Sunday, January 03, 2021
Demos in Khabarovsk for months
Siberians protest against Putin’s system
In Moscow, people are watching the protests in neighboring Belarus with great interest, but people have also been taking to the streets in their own country for months – not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in far-away Siberia.
The extreme east of Russia has been protesting against Moscow for six months. Week after week, people take to the streets in the big city of Khabarovsk. “We have never seen anything like it in Russia,” says Moscow political scientist Alexander Kynew. “I have not seen any such example since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The trigger was the arrest of a popular governor in early July. In the 20-year era of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, a protest has never lasted so long. The people on the street also deal with his politics.
The student Ivan Orlov is one of them. “I think the government got the message,” said the 23-year-old, addressing the widespread displeasure. He is curious whether the ruling United Russia party will be punished in the parliamentary elections in the autumn. It is decried by many as a party of thieves and crooks. This message can be read repeatedly on protest posters. But the demonstrations should pause now, thinks Iwan. “It’s damn cold here.”
In Khabarovsk, not far from the Pacific coast, the temperatures slipped to minus 30 degrees these days. The city administration finally counted around 30 die-hard people who demonstrated for the former governor Sergej Furgal despite the freezing cold. The weekly news from the town hall reflects the joy that there have been significantly fewer demonstrators since autumn. At the peak of the summer tens of thousands had moved through the city of almost 600,000 inhabitants.
Shock waves as far as Moscow
“That was absolutely unexpected for Moscow,” says political scientist Alexander Schmelev. Putin was silent about it for months. The Kremlin wanted to sit out the conflict. Only a few days ago he took a position. “This is about the murder of people,” said Putin, looking at the ex-governor, whom the president fired himself – and with his words prejudiced. “These are serious allegations.” The former entrepreneur Furgal is investigated for involvement in contract killings more than 15 years ago. Since the beginning of July he has been in custody in Moscow, more than 6000 kilometers away. He vehemently denies the allegations. Furgal is a member of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
In the 2018 gubernatorial election, he prevailed against the Kremlin party candidate. Since then he has been a nuisance for Moscow. Many demonstrators therefore see the proceedings against the 50-year-old as politically motivated. At least they want to get Furgal to go to court in Khabarovsk and not in the capital. Putin shows understanding for the displeasure of the protesters who live almost eight hours by plane from him. “I understand the people who are disappointed because Furgal was arrested because they expected him. They gave him their vote.” Such cases are also being investigated against members of the Kremlin party. “Should we make exceptions for any parties?”
The Kremlin has long underestimated the explosive power of the fall. The shock waves reached as far as Moscow. However, with the mass protests in neighboring Belarus, attention shifted. Belarus is perceived as closer in Moscow, and Khabarovsk as far away, says the political scientist Nikolai Petrov. Moscow was nevertheless surprised by the civil disobedience of the people in the east. “Despite repression, people take to the streets,” says Schmeljow. “But the protest remained local,” said Petrov.
“People felt changes”
The Kremlin was concerned that the protest mood could spill over to other parts of the country. After all, there is great dissatisfaction with politics in Russia – and with Putin’s long term in office. The economic crisis has intensified because of the low gas price. The activist Rostislaw Smolenski from Khabarovsk also sees the protest as a rebellion against “the power center in Moscow” because the people are not being heard. “We had Moscow companies everywhere. Furgal put an end to that.” He also cut the state employees’ pensions and sold the government yacht. “People felt changes with Furgal,” says Smolenski. The Khabarovsk praise above all the social policy of the friendly and people-oriented entrepreneur, that more money has flowed into schools and kindergartens. He ensures better food in school canteens. Other observers see the protest as the end of the power center in Russia – and a development towards more federalism.
It was initially unusual for protests in Russia that the police in Khabarovsk did not break up the demonstrations – unlike in Moscow or St. Petersburg. But for weeks the security forces have been increasing the pressure. According to the authorities, 95 people have already been arrested and 41 sentenced to community service. 320 had to pay a fine. Activists also complain of increasing pressure on journalists who cover the protest marches. Furgal himself remains in custody. A few days ago, a court rejected an application for house arrest. Shortly before the big New Year celebrations, Furgal was allowed to call his family – for the first time in half a year.