Demonstrations in Khabarovsk Krai, prompted by the July 9 arrest of regional governor Sergei Furgal, have become among the largest and longest of recent protest actions inside the Russian Federation, already having lasted several weeks (see EDM, July 20). According to several sources, on various days the protests drew 50,000–80,000 participants. At the same time, as noted by independent political analysts, while at the beginning the rally goers simply demanded that the former governor be released, as the protests have developed, an “anti-Kremlin agenda” and more radical slogans demanding the resignation of President Vladimir Putin began to appear (Rosbalt, July 28).
According to Russian analysts, the demographic composition of the protestors has also shifted during the first few days. Although the largest rally (on Saturday, July 11) was attended by all age and social groups, by the following Monday the overwhelming majority consisted of young people between 15 and 20 years old (Expert Online, July 20). Compounding the situation is the fact that the protests apparently came as a surprise to the Russian authorities and demonstrated a series of new potential directions in Russian politics.
First, against the background of the sharp reduction in the popularity of President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s top leadership has, in recent years, assumed it could ensure loyalty within the system by means of “targeted repressions” against officials and the siloviki (security services personnel). A drop in the approval rating of the Russian leader has been apparent (see EDM, April 28): according to the most recent data from the Levada Center, in July it fell to 23 percent in comparison with 35 percent in January of this year (Levada.ru, July 29). Given this, Putin seems unsure of the loyalty of his inner circle and, therefore, is relying on strong-arm methods to preserve it.
Thus, last April was marked by large-scale purges and arrests within the ranks of the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Lenta.ru, April 27). This “cleansing” also affected the Ministry of Internal Affairs. As journalists noted, the latest round of arrests of “Chekists” was meant to “restore balance” between competing Russian power blocs (Gr-sily.ru, July 6, 2019). Since 2015, most such repressions have targeted incumbent governors and other high-ranking regional leaders. Notably, as many as 2 percent of top regional elites were sitting behind bars in 2017 (Vedomosti, September 5, 2017). The main justifications given for the arrests of the governors are bribes and fraud (RBK, July 28); but anonymous Telegram channels linked to the Kremlin admit that the real reasons for the criminal cases are suspicions of possible disloyalty among regional leaders as well as the center’s attempt to intimidate other officials. Most likely, Furgal’s arrest was another example of this trend.
However, events in the Far East have shown that such intimidation tactics, regardless of the truth of the criminal cases, not only do not foster loyalty but, to the contrary, have been increasing the disaffection of both the regional officials and the general populace. In Khabarovsk, the situation has been aggravated by the fact that residents saw Furgal as an alternative to the extremely unpopular, ruling United Russia Party.
Observers note that he managed to win the sympathies of the people by his excellent understanding of the region, openness in contacts with the people, and genuine attempts to resolve the most pressing local problems. In particular, he organized supplemental payments to federal healthcare workers against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic; developed and implemented the regional program “Additional Measures to Support the Market,” which really helped small- and medium-sized businesses; contributed to the construction of new hospitals, obstetric centers and kindergartens; was engaged in road repair; and so on. Such activities especially contrasted with the behavior of the federal center, which was unresponsive to the needs of the population and was unable to implement initially announced multimillion-dollar projects (Expert.ru, July 20).
Regardless of the personality of Sergei Furgal, such positive popular sentiments, driven partially in opposition to the overly centralized and predatory policy of Moscow, are characteristic of many regions. Protests already have spread to Vladivostok and other Russian cities (Novaya Gazeta, July 20). The next serious surge of discontent in several large cities simultaneously could well occur on September 13, which is scheduled for elections of the heads of 20 regions of the Russian Federation. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Moscow has instigated the practice of multi-day voting in these elections, tested during the referendum on amendments to the Constitution. According to sociologists, this procedure is perceived as illegitimate in the eyes of politically active Russians (Ekb.dk, July 2). For their part, the regional elites, unhappy with the policy of “targeted repressions” and scare tactics, could pander to these protest rallies, as they did in Khabarovsk.
Russian observers share the opinion that the latest protest actions have been arising spontaneously, without clear organizers, and unconnected to the activities of the “non-systemic” opposition. Indeed, even a year ago, participants in similar regional protests who were dissatisfied with the conduct of local or federal officials still trusted Vladimir Putin and turned to him as a defender and arbiter in the disputes (Svoboda.org, June 8, 2019). But today, the protesters are not inclined to trust either the federal center or Putin personally, considering him to be responsible for unpopular government decisions.
For the time being, it is hard to say whether the protests will grow into a wave of general national unrest. On one hand, they are difficult to suppress or seize control of due to their spontaneous and unpredictable character, as well as the absence of a single organizational center. But on the other hand, the lack of such a controlling center prevents the protesters from formulating detailed demands to the authorities or developing a common agenda for the whole country. To a great degree, the protests have an irrational character, which complicate the maneuvers of the federal center in terms of finding compromises.
At the same time, it is clear that the Kremlin is not seeking such compromises but rather is trying to create the illusion of “foreign interference.” For example, the acting governor of Khabarovsk Krai appointed by Moscow, Mikhail Degtyarev, told the media that the protests were “sparked” by foreigners (Znak.com, July 23, 2020). Such declarations will surely further increase the bitterness of the people. Accordingly, in the near future, an increase of spontaneous protests can be expected in the Russian regions, frequently sparked by wholly unanticipated developments.