December 01, 2019

What Happened in Khabarovsk?


What Happened in Khabarovsk?
Protests in Khabarovsk. Polyakov

When we declared 2020 "Putin's Victorious Summer," we cited examples like a swift response to coronavirus, massive Victory Day parades, and a favorable outcome in a constitutional referendum. We overlooked, however, a Russian region that wasn't quite as cooperative this year.

Khabarovsk Krai is not a likely place for protests. Located in Russia's Far East, it's truly massive, yet home to less than 1.5 million. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, it is geographically closer to Beijing and Tokyo than Moscow. The capital city, Khabarovsk, is relatively small and industrial, hardly a beacon of cosmopolitanism. It is literally on the other side of Russia from the country's core.

It's hard to believe, then, that this became the center of anti-government protests earlier this year.

A map showing the location of Khabrovsk
"I can see Alaska from my house!": Khabarovsk Krai on a map of Russia. | Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

To understand the demonstrations, it is important to understand the politics behind them.

The protests center around Sergei Furgal, governor of the region (in Russian, krai). Furgal belongs to Russia's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which by name alone sounds like it would be in strong opposition to the Kremlin and Putin's United Russia party (UR). In reality, however, the LDPR, along with Russia's Communist Party (KPRF), often goes along with UR, offering token resistance to provide plausible deniability to allegations of one-party rule. It is not unusual for non-UR candidates to be elected in Russian provinces, as long as officeholders don't rock the boat too much. In short, Furgal is popular among his constituents.

When Furgal was elected as an LDPR governor of Khabarovsk Krai in 2018, after years in Russia's national State Duma, he won in a landslide, with nearly 70% of the vote.

Sergei Furgal, the subject of protests. | Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

His party, too, began to gain traction in Khabarovsk Krai: following elections in fall 2019, the Krai's Duma assembly saw a flip: UR lost 28 seats, while LDPR gained 27, leaving Furgal's party with 30 of the 36 seats in the chamber.

Then, on July 9, 2020, Sergei Furgal was stripped of his title and arrested by national authorities. He was flown to Moscow and accused of murdering a businessman 15 years ago. Many Khabarovsk residents, understandably, smelled something fishy.

By July 11, an estimated 12,000 people went out on the streets of Khabarovsk to demonstrate in support of Furgal, calling for his reinstatement and the resignation of Putin and his party. The movement only grew in the following months, with rallies of thousands taking place throughout the Far East. Protests spread elsewhere in Russia, with participants numbering in the millions, all calling for greater democratic freedoms and the release of Furgal.

On October 10, two dozen protesters were detained by authorities, marking the end of three months of consecutive, constant demonstrations. While the movement has since lost some momentum, sporadic protests continue. Furgal's court date is December 9, and more activity is expected as the date nears.

While American media largely overlooked these protests – it's not like we had anything else going on in summer 2020 – they are some of the largest Russia has seen since those of the early 2010s.

These protests in Russia's Far East demonstrate that Russia is far from the autocratic police state many assume it to be; in fact, dissent, with limits, is tolerated. But could these actions be part of a larger thirst for democracy in Russia? It's hard to say. One thing is for certain: if Putin gets his way, he'll probably be president until he's 83.

See Also

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Lost and Found in Siberia

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