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United Russia's Revenge? Far Eastern Governor's Arrest Raises Suspicions

Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal was detained by the Investigative Committee on July 9.
Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal was detained by the Investigative Committee on July 9.

KHABAROVSK, Russia -- Locals in Russia's Far Eastern Khabarovsk region woke up on July 9 to television images of their popular governor being manhandled into a black SUV by a group of burly law enforcement officers in masks and camouflage.

According to the Investigative Committee, Furgal is suspected of involvement in a spate of murders of businessmen across the Far East in 2004-05. Local commentators speculated the arrest was connected to the arrest last year in Moscow of Furgal's former business partner, Nikolai Mistryukov.

The 112 Telegram news channel reported that the victims in the case were likely Yevgeny Zorya, who was shot to death in October 2004; Oleg Bulatov, who was shot to death in January 2005; Eduard Kuchinsky, who disappeared after leaving his home in May 1997; and Roman Sandalov, shot to death in October 2004. All of them were involved in business disputes with companies connected to Furgal and Mistryukov, the channel reported.

The Investigative Committee added that the investigation was also looking into possible connections with other killings in the Khabarovsk, Primorye, and Amur regions.

The publicity surrounding the arrest and the unexpected emergence of allegations stemming from so long ago have locals wondering if there might be more than meets the eye to Furgal's downfall.

"I would not be surprised if in the end it turns out that he was involved in those murders, considering the 'interesting' company he has kept," said Aleksei Vorsin, who heads the Khabarovsk office of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's movement. "But, of course, there is a political subtext in this case."

Sergei Furgal "humiliated" United Russia's candidate in the 2018 election, and had better poll numbers that Putin.
Sergei Furgal "humiliated" United Russia's candidate in the 2018 election, and had better poll numbers that Putin.

Vorsin noted that it has only been a little more than a week since Russians voted in a national plebiscite on a controversial, Kremlin-backed package of some 200 constitutional amendments that, among other things, allow President Vladimir Putin to seek two more six-year terms after his current term runs out in 2024.

"Khabarovsk Krai gave one of the lowest turnouts [in the vote] and it appears that the population's protest mood was the last straw [for the Kremlin]," he told RFE/RL.

The Khabarovsk region, sprawled along Russia's Pacific coast and bordering China, has long had a reputation as one of the country's most independent. In the weeklong amendments plebiscite that finished on July 1, 44.2 percent of voters in the region went to the polls, the second-lowest turnout in the country after the Kamchatka region. The official results said 62.28 percent approved the amendments, making it the sixth-lowest show of support for Putin's initiative in the country.

Furgal is regarded as one of the most popular regional leaders in the country. In the region's 2018 gubernatorial election, he humiliated the candidate from the pro-Kremlin ruling United Russia party, incumbent Governor Vyacheslav Shport. Furgal, who at the time was a Duma deputy from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), polled 69.6 percent of the vote, compared to Shport's 28 percent.

LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky posted on Twitter on July 9 that Furgal "is the best the history of the region."

"If Furgal was involved in something, why did they wait for 15 years?" Zhirinovsky continued. "He has been arrested now for doing a good job in his region and for having high support among his constituents."

Natalya Kovalenko, a regional LDPR lawmaker in Khabarovsk, told RFE/RL that the party had started a "I am/We are Sergei Furgal" hashtag that is gaining momentum on local social media.

'You Find A Way'

"In comments, we are seeing support for the governor," she said. "Many people are ready to come out and demonstrate."

An unscientific survey of local social media by RFE/RL seemed to confirm Kovalenko's assertion. "They have begun clearing away inconvenient people," one user wrote.

"If you need to get a guy, you find a way," wrote another. "That is the case here. The authorities don't like the fact that our governor is not from United Russia."

"Once again the tsar and his entourage have shown what they think of the people," wrote a third. "They don't like it when things don't go their way."

Moscow-based political commentator Aleksandr Kynev noted that Furgal got nearly 70 percent of the vote in the 2018 election, while Putin's amendments received just 62 percent support.

"That means that Furgal's popularity is greater than Putin's," Kynev argued. "And they could not forgive him that."

"It is purely political when a man who has been active in politics for 20 years is presented with some case from the distant past," he added. "It is United Russia's revenge."

Zhirinovsky and the LDPR are part of what is often called the "systemic opposition" and often support Kremlin-backed initiatives or serve as a foil for United Russia, proposing more radical versions of legislation that is eventually passed in a milder form.

But competition between the parties is often genuine and sometimes fierce, particularly in the provinces. And while United Russia dominates most regional governments and legislatures nationwide, analysts say that the Kremlin is concerned by its lack of popularity and anxious to further consolidate power in the wake of the nationwide vote.

Moves And Motives

Vorsin, from Navalny's Khabarovsk office, noted that Furgal had not officially resigned and there had been no word from Putin's office. "Maybe they will come to him with an offer he can't refuse and he will resign," Vorsin said. "Mistryukov already sold his stake in the Amurstal steel mill."

Ildus Yarulin, a professor of politics at the Pacific Ocean State University in Khabarovsk, said Moscow's next moves will give a clue about the Kremlin's motivations.

"If, for instance, they name Irina Zinkunova, an LDPR member and chairwoman of the regional legislature, as governor, then the case loses its political coloring," he told RFE/RL. "Furgal will be seen as an ordinary criminal. But if they send someone in from another party or from Moscow, then that will be a different matter."

The only thing that is clear so far, according to Yarulin, is that Furgal's political career is over. "You don't overcome the kind of allegations that they are planning to make against Sergei Furgal," he said. "This political figure has definitely been removed from our chess board."

Furgal, 50, is a medical doctor by profession. In 2005, he was elected to the Khabarovsk regional legislature. From 2007 until 2018, he served as a deputy in the State Duma, the lower chamber of the national legislature.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Khabarovsk by Yekaterina Khasina of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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