• The Star Staff

Defying Kremlin, protesters stage biggest rally yet in Russian far east

Khabarovsk’s governor, Sergei I. Furgal, in a Moscow court this month after his arrest on murder charges.

By Andrew Higgins

Ignoring pleas from the Kremlin for calm after more than a week of unrest, protesters in the Russian Far East on Saturday staged their biggest display of defiance yet, with tens of thousands of people pouring into the streets to protest the arrest of a popular regional governor.

Russian news media reported that 50,000 or more people had joined a rally in the capital of Khabarovsk Krai, a sprawling territory nearly 4,000 miles east of Moscow. Thousands more attended protests in other regional towns and in Vladivostok, a port city on the Pacific Ocean in neighboring Primorsky Krai.

The government in Khabarovsk, the regional capital, said in a statement that only 10,000 people had gathered “at the beginning” but gave no figure for the overall turnout. Police officers in Khabarovsk made no effort to stop what authorities described as an “illegal” but peaceful protest and instead handed out face masks. In Vladivostok, however, a number of arrests were reported.

The protests began after the arrest July 9 on murder charges of Khabarovsk’s governor, Sergei I. Furgal, one of a handful of regional leaders not affiliated with a party entirely controlled by the Kremlin.

Instead of being held in Khabarovsk, where authorities allege the crimes took place, Furgal was flown to Moscow immediately after his arrest, a move seen by many locals as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs and an effort by the Kremlin to grab control of the case.

The case has crystallized longstanding resentments in Russia’s far-flung regions toward Moscow, which is often seen as demanding loyalty while giving little in return. In a blow to local pride, the Kremlin responded to Furgal’s election victory in 2018 over its own candidate by rejiggering bureaucratic boundaries in the Far East to give primacy to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk’s longtime rival.

Furgal is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, a far-right outfit that has grown increasingly restive over its Kremlin-assigned role as a decorative and largely powerless “opposition” party in Russia’s tightly controlled political system.

In an interview with The New York Times this past week, the leader of the party, the nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained that the Kremlin “treats us like idiots” and gives no space for real opposition. He said that after Furgal took office, the Kremlin had tried to get the new governor to quit the Liberal Democratic Party.

Protesters Saturday focused their chants and banners on mostly local grievances, demanding that Furgal be returned to his home region and given a fair trial. They chanted “freedom, freedom” but muted the denunciations of President Vladimir Putin that were heard at earlier protests.

All the same, the large turnout, particularly unusual in Russia’s quiescent hinterland, posed a bold challenge to the Kremlin, exposing deep wells of public anger as Russia struggles with the economic damage left by the coronavirus pandemic and growing fatigue with political stagnation.

State-controlled television ignored the protests, sticking to its line that Russia is united in joyous support for Putin after a recent national plebiscite in which 78% of voters endorsed constitutional amendments allowing him to remain in office until 2036. But the vote, rigged from the start, only highlighted how hollow Russia’s democratic rituals have become.

Putin, whose approval rating slumped to a 20-year-low after the coronavirus hit Russia, was supposed to step down at the end of his current term in 2024, but under the amended constitution he can now run for two more six-year terms.

Events in the Far East, however, have highlighted the weakness of once reliable methods of control. Saturday’s protests delivered a dramatic defeat to frenzied efforts by the authorities, both local and national, to tamp down public anger with pleas and threats.

The Kremlin’s special envoy for the Far East, Yuri P. Trutnev, rushed to Khabarovsk last week to express an understanding of the protests while demanding that they stop. The Federal Security Service soon announced that it had foiled a terrorist plot in Khabarovsk, stirring fears of a crackdown on protesters under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

Then, officials warned protesters that they risked spreading the coronavirus and ordered that people stay away from all “illegal” gatherings for health reasons.

The authorities even recruited the arrested governor, Furgal, in their efforts to halt the protests. Speaking in Moscow on Thursday, his lawyer, Boris Kozhemyakin, told reporters that the jailed governor “thanks” the protesters “but does not approve of these mass actions.”

But that failed, too, with Furgal’s supporters thronging the streets in even larger numbers.

“Moscow go away,” read one banner Saturday.

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