Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the Russian far east on Saturday for the third weekend running in a mass demonstration against the increasing repression of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The protests began this month in the city of Khabarovsk after its governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on dubious murder charges. A member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, police allege his involvement in a murder conspiracy between 2004 and 2005 with several other businessmen when he was working in the timber and scrap metal trade.
Furgal was also arrested less than a fortnight after Putin successfully orchestrated a nationwide referendum on constitutional reforms that will allow him to rule Russia for a further 16 years, which Fugal had opposed. He first began bothering the Kremlin in 2018 when he defeated the Putin-backed United Russia party candidate in the gubernatorial election in an unexpected landslide victory.
Following his arrest, police immediately flew him to Moscow from his home city and summoned him to court where he pleaded not guilty. He will remain in custody until his next hearing on September 9. On Tuesday, the Kremlin formally replaced Furgal with Mikhail Degtyaryov, a fellow member of the LDP who has never lived in the region and has little leadership experience.
According to local media, this weekend’s demonstrations were the largest by far, although estimates varied wildly depending on who provided the figures. Pro-opposition media placed the figure at around 90,000, while local authorities loyal to the Kremlin said that 6,500 attended.
Watch: Thousands march across #Russia’s Far East city of Khabarovsk on the border with #China to protest the arrest of the regional governor on murder charges, continuing a two-week wave of protests that have challenged the Kremlin.https://t.co/Uzq5IpGXwP pic.twitter.com/v8bkKJ2lrA
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) July 25, 2020
Demonstrators began congregating in Lenin Square before setting off on a two-hour-long march in which they waved the regional flag and shouted slogans including “Furgal was our choice” and “Twenty years, no trust,” a reference to Putin’s two-decade-long rule of the country.
“They keep spitting in our faces, so we keep coming out,” Alexei Potashenko, a 49-year-old small business owner, told The Moscow Times. “It’s quickly becoming a new tradition.”
The crowd chants “Putin resign!” in front of what they call the “White House” here — the headquarters of the regional government. pic.twitter.com/Wg1kSU1XSC
— Anton Troianovski (@antontroian) July 25, 2020
Degtyaryov’s appointment by the Kremlin led to the resignation of two local LDP officials and he has already angered locals during his short tenure. Last week, he declined an invitation to meet with protesters, who demanded he listen to their concerns as he is not a local. He also blamed the rallies on outside interference, citing evidence supposedly provided to him by local law enforcement that organizers had flown in people from other parts of the country.
Such theories were played down by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who dismissed claims of outside interference but said that protesters were led by “troublemakers” and “pseudo-opposition” activists.
Protests started in response to arrest of ex-Governor by Moscow on July 9: pic.twitter.com/OKZZ7Q6DGE
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) July 27, 2020
Furgal recently tried to distance himself from the protests through a message provided by his legal representation.
“Sergei Furgal has nothing to do with the demonstrations of residents of Khabarovsk,” his lawyer said last week. “He thanks them, but today in court he said he does not approve of these mass actions, as he is the region’s governor, and he believes his voters should act in accordance with existing legislation.”