Staunton, July 11 – Tens of thousands of residents of Khabarovsk and other cities in that Far Easter territory came out today to protest Moscow’s arrest of their governor Sergey Furgal and the central government’s decision to bring him to the center for charges concerning his alleged involvement in a long-ago murder and holding his trial there.
Estimates of the crowd ranged up to 60,000, but even if it was half that number, the demonstration would be the largest in that city’s history and would be the equivalent of a protest meeting of one million people in the Russian capital, a remarkable development given that the demonstration was not approved but actively opposed.
The authorities attempted to frighten people from attending by suggesting that the march and protest would become a super spreader event for the coronavirus, but once the marchers assembled, the police avoided any intervention, perhaps a reflection of their own views on the matter or a fear that trying to arrest anyone would trigger violence.
At the simplest level, the demonstrators were in the streets for their governor and against Moscow. They recognize that Moscow removed him not because of some long ago murder but because he was an opposition party (LDPR) governor who was enormously popular for his modest approach.
But most of all, they protested because he was their choice; and they clearly resented Moscow’s intervention. They chanted “freedom for Furgal” and insisted that any trial of him should be in Khabarovsk rather than in Moscow. And they also shouted “Down with Putin!” and “Shame on Moscow!”
As the BBC’s Russian Service points out, the Russian Far East is “well-known for its opposition attitudes,” regularly casting large numbers of votes for those who oppose Moscow and against measures like the constitutional amendments that the Kremlin wants to push through regardless (bbc.com/russian/news-53371781).
Whether the situation will deteriorate or explode depends to a large extent on whom Putin chooses as Furgal’s successor. It the replacement is from Moscow, there will be more protests, local people say; if Moscow chooses someone from within the kray, then the situation may very well quiet down.
Russian commentator Abbas Gallyamov says that Moscow chose to remove Furgal now not because of the July 1 vote but because it doesn’t want to have gubernatorial elections in Khabarovsk kray this year. No matter whom Putin appointed, that individual would lose and the Kremlin knows it (facebook.com/abbas.gallyamov/posts/10217051557191661).
Aleksandr Kynyev, a Moscow political analyst, told the BBC that the Khabarovsk demonstrations show that the Russian Far East is becoming an ever more serious problem for Moscow because in the eyes of its population, “the federal center has been transformed into a symbol of evil.”
Three other Moscow commentators make clear that Russians far from Khabarovsk understand that and, in many cases, feel exactly the same way, something that represents an even larger problem for the Kremlin especially given how much attention the Furgal protests have attracted in the regional media.
Roman Popkov says it is important to remember that the people of Khabarovsk have longstanding reasons to be angry with the center. Moscow gave away land on which many of them had dachas to China a decade ago. But things have deteriorated because the Putin system has become “harsher, more rigid, and thus from fragile”
As a result, he argues, “such cracks in it as now in Khabarovsk, will appear” elsewhere as well (facebook.com/roman.popkov.56/posts/3208785915845908