Protests in Khabarovsk on 25 July 2020. Photo: Evgeny Pereverzev, dvhab.ru
Article by: Liudmyla Vannek
Massive rallies began in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk on July 11, and have been ongoing ever since. They began as a protest against the dismissal and arrest of popular Governor Sergei Furgal and the appointment of Mikhail Degtiarev as acting governor of Khabarovsk Krai.
- Read more: “We’re against the Putin regime!” Fifth day of protests in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk“
Degtiarev, like Furgal, belongs to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party, and is very well known in Russia for his resonant initiatives. In the State Duma, he initiated a ban on the US dollar in Russia, the return of the anthem “God save the Tsar!”, and proposed adding “Novorossiya” to the map of Russia.
Rallies in support of Sergei Furgal have been held daily in Khabarovsk since July 11. On weekday evenings, several hundred people gather in the center of Khabarovsk, and tens of thousands rally on weekends.
The number of protesters for the weekend of July 25-27 varies…The Khabarovsk Telegram channel counted 95,000 protesters. The press service of the mayor’s office reported 6,500 participants. Most observers agree that “tens of thousands” took to the streets, perhaps the largest rally in the past two weeks.
Local journalists are banned from covering rallies in support of ex-governor Serhiy Furgal. Aleksandra Tepliakova, a former journalist of the regional state Khabarovsk TV channel Guberniya, told blogger Aleksandr Kim in an interview that the employees of the TV channel were threatened with dismissal if they reported on the events.
“When the staff came to work last Monday, the management said that if we broadcast the protest, all two hundred people who work at Guberniya would be immediately fired.”
45% in favor and 17% against – no more, no less
Despite the ban on media coverage, 83% of Russians are well aware of the protests in Khabarovsk, according to sociologists at Russia’s independent Levada Centre. 26% of respondents are closely following what is happening in the Far East regions of Russia. Almost 45% of respondents feel that the protesters are acting “rather positively”.
Speaking on the Nastoyashchee Vremya (Current Time) TV channel, political scientist Konstantin Kalachev discussed the impact of Khabarovsk on other Russian regions, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the protests in the Far East.
Kalachev compared the Khabarovsk protests to the events on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on May 6, 2012 (mass protest against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin after his re-election as President of Russia; at that time, tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by security forces, over 500 persons were detained, dozens of people were taken into custody and put on trial, some were sentenced to several years of imprisonment, some were put on probation, others were eventually amnestied). At that time, those in favor and those against were divided approximately equally, with a slight advantage in favor of the protesters. Today, the situation has changed: 45% of respondents polled by the Levada Center support the protesters, 17% are against.
“These figures can’t be ignored: 45% for and 17% against… In any case, Russians are more empathetic to the protesters in Khabarovsk, and do not reject their claims. This means that the country has changed.” said the political scientist.
Furgal is not the real issue
According to Konstantin Kalachev, the ongoing events in Khabarovsk Krai are a result of the Kremlin’s policy towards the Far East over the past twenty years.
“In the 1990s, the Far East was left on its own. The people built their lives, created small businesses, and traded with China, South Korea, Japan; they brought in cars, sold something, bought something… And then one day, the federal centre (Moscow) buts in and attempts to control the area. What does it all mean? They had their own banks, their own franchises, their own governors and mayors. Now, Moscow imposes federal banks, federal stores and federal governors!
People don’t like that! Furgal is not the issue. The problem is that two principles – unitarism and federalism – met and clashed. Furgal was just the spark that ignited the protests.” underlines Kalachev.
Several foreign observers have also expressed their views on the events in Russia’s the Far East, saying that the Khabarovsk protests indicate a marked rise in opposition sentiment across Russia.
Professor Timothy Frye of Columbia University points out that Khabarovsk Krai is the only constituent entity in the Russian Federation where the pro-Kremlin Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) is not in power.
“The Kremlin just can’t tolerate what’s happening! Therefore, they decided to take this step. Opposition sentiment is deeply rooted in Khabarovsk Krai; there’s a high level of distrust in Putin, and Putin’s rating is much lower than his rating in other regions.” said Professor Frye.
