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The Week In Russia: Trolling Khabarovsk And Other Tales Of A New Era

People carry a banner reading "Freedom for Furgal!", during a rally in support of the ex-governor in Khabarovsk on July 18.
People carry a banner reading "Freedom for Furgal!", during a rally in support of the ex-governor in Khabarovsk on July 18.

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President Vladimir Putin's response to protests in the Far East fails to please, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov revels in a promotion while a gulag historian is sentenced on charges he denies. Also, three-day votes loom as a fixture of the future, a long-term legacy of Putin's successful push to secure a possible 12-year extension of his rule amid the coronavirus crisis.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Bombs And Trolls

Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has been accused of "bombing Voronezh." Now it faces charges of trolling Khabarovsk.

The first term, in case you haven't heard it, refers to a phenomenon in which the Russian authorities take action meant to punish the West, say, in response to sanctions, but end up arguably hitting their own people instead.

Bombing Voronezh, of course, is meant figuratively, while accusations of trolling Khabarovsk can be taken literally.

They refer to the Kremlin's response to persistent, daily protests over the July 9 arrest of the now former regional governor, Sergei Furgal, who is accused of involvement in two murders and an attempted murder in 2004-05 -- charges whose timing, at least, is suspected by many of the voters who elected him in a landslide over the Kremlin-backed incumbent in 2018 to be politically motivated.

An undercurrent of the protests is a long-standing feeling of abandonment at the hands of the central government, now brought closer to the surface by the arrest of a regional leader who, whatever his past, won an election less than two years ago -- the feeling, which led to the large Moscow-centered protests in 2011-12 -- that one's vote at best doesn't count and at worst has been stolen.

In more concrete terms, the protesters' demands have included Furgal's release, a fair trial in Moscow -- and, in some cases, Putin's resignation.

Instead, Putin replaced Furgal with a politician who is from the same party, flamboyant firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), but whose knowledge of the sprawling region almost as close to Hawaii as it is to Moscow, more than 6,000 kilometers away, may have come mainly -- by his own admission -- from some cramming he did on the seven-hour flight from the capital.

The new acting governor, Mikhail Degtyaryov, is known largely for splashy legislative initiatives that may go beyond what Putin and the ruling United Russia party are ready to impose on Russians -- the kind of trial balloons Zhirinovsky and the LDPR have let loose repeatedly in almost two decades as what observers call a convenient foil for the Kremlin.

A Cold Bath

He has done little or nothing to engage with the protesters, whose demonstrations have in some cases been unprecedented in size for a provincial city in post-Soviet Russia. He turned aside an opportunity to come out and speak to demonstrators outside his office on July 23, arguing that to do so would be "disrespectful" to himself, to Putin, and -- somehow -- to the protesters themselves.

He did, however, seek advice from journalists -- while chewing on a meat pie and sipping from a coffee mug -- about where to go in Khabarovsk for a steam bath.

Putin's pick for acting governor, Mikhail Degtyaryov, has not gone over well in Khabarovsk.
Putin's pick for acting governor, Mikhail Degtyaryov, has not gone over well in Khabarovsk.

And with more rallies planned for the weekend, he said he would be leaving town because he is eager to travel around the region.

Trolling is putting it mildly, according to activist Olga Bulgakova. Degtyaryov's appointment was "not simply trolling" on Putin's part, she wrote on Facebook, it was "an act of humiliation."

Speaking of trolling, though, the Kremlin-backed Chechen region chief Ramzan Kadyrov was at it this week, disinviting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the United States imposed new sanctions on Kadyrov and his family over what Pompeo said were "his involvement in gross violations of human rights."

The United States has "extensive credible information that Kadyrov is responsible for numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings," Pompeo aid in a statement, adding that Washington "is committed to using all the tools at our disposal to ensure accountability for those who engage in this abhorrent behavior."

Kadyrov initially responded with what may also have been trolling, inviting Pompeo to visit his "very beautiful" home village in Chechnya and adding, "Let's see who violates what rights," a remark that could be interpreted as a promise to try to prove such accusations wrong -- or, possibly, as a veiled threat.

The Very Model?

