The Khabarovsk Protests

Monument to Yerofey Khabarov in Khabarovsk

For over three weeks straight, thousands of residents of the far eastern city of Khabarovsk have taken to the streets in protest of the removal and arrest of the local governor, Sergei Furgal, a member of the right-wing LDPR party who beat out the United Russia-favored candidate for the post in 2018. Protesters initially demanded that Furgal be released or at least tried locally rather than in Moscow where he is currently imprisoned. Protests swelled after Putin appointed an outsider, Mikhail Degtyaryov (but also a member of the LDPR party), to replace Furgal. However, the number of demonstrators in recent days appears to be decreasing.

Furgal was arrested for involvement in the murder of several entrepreneurs from 2004-2005. According to a July 16th Interfax report, the Russian Investigative Committee, which is overseeing the case has claimed “irrefutable proof” of Furgal’s guilt via its spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko:

“At this stage, the investigation already has irrefutable evidence of Sergei Furgal’s involvement in organizing the murders of entrepreneurs Yevgeny Zorya and Oleg Bulatov, and an attempt to murder Alexander Smolsky,” Petrenko told Interfax on Thursday.

The crimes were committed in the Khabarovsk Territory and in the Amur Region in 2004-2005, she said.

“Considering the gravity of the offences committed and the liability under the relevant Russian Criminal Code article, it’s for the court to decide whether statutes of limitation may apply. But the investigators have no doubt that Furgal participated in the murders as the immediate organizer,” Petrenko said.

This is supported by the evidence collected, including forensic expert reports, materials obtained in police inquiries, witness statements, and other information, she said.

“The work on uncovering the crimes was never interrupted but complicated badly due to the fact that most individuals aware of what happened were intimidated. They refused to give detailed testimony against Furgal or his accomplices,” Petrenko went on to say.

So, if there’s a plausible case against Furgal for multiple murders, one might ask, why the protests against his arrest? Naturally, the situation is more complicated than the western corporate media is making it out to be with their predictable line of this being strictly about dissatisfaction with Putin who is presumably taking his political revenge on the governor. Russia-based journalist, Bryan MacDonald, who lived for 2 and 1/2 years in Khabarovsk, wrote a good backgrounder on the conditions and atmosphere in Khabarovsk at the time that Furgal won his governorship:

In the end, it was a landslide. Nationalist opposition candidate Sergei Furgal of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) defeated President Putin’s man Vyacheslav Shport by a margin of almost 70 percent to just under 28 percent in the race to become governor of Khabarovsk. Meanwhile, contests in Vladimir, Khakassia and Primorye also delivered setbacks to the ruling party, United Russia.

But don’t get too excited – or worried – just yet, depending on your political preferences. These were regional elections, fought mainly on local issues, involving personalities barely known in Moscow but well-known in their own backyards. Small town heroes, or villains, as it were….

…The district’s capital, Khabarovsk, is a city of around 600,000 where Moscow is frequently seen as more of a hindrance than a help. That’s partly down to distance (8,400km by car, eight hours on a plane, or six days on a train) but it’s also a reaction to observing increasingly well-heeled Asian neighbors. Although this part of Russia is itself prosperous, boasting the highest wages in the country.

Because the world looks very different from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. While Moscow and St. Petersburg gaze out upon the rest of Europe and feel reasonably content, the Far East is surrounded by some of the most dynamic economies in the world. And it’s hard not to feel jealous.

On the other side of the Amur river lies China, Japan is across the sea, and South Korea is “down the road.” But the Kremlin is far away. And it’s common to meet people in the Far East who have never been west of the Urals but know their way around the backstreets of Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai or Bangkok.

MacDonald goes on to explain how the increase in the retirement age fueled disgust at the Kremlin-backed United Russia party in 2018 as most Russians support the welfare state policies established in the 20th century. Read the full article here.

Another article by Kirill Shamiev from July 23rd, also provides a good comprehensive analysis of the protests and their context. Here he describes the history of governance of the Khabarovsk area in the post-Soviet era leading up to Furgal’s election:

The Khabarovsk Region has long been considered the patrimony of regional elites. The first head of the region, Victor Ishayev, emerged in regional politics in the late 1980s, becoming the director of the Khabarovsk Aluminium Plant and first deputy chairman of the executive committee of the Khabarovsk Regional Council of People’s Deputies. Ishayev remained governor from 1991 to 2009, becoming a kind of ‘father’ of the region. He survived the ‘gangster era’ of wild capitalism. He became a loyal supporter of Vladimir Putin. Then, he served as an envoy and minister for the development of the Far East for another five years. Yet in 2019, Ishayev was arrested and charged with fraud (facing up to 10 years in prison). In July 2020, the case was reclassified as embezzlement and sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office to be referred to court.

The mayor of Khabarovsk, Alexander Sokolov, who served continuously since 2000, became a key associate of Ishayev. Back in 1989, Sokolov became the First Secretary of the Khabarovsk City Committee. In the second half of the 1990s worked as the General Director of Khabarovsknefteprodukt, the largest distributor of petroleum products in the region. In 2018, Sokolov retired from politics. But a year later, he was back in the news. The Navalny Headquarters in Khabarovsk released an investigation, disclosing Sokolov’s ownership of houses in the U.S. and the Bolshekhekhtsirsky Nature Reserve, as well as apartments in Moscow and Khabarovsk. Many protesters remembered this as an example of Sokolov’s corruption and his ‘betrayal’ of the region. In the view of the Far Easterners, a mayor of a city with 600,000 inhabitants cannot legally own houses in the United States. This fact is perceived as a token of obvious corruption and lack of regional patriotism.

The Ishayev-Sokolov tandem controlled the Khabarovsk region for 20 years. In the 1990s politicians’ local ties were an advantage in the context of de-institutionalising political power in the country and surging crime. In the end, though, these qualities turned out insufficient as the situation in the country began to stabilise. The change in the post of governor in 2009 did not help the region. In his 10 years in office, Vyacheslav Shport was unable to achieve higher-than-average growth rates. His negative rating was so high that Shport’s portrait was vandalised several times and covered with spittle in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, his home city.

Shamiev points out that Furgal earned some popularity with his policies and approach to the governorship:

As a governor, Furgal quickly won popularity after solving obvious yet acute problems and thanks to his unprecedented political openness. Furgal helped to achieve a sharp reduction in the number of deceived shareholdersprovided free meals to schoolchildren from low-income families, and focused on building boiler houses, local airports, roads and medical infrastructure in remote areas of the region. All these changes came with active information campaigns: video recordings of meetings; voters included in online receptions on Instagram; and Furgal being personally accessible. Furgal’s style of governance was quickly embraced by voters and praised by experts. In a region where everyone knows everyone else, his simplicity and openness stood out in Russia, becoming yet another factor reinforcing his popularity.

Read the full article here.

A couple of more analyses worth reading: Gilbert Doctorow’s, which discusses the idea of the Khabarovsk protests being motivated – at least, in part – due to residents’ disapproval of Moscow’s increasing partnership with China since Furgal was popular and represented a nationalist party; Mary Dejevsky has written about Putin’s “hands off” approach to the protests, letting them generally play out, and not making claims of foreign interference.

*Note to readers: I am starting to work on a larger research project that will be taking up my time over the next couple of weeks. Consequently, blog posts during that time will likely be more sporadic and less in-depth.

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