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Voting with Their Feet: Russia’s Protests in the Far East Reveal Moscow’s Disconnect from Its Regions

The detention of Sergei Furgal, former governor of the region of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, prompted widespread protests that have taken on a distinctly anti-government edge. This has laid bare some of the Kremlin’s and incumbent United Russia party’s political vulnerabilities in the Far East.

Sergei Furgal, from the (nominally) opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), governed Khabarovsk since 2018, when he defeated his United Russia (UR) rival in the regional elections. The LDPR is part of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ – parties represented in the Duma (the Russian parliament) that claim to offer a veneer of democratic debate, but, in reality, rarely challenge the ruling UR’s legislative agenda or decision-making.

By all accounts, Furgal was a popular governor, channelling local discontent and advocating for Khabarovsk’s regional interests in the Duma. He did criticise local UR officials – who control all of Khabarovsk’s cities and regional districts – for their inability to improve regional infrastructure, and joined protests against poor housing conditions. But Furgal avoided any serious confrontation with Moscow, campaigning extensively in support of President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional amendments, which were passed following a nationwide vote on 1 July.

Yet on 9 July, Furgal was detained and accused of orchestrating the murder of two businessmen and the attempted murder of a third, crimes that are alleged to have taken place more than 15 years ago. Putin later declared a lack of confidence in Furgal, which the president technically has the powers to do, thanks to vague Russian legislation that allows the instant dismissal of governors under certain grounds such as corrupt practices. Since Furgal’s arrest, there have been widespread protests in Khabarovsk, which have taken on an anti-Moscow, and specifically anti-Putin sentiment, with demonstrators accusing the Kremlin of politically and economically marginalising the Far East. The protests are unusual, and are the largest the region has seen, with over 30,000 demonstrators congregating in a city with a total population of 616,000.

Regional Governance

Regional governors have lost any autonomy they enjoyed under president Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, and power is firmly concentrated in Moscow.

During the widespread protests of 2011–12 – when Putin resumed the presidency in a vote many viewed as rigged – then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reinstated elections for governors. This offered the facade of concessions to the public, while ensuring that governors who belonged to UR, and had the approval of the presidential administration, entered office.

There are other formal and informal processes that ensure governors loyal to Putin gain traction. This includes access to funding to boost governors’ campaigns, and the use of the ‘municipal filter’ – an informal term for the way electoral candidates are registered, as they must collect 5–10% of the signatures of the region’s municipal deputies. The filter has been criticised for sidelining alternative candidates – most governors who wield any independent power are excluded from office.

In Furgal’s case, it is unlikely that his membership of the LDPR prompted his removal; it is far more likely to have been his failure to guarantee support for the recent constitutional amendments. This vote was a litmus test for Putin’s personal plans for the direction of the country, and an opportunity for governors to display their loyalty to the Kremlin by amassing voter support. But the Khabarovsk region managed only relatively low approval for the amendments – 62%, with 36% against, against a national approval rating of 77.9%. Khabarovsk’s results were also particularly low when compared with other more compliant regions such as the southern region of Dagestan (89%) and the central region of Kemerovo (87%). The poor results likely laid the groundwork for Furgal’s dismissal.

Frictions With Moscow

The authorities’ response to the Khabarovsk protests has been revealing, and appeared conciliatory, while apparently not cognisant of the true scale of the problem.

Normally, protest action with an anti-Putin slant is not tolerated, particularly in Moscow, and the OMON (riot police) are swiftly dispatched to detain demonstrators. But in Khabarovsk, the regional authorities tried to engage with and reassure the public, and the police did not detain demonstrators.

The replacement of Furgal with Mikhail Degtyarev was a surprising selection. At 39, Degtyarev is young and he has no formal or personal links to the region. This suggests Moscow does not attach serious security importance to the protests, for otherwise a more seasoned administrator would likely have been installed. Degtyarev is also an unpopular choice locally, due to some of his left-field outlandish views and proposals (none of which have been adopted), including reinstating Russia’s black-yellow-and-white imperial flag used during parts of the 19th century, banning the circulation of the US dollar inside Russia and offering to paint the Kremlin white. Degtyarev is also from the LDPR, suggesting that were Moscow concerned about shoehorning in a UR deputy, this would have been the opportunity to do so. He appears to be an unpopular choice so far, and has refused to engage directly with demonstrators.

However, these protests and the events leading up to Furgal’s dismissal do suggest something deeper about the region’s relationship with Moscow.

Khabarovsk has been under scrutiny for some time. In November 2019, Putin noted – but did not expressly criticise – Khabarovsk’s low reported trust ratings in the president. Putin pays close attention to these opinion polls, which in the case of Khabarovsk indicated just 48% support for him, far from his ‘target’ of 70%. As Furgal’s own popularity increased, it appeared to be eclipsing Putin’s own. Like Khabarovsk, other regions in the Far East such as Yakutia reported pushback against the recent constitutional amendments, with more than 40% voting against them, suggesting a fundamental disconnect from Moscow.

Physical geography, and especially distance from the capital, has meant that Russia’s Far East and Siberian regions have a sense of detachment from the political machinations of Moscow. This makes it more challenging for UR to instil a sense of party loyalty in far-flung regions. It also increases the likelihood of protest voting for other parties, which locals feel better represent their regional interests. These protests epitomise the alienation that locals have felt for years, and may present a more serious concern to UR ahead of the September regional elections.

Regional Power Plays

Regional elections will be held on 13 September in 18 regions, alongside 11 legislative assembly and city council elections in 22 regional capitals. UR’s key concern will be the growing number of regional governors choosing to run as independent or non-UR candidates, attempting to distance themselves from a toxic national party with falling approval ratings. While the situation in Khabarovsk is relatively contained – few regions have governors as popular as Furgal – should other regions hold protest votes for parties such as the LDPR or the Communist Party (KPRF), UR could lose control over the regions.

To mitigate this, the Kremlin could amend legislation to abolish runoff elections – UR candidates tend to lose to opposition members in the second round. The Kremlin has done this before, in 2013–14. At the time, opposition candidates gained footholds on local councils and the Kremlin changed the law, allowing regional administrations (controlled by UR) to determine local municipal governments, cancelling direct mayoral elections and preventing opposition candidates from gaining traction. While this might appear an extreme response, losing control of the Far East regions, even to ‘systemic opposition’ parties, would be a blow to UR, highlighting its inability to bring the country together.

Ahead of elections, UR might try to ‘rebrand’ its image, by merging with the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a political group that Putin set up in 2012 to feed policy ideas into UR. An influx of new and likely younger personnel from the ONF could help to dilute UR’s toxic image. The Khabarovsk protests might increase this urgency.

Ultimately, Putin’s preoccupation with regional support for himself and his decisions reflects Moscow’s view that the regions exist to serve the Kremlin’s interests. Many of Russia’s strategies for the development of the Far East illustrate Moscow’s lack of understanding of regional needs, with funding apportioned unevenly, and impoverished and remote regions receiving little financial support or attention.

These recent protests epitomise years of frustration that regional interests are not recognised, and unless UR’s image is overhauled, the regional elections may be the catalyst for some political change.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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