In any case, Kadyrov withdrew the invitation two days later and lashed out at Pompeo, stating that he would impose countermeasures -- including, bizarrely, freezing any bank accounts the U.S. secretary of state might happen to have in Chechnya.

"They did the same against me," said Kadyrov, who also aired a baseless conspiracy claim so ridiculous that to describe it would be irresponsible.

Ramzan Kadyrov gets promoted again.
Ramzan Kadyrov gets promoted again.

His outburst came the same day he announced that Putin had granted him the rank of a military major general.

Kadyrov posted a photo on social media of Putin's decree -- which he had framed -- and also said he had been transferred from the Interior Ministry to the National Guard, which was created by Putin in 2016 and has been described as his "Praetorian guard," a force for potential use against his own compatriots.

Kadyrov had already held the rank of major general in the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and the shift seemed mainly if not entirely symbolic. But it will do nothing to change the minds of Kremlin critics who say that while Kadyrov often publicly professes his loyalty to Putin, in reality it may be the other way around.

It was Kadyrov, though, who took another opportunity to pledge fidelity to Putin, declaring himself "a "faithful soldier of our president" who is "ready to carry out any order of whatever complexity on any continent."

Again, on one level, that's a straightforward statement. On another level -- given the number of critics or Kadyrov or the Kremlin who have been killed or attacked abroad, including a Chechen vlogger who was seeking asylum in Austria and was shot dead there on July 4 -- it could be interpreted as a sinister remark or a potential threat.

If Kadyrov's framed decree seems to provide a hint about the type of person the Kremlin values, the fate of gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev, his supporters suggest, points to at least one kind of citizen who is not appreciated in Putin's government: those who seek to uncover facts that may conflict with the prevailing historical narrative, particularly when it comes to the Soviet era and World War II.

Following a four-year prosecution punctuated by an acquittal -- after which the authorities added a new charge and tried him again -- Dmitriyev, 64, was convicted on July 22 of violent sexual abuse against his adopted daughter, one of several charges that he consistently denied.

Sentence Structure

As in almost all Russian trials in the past 20 years in which the defendants or their supporters have contended that the charges are politically motivated -- and there have been a lot of them -- the vanishingly low acquittal rate means that with a guilty verdict all but certain, the brighter spotlight was on the sentence.

Prosecutors asked for 15 years, and Dmitriyev was sentenced to 3 1/2 years, which his lawyer said meant he could be free by November if time served is taken into account.

In a way, in the compromised circumstances in which acquittals are nearly nonexistent in politically charged trials, the sentence could be seen as a victory for Dmitriyev and his supporters, or at least as evidence that beneath the veneer of the guilty verdict, the state knows it is wrong.

Should Yury Dmitriyev see his sentence as a victory of sorts?
Should Yury Dmitriyev see his sentence as a victory of sorts?

But that doesn't change the fact that Dmitriyev has been convicted of a heinous crime despite what Human Rights Watch called circumstances that "strongly suggest" the charges "are spurious and target him for his human rights work."

The ruling handed down this week may not be the end of it: Prosecutors have vowed to file an appeal against the sentence, arguing that it is too short.

Also too short, apparently, in the altered Russia that is taking shape after constitutional changes enabling Putin to run for two more six-year terms after 2024: one-day elections.

The Three-Day Vote

Citing the need to avoid crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian authorities stretched the nationwide vote that secured adoption of the amendments out over a full week, from June 25 to July 1, even as they referred to it as a July 1 vote.

Opponents of Putin, and of the notion that he could be president until 2036, argued that the multiday vote was one of several factors opening the door wide to falsifications. But whatever the reason, the Kremlin appears to have found the unusual approach to its liking.

"Vote early, vote often!"
"Vote early, vote often!"

A bill allowing voting in many elections to be held over up to three days sailed through parliament, where the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party holds a commanding majority of seats, winning approval in the upper chamber on July 24.

It had yet to be signed by Putin, but Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova almost immediately announced that the multiday voting will be used when about half of Russia's administrative regions hold elections in September.

Those elections will be held on September 11-13, Pamfilova said. They come ahead of 2021 elections of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that are seen as a test of United Russia and of Putin's control three years before the 2024 presidential vote in which he is now clear to run if he chooses.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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