other cities in the region, seems a distant memory. Recent weeks have seen several thousand at most take up their banners and take to the city center. But few, despite the drop in turnout, believe the anger that fuels it will abate.
"The protest is now smoldering, like a peat bog still aflame. For now there's still a visible fire, but the widespread sense of discontent is being internalized," Yarulin said. "And this discontent will soon become a major political challenge."