KHABAROVSK, Russia -- Russian law enforcement have questioned a Khabarovsk activist for the first time since mass protests broke out in the Far East region two weeks ago following the arrest of the local governor.
Meanwhile, the new acting governor has refused to meet with protesters, saying doing so would be disrespectful to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Khabarovsk police on July 23 summoned local activist Artyom Mozgov for questioning on suspicion of organizing an unsanctioned mass rally on July 11 in support of Governor Sergei Furgal, who was arrested days before on charges of murder and attempted murder.
Local residents have rallied for 13 consecutive days to protest the arrest, accusing Moscow of removing their popularly elected governor on political grounds.
The Khabarovsk rallies have attracted thousands of people on the weekends and are the largest protests in the Far Eastern city since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Such large, spontaneous demonstrations far from the Russian capital are a rare public show of defiance against the Kremlin and follow on the heels of a controversial nationwide vote that set the stage for Putin to remain in power until 2036. The protests have unnerved Moscow.
Putin, though, has remained firm, officially firing Furgal on July 20 and appointing Mikhail Degtyaryov as his acting replacement. Local residents have given Degtyaryov a cold welcome since his arrival on July 21, protesting outside the government building the past three days.
More than 100 demonstrators gathered on the central square in front of the regional administration office in Khabarovsk on July 23, chanting "Degtyaryov! Come out!" and "We are the power here!"
Degtyaryov told journalists earlier in the day that he was not going to meet the protesters.
"I will not come out... It is disrespectful. Disrespect to myself, to the president [Putin] for whom the majority of Russians voted, and mostly it is disrespect toward [the protesters] themselves. Those who do such things, they do not respect themselves," Degtyaryov said.
Khabarovsk Krai residents overwhelmingly voted for Furgal, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), in the 2018 gubernatorial elections. His surprise victory was a blow to the ruling United Russia party.
After picketing the administration building, the protesters marched across the city, chanting slogans denouncing Degtyaryov as more and more people joined them. Police did not interfere.
On July 21, two local lawmakers, Pyotr Yemelyanov and Aleksandr Kayan, quit the LDPR to protest Furgal’s dismissal from office. Both Furgal and Degtyaryov are members of that party.
Furgal, who was arrested in Khabarovsk on July 9 and transferred to Moscow, is charged with attempted murder and ordering two murders in 2004-2005. He denies the allegations.
Authorities have been unnerved by the protests, with the regional capital's mayor calling for calm and saying such rallies were illegal and could help accelerate the spread of the coronavirus.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) had also warned of an alleged terrorist threat involving explosives, which it claimed to have already foiled.
In addition, the authorities in Khabarovsk region said they were considering a return to strict quarantine measures and attributed this to the “difficult situation with the spread of coronavirus infection.”