Saturday, August 1, 2020

Long-Dormant Institutions of Democracy and Federalism have Awakened in Khabarovsk, Navalny’s Man on the Scene Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 30 – Aleksey Vorsin, Khabarovsk coordinator for Aleksey Navalny, says that over the last two years, democracy and federalism, long-dormant but never completely dead in the Russian Far East have re-awoken and are a genie the Kremlin will find it extremely difficult to put back to sleep.

            Vorsin calls attention to three things that have received little attention up until now: Sergey Furgal’s promotion of democracy in local institutions in the kray, his revival of ideas associated with the region’s first post-Soviet governor, and the dangers ahead given the way pro-Moscow officials have turned to the criminal elements (

            First of all, most observers assume that the people of Khabarovsk back Furgal because he was a local man they elected. That is certainly part of the story, Vorsin says; but the now-former governor did more than that to win support and perhaps the most important thing was to restore the direct elections of heads of districts and settlements in the kray.

            Furgal said, the Navalny activist says, declared that “a head elected by the people feels a connection with his territory and works better.” He or she certainly has more support, and that link between the people and these lower levels of power continues, complicating any plans to restore Khabarovsk to a pre-Furgal state.

            Second, consciously or unconsciously, Furgal built on the ideas and actions of his predecessor, Viktor Ishayev, “a heavyweight governor” in the 1990s, who regularly proclaimed that “my party is Khabarovsk kray!”  He spoke with Moscow as an equal, promoted local studies in schools, and backed the spread of regional symbols like the flag and even a hymn.

            Vorsin says that when he was a pupil during Ishayev’s times, a special atlas was prepared and published for schools bearing the title “Love and Know Your Kray,” promoting attitudes that define the cultural code of the region and ensuring that there wouldn’t be any outsiders appointed who would survive politically.

            The current wave of protests underscores this, he continues. “Everyone understands perfectly well that there is a legitimate regional power elected by the people and there is a federal center, Moscow, which doesn’t pay attention to our opinion.”  The protests may end but these attitudes will continue.

            And third, there is a dangerous trend among officials opposed to the Khabarovsk people in the streets. If the Kremlin decides on repression, not all local police will go along. Some in the power structures are now turning to “semi-criminal sports clubs” for people preferred to fill in for police who won’t do this dirty work, the Navalny man says.

            Of course, if Moscow does decide to crush the demonstrators, it will have to bring in OMON forces “from the central regions” of the Russian Federation. Police from elsewhere in the Far East and Siberia undoubtedly suffer from the same “disease” as do police in Khabarovsk itself.

            Regardless of whether the protests continue or not, Vorsin says, “Khabarovsk people already feel themselves free and aren’t going to submit to diktat again.” They will show that in the upcoming elections and in other ways, and Moscow needs to recognize that all its political technologists can’t change that.

            At the same time, the Navalny activist says, any real regionalist party and any real federalism will not come back to Russia as a whole while Putin is still in office; and people in Khabarovsk need to recognize that they can’t establish federalism on their own in a single federal subject.

            To make Russia a genuine federation will require “the consolidated action of all subjects of the Federation, including Moscow.” And there is little chance of that now. But regional protests are happening and regional movements will emerge, and both will help promote the development of federalism in the future.

            As for himself, Vorsin says, he views such movements and even parties as “positive” and “necessary” and will fight for their creation.

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