MOSCOW — The Russian government official sounded concerned in comments to Sergei Furgal, the governor of a province in Russia’s Far East: “Your rating is going up, and the president’s is falling.”
The official was Putin’s envoy to the Far East, Yuri Trutnev, according to an independent online news outlet, DVHAB, the first to publish the secret recording of Furgal’s dressing down in November in the Khabarovsk province, bordering China in Russia’s southeast corner.
Being more popular than President Vladimir Putin is not a recipe for political longevity. Furgal was arrested last month, flown to Moscow and charged in connected with four murders in 2004 and 2005 — allegations that Putin’s opponents decry as a sham. Furgal denies the charges.
Since early July, thousands of protesters in Khabarovsk have joined daily, leaderless marches supporting the now-fired Furgal and calling for Putin to go — the sharpest regional challenge to Putin’s 20-year rule as president and prime minister.
Khabarovsk has been a thorn in Putin’s side before. It was the only region where his United Russia party lost its dominance in regional elections in September, winning just two seats in the local legislature. Then, in a nationwide vote last month on constitutional amendments that paved the way for Putin to govern until 2036, Khabarovsk had one of the lowest turnouts in the nation, just 44% compared with the national average of 68%.
The Khabarovsk protests have sparked recent small rallies in support of Khabarovsk in some other cities, including Moscow and Saint Petersburg, that were easily dispersed by riot police. But they send an alarming message to the Kremlin at a challenging time for Putin. The economy is battered by falling oil prices and the pandemic, and there is no clear path for authorities to re-energize Putin’s image.
The Khabarovsk crisis also reveals some of the cracks in Russia’s tightly managed authoritarian state, where co-opted opposition parties buy into the system by providing a veneer of pluralistic politics but generally support the Kremlin.
Furgal’s party, the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is part of the game. But Furgal did not exactly play by the rules.
He defeated the Kremlin-backed candidate for governor in 2018 with nearly 70 percent of the vote and has since added to that popularity. Many Khabarovsk residents believe Furgal is being punished by Moscow for being more popular than Putin. The office of the Kremlin’s Far East official, Trutnev, did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
The Kremlin has not been subtle about its displeasure. In December, Putin even moved the Far East capital from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok in a slap to the city.
The protesters — LDPR nationalists, supporters of liberal opposition leader Alexei Navalny and ordinary disgruntled citizens — wave Russian flags, chant anti-Putin slogans and demand a transparent murder trial for Furgal in Khabarovsk, not Moscow.
“How does it look from the Kremlin?” Navalny said in a recent video on his YouTube channel. He answered his own question: “A bad example to everyone else.”
Putin named a reliably pro-Kremlin LDPR politician as acting governor, Mikhail Degtyarev, a move that further infuriated locals and reinvigorated the protests.
Degtyarev told one astounded Russian interviewer that there was no difference of opinion between Putin, national party leader Zhirinovsky and the citizens of Khabarovsk on any subject. He claimed the protests were being stirred up by foreigners and people from other parts of Russia.
Underlying the protests are declining real wages, stagnant living standards and poor services, while government officials, pro-Putin politicians and oligarchs close to the Kremlin get rich exploiting the system.
The protests generated a sense of excitement in the city and created local heroes.
One of them was Rostislav Buryak, who drove around in a minivan known as the Furgalmobile, modeled as a spaceship decorated with images of Furgal, blasting out stirring songs and revving up protesters. Buryak was arrested July 28 and jailed for eight days for obstructing traffic.
National television stations have played down the protests. Alexandra Teplyakova, a journalist who recently resigned from popular independent local television station Guberniya, said local reporters were also under pressure. Her former colleagues at Guberniya TV told her that after the first protest on July 11, their boss warned them they could not air footage of the march or everyone would lose their jobs. She is now participating in the protests and blogging about them on Instagram.
“The main thing that makes people very angry is that nobody is paying attention to them. And now the slogans are against Putin. People are not afraid anymore,” Teplyakova said. “He’s not popular, and people believe it’s time for him to resign because he’s been in power too long. That’s enough.”
She said local people felt they were being punished for “electing the wrong person.” The party leader, Zhirinovsky, wrote on his Telegram channel July 13 that Furgal was arrested because he was too popular.
The murder case against Furgal is based on the allegations of a business associate, Nikolai Mistryukov, who was arrested in October and has since been diagnosed with cancer in prison. The charges relate to the murders of four business figures in 2004 and 2005, when Furgal was trading in metals, timber and consumer goods. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Political analyst Ildus Yarulin of Pacific Ocean State University in Khabarovsk said part of the discontent stems from small and medium-size businesses being hit hard during the pandemic, with many closing.
“When the governor was detained, it was like a match that ignited the fire,” he said.
Dmitry Nizovtsev, a member of Navalny’s team in Khabarovsk, said protesters were initially angered by the removal of Furgal but then turned on Putin.
“There is very little democracy in Russia to begin with. And two years ago, the people of Khabarovsk got just a tiny piece of democracy. They were able to elect their governor,” said Nizovtsev, who was beaten up recently by several thugs near his home after he returned from a rally in an attack he says was political.
“They liked this little bit of freedom,” he added.
The Kremlin’s answer to growing discontent has been to crack down on activists, bloggers and independent journalists and tighten control. Prominent journalist Ivan Safronov was charged with treason last month in Moscow. Another journalist, Svetlana Prokopyeva, was convicted of justifying terrorism last month in Pskov, a city in western Russia.
But Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote that Putin was running out of means to regain popularity. The Khabarovsk protests revealed Russian authorities’ inability to deal effectively with crises such as the economic consequences of the pandemic, he wrote, while ordinary people felt unhappy about the authorities taking away their choices — in this case their choice of governor.
“This revolution of dignity exists like an underground fire that will spread above ground at any opportunity,” he wrote, “and those opportunities are created not by civil society, but by the authorities themselves.”