James Savage of the University of Virginia also points out that this is not the first time the Kremlin has replaced governors, but this is the first time that Russians have taken to the streets so loudly and so massively.
“Putin has removed a lot of people during his time in power, especially in the last 10-15 years. He often replaced mayors and governors. It’s just another example of Putin’s consolidation of power, which has been going on for a long time. But, this example is especially noticeable because the former governor was very popular,” stated Professor Savage.
Discrediting the protest movement
Khabarovsk residents are closely watching who is taking part in the protests, because they know that many people from other regions have arrived in their city and believe that some are special security officers who want to discredit the protest movement. One of the protesters, Kateryna Biyak, told the Nastoyashchee Vremya TV channel how such agents provocateurs are “identified” in the city.
“It’s very easy to pick out individuals who aren’t from here: certain words and phrases, their behaviour. We have a specific dialect here, in the Far East. You don’t notice it when you live here, but when you travel to other Russian region, you really hear the difference. That’s why non-natives really stand out here. Actually, there are a lot of agents provocateurs among them. We call them provocateurs, or special ops units, or officers of the “E” Centre (Centre for Combating Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia). These non-locals are probably ready to intervene on the order of the secret services; there are also individuals who have been charged with suppressing, discrediting the protests.”
Dmitry Dinze, who previously worked for the Russian police and Prosecutor’s Office and defended the interests of Ukrainian political prisoners Oleg Sentsov and Volodymyr Balukh, has also voiced his concerns about the Russian police using professional agents provocateurs during the Khabarovsk protests.
“What do these agents provocateurs do? As a rule, they melt into the crowd, approach police officers, start shouting at them, accusing them of crimes, offenses or simply behaving rudely, thus provoking the police into reacting violently. More often than not, these aren’t even police officers, but specially trained men, who have undergone excellent physical and psychological training, and know how to influence the actions of certain people around them.” remarked Dmitryo Dinze in an interview with the Nastoyashchee Vremya TV channel.
Foreign agents provocateurs?
It seems that the topic of agents provocateurs troubles not only the protesters but also government officials, who see a completely different category of people in this role. The newly appointed governor of Khabarovsk Krai, Mikhail Degtiarev, complains that “organized groups of unknown provocateurs are infesting and parasitizing” the protests. He claims that “foreign nationals from different countries are active in the city”. Earlier, Degtiarev was severely criticized for saying that foreigners could be involved in organizing the rallies.
Degtiarev called on Khabarovsk residents to “be patient” until September 2021, when new elections are scheduled to be held in Khabarovsk Krai.
The Ukrainian angle
Ukrainian historians point out that the dissatisfaction of Khabarovsk locals with Moscow governance is deeply rooted in history. The fact is that the southern region of Khabarovsk Krai, including the city of Khabarovsk, is historically part of the Zelenyi Klyn (Green Wedge), a region in modern-day Far East Russia that includes Khabarovsk, where Tsarist Russia massively resettled Ukrainians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At that time, Ukrainian immigrants made up a large percentage of the population of Khabarovsk Krai and Primorsk region; it is estimated that over 300,000 Ukrainians lived in this territory. Everything changed with the arrival of the Bolsheviks in 1922 when Ukrainians were even more persecuted and assimilated. However, some people say that the Ukrainian mentality remains and the spirit of freedom has not completely disappeared.
Ukrainian historian Petro Kraliuk, doctor of philosophy and professor at the Ostroh Academy, underlines that it is namely in Khabarovsk Krai that mass protests started and then spread to other regions, and that many of today’s protesters are direct descendants of the first Ukrainian colonists. He underlines that “the Ukrainian mentality of these Russified Ukrainians is something to be reckoned with.”
Russians’ trust in Putin in decline
According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center on July 29, Putin’s popularity and trust ratings have plummeted to 23%. The poll was conducted using the “open question” method, when people are asked to name politicians and public figures that they trust.
A year ago, in the summer of 2019, 40% of respondents expressed complete trust in Putin, and in 2017 this figure reached 59%.