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31 July 2020

Why the anti-Putin protests in Russia’s eastern city are something new

Ongoing protests in the far-flung city of Khabarovsk reveal the limits of Moscow's hold over the regions.  

By Ido Vock

Anti-Vladimir Putin protests are often presented, in Russia and abroad, as phenomena relegated to the urban intelligentsia of large millioniki, the cities of over a million people located overwhelmingly in European Russia. But the massive demonstrations that have rocked Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk in recent weeks are different.

Khabarovsk is further east than Pyongyang in North Korea and has a population of only around 570,000. It is reported to be a region that is economically better off by Russian standards. Yet the majority of those who have turned up to protest against the arrest of Sergei Furgal on 9 July, the region’s popular governor, are not the well-heeled, urbane liberals more often seen taking to the streets in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

For many in the city, Furgal’s arrest, on suspicion of involvement in multiple murders nearly two decades ago, stings especially because he defeated the Kremlin-endorsed candidate in his 2018 race to become governor: a rare electoral rebuke to Putin.

According to Ben Noble, a lecturer in Russian politics at University College London, under governors approved by the central government, “many Russians living in Khabarovsk felt forgotten by Moscow. Rather than fighting for the region’s interests, there was a sense that governors from the ruling party were serving their own interests, including through corruption.”

Noble added that Furgal was allowed to run for election in 2018 in a choreographed display of managed competition, but assumed to have no chance of winning. Controversial pension reform that year galvanised public anger, however, ensuring that a vote for Furgal was a protest vote against the authorities. “His election showed that, however much Russia’s nominal federation functions as a highly centralised state, upsets for the Kremlin are still possible. The people could still make a difference.”

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Kirill Shamiev, a researcher at Central European University, who comes from Khabarovsk, said the decision two years ago to move the capital of the Far Eastern Federal District to Vladivostok was also interpreted by some as a snub. “Vladivostok has always been Khabarovsk’s eternal regional rival,” he said. “The relocation of the administrative centre to Vladivostok left Khabarovsk with even less symbolic capital.”

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According to Shamiev, several missteps from the Kremlin in their attempts to contain the protests have further aggravated demonstrators’ grievances. Furgal was grabbed by police in a well-televised operation that “made him look like a Chechen terrorist rather than a popular governor”. And Putin’s chosen replacement, Mikhail Degtyarev, from the same far-right Liberal Democratic Party as Furgal, is not local and “looks dodgy and not professional enough,” Shamiev said.

A well orchestrated constitutional referendum wrapped up this month was intended to cement Putin’s hold on power indefinitely. Yet the anger in Khabarovsk, while focused on fairly localised grievances, illustrates the limits of Putin’s so-called “managed democracy” – autocracy dressed up with the trappings of democracy – and the bumbling, overly centralised Russian state.