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'The Kremlin Is Shocked': Moscow Scrambles For A Response As Protests Rock Russia's Far East

Protesters hold a banner reading "I'm/We're Furgal" as they attend a mass rally in support of Governor Sergei Furgal in Khabarovsk on July 16.
Protesters hold a banner reading "I'm/We're Furgal" as they attend a mass rally in support of Governor Sergei Furgal in Khabarovsk on July 16.

MOSCOW -- In September 2018, residents of Khabarovsk Krai, a Russian region bordering China, voted overwhelmingly for a governor not allied with the ruling party. Sergei Furgal, a former scrap-metal trader, won the election on a wave of discontent over falling wages and a hugely unpopular pension reform that raised the retirement age by five years.

Routing incumbent Vyacheslav Shport by winning nearly 70 percent in a runoff vote, Furgal celebrated a victory that dealt a humiliating defeat to a candidate endorsed by President Vladimir Putin and caused heads to turn in Moscow.

Some said that by challenging Shport, Furgal broke a promise he had made to the Kremlin: that he refrain from campaigning and accept a position in Shport’s cabinet instead. Once in office, he faced a dogged state TV campaign to blacken his name, and the kind of backstage jockeying for his ouster that may eventually have led to his downfall.

The Kremlin is shocked. No one knows how to react.”
-- Political analyst Abbas Galyamov

“They crossed a red line," a source in Putin’s administration told the Vedomosti newspaper at the time, in reference to the deceptively named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a nationalist outfit usually loyal to the Kremlin, which fielded Furgal in the election. "They've turned into the [real] opposition -- and may now share its fate."

A week ago, those warnings appeared to come true. Less than two years into his term, Furgal was arrested and whisked off on July 10 to Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo jail, where he awaits trial on charges of organizing the murders of two businessmen and the attempted murder of another in 2004-05. He has pleaded not guilty, and supporters have questioned why the charges took 15 years to surface.

The following day, cities across Khabarovsk Krai were rocked by the largest protests witnessed in the region since the Soviet collapse in 1991, with an estimated 30,000 people marching through the streets of the regional capital, Khabarovsk, and demanding Furgal’s release. The protests have continued daily and featured anti-Putin slogans, leaving Moscow scrambling to gauge the right response.

Sergei Furgal
Sergei Furgal

The situation was “emotionally very resonant,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on July 14, warning that protests could aid the spread of the coronavirus. And Russian state TV has been conspicuously tight-lipped about the Khabarovsk rallies, which have provoked smaller protest events in other parts of the country’s Far East.

“The Kremlin is shocked,” said Abbas Galyamov, a political analyst based in Moscow. “No one knows how to react.”

In The East

It’s Moscow that is traditionally viewed as Russia’s bastion of opposition sentiment, not the distant, industrial Far East. Regions on the country’s sprawling eastern flank are often reliant on central subsidies, and grudgingly accustomed to getting the short end of the stick. But mass protests there are rare, with grievances aired more commonly in private than on the streets.

But this time may be different, analysts say.

A June 25-July 1 vote that cemented a set of controversial changes to Russia’s constitution, including one enabling Putin to seek two more six-year terms as president, has contributed to a sense that people’s political choices are being ignored. The arrest of a popular governor has served as a catalyst for an expression of that sentiment in the form of protest rallies.

Furgal is seen on a screen during a court hearing in Moscow on July 16.
Furgal is seen on a screen during a court hearing in Moscow on July 16.

“This is not a protest city, like Moscow or St. Petersburg,” Zyoma Kulikov, one of the protesters in Khabarovsk, told RFE/RL. “But I’ll keep coming here until Furgal is brought back and given an open, jury trial here in Khabarovsk.”

Crowd size in Khabavorsk has dwindled since the record turnout on July 11, with several hundred people protesting outside the regional administration each evening. But Sergei, a local builder who declined to give his last name because he feared repercussions for speaking out, said the mood was combative ahead of a major rally planned for July 18.

“We’re doing everything for Moscow to hear us, for Putin to hear us,” he said. “They say there are fewer and fewer of us each day, but this weekend, people will come in droves.”

Last summer, crowds numbering in the tens of thousands protested in Moscow over the exclusion of independent candidates from elections to the city council. The police reacted with a show of force and a subsequent campaign of legal prosecutions in which several people were sentenced to prison on charges they denied or said were substantially overblown.

This week, on July 15, a smaller rally in Moscow against the amendment that could extend Putin’s rule featured chants of “Khabarovsk, we’re with you!” and banners displaying Furgal’s name. Some 140 protesters were detained in a sometimes violent police clampdown shortly after the main event ended.

Moscow Police Detain Nearly 150 At Protests Against Constitutional Change
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But as protests in Khabarovsk continued, there have been few signs of a similarly forceful response by the authorities. Instead, the rallies appear to have baffled a local law enforcement mechanism unused to handling anything of the sort.

Kremlin 'Flummoxed'

“The protest reached such a scale that the authorities are flummoxed,” said Galyamov. “That’s why law enforcement is acting with such restraint. It’s unclear how people will react to arrests. They may be like a red rag to a bull.”

Few predict the protests will spark a revolution that topples Putin’s two-decade rule. But after years of falling real wages and minimal support from the state during a pandemic that continues to sicken thousands of Russians each day, some analysts say that Khabarovsk is a harbinger of more unrest to come.

“Furgal’s trajectory tells us much more about tectonic processes at work in Russian politics and society than anything specifically to do with him,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote in a recent column. “You worry less about not having so loud a political voice when times are good, but recent years have not been that.”

Galeotti argues the protests are another symbol of the gradual “decline of Putinism.” For residents of Khabarovsk, demonstrations are a release valve for anger over economic stagnation, job losses, and a widespread sense that their voices just aren’t being heard.

“It is not that this will bring Putin down so much as that it becomes a symbol of the ossification and alienation of Late Putinism,” he wrote.

With reporting from Khabarovsk by Yekaterina Khasina of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service
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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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