An Isolated Case? Observers Doubt Far East Unrest Will Spread Across Russia
(Article text ©2020 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Mikhail Sokolov, Robert Coalson – MOSCOW, July 23, 2020 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/far-east-unrest-may-not-spread-across-russia/30743374.html)
For nearly two weeks, residents of the Russian city of Khabarovsk have been protesting following the July 9 arrest of the region’s popular governor, Sergei Furgal. After President Vladimir Putin named a Moscow-based politician with no ties to the Far Eastern region as Furgal’s temporary replacement, the protests took a sharply anti-Moscow turn.
“Twenty years and we don’t trust you,” protesters chanted on July 21, referring to Putin’s two decades in power as president or prime minister. “Putin, resign!” “We are the power here.”
Although the protests have been largest in the city of Khabarovsk, demonstrations have also been held in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and other cities across the Khabarovsk region, as well as sympathy rallies in other Far East cities such as Vladivostok and Birobidzhan.
At the same time, the entire country remains anxious about the frightening but not yet fully understood economic fallout of the global coronavirus pandemic and is still coping with the hasty adoption of some 200 constitutional amendments that, among other things, seem designed to pave the way for Putin to remain in power until 2036.
With Putin’s personal popularity rating falling and the ruling United Russia party widely held in contempt, some observers have speculated that the Khabarovsk unrest could be harbinger of broader discontent in the coming months. In 2005, they recall, more than 500,000 people in dozens of cities participated in demonstrations against a controversial social-benefits reform. The presidential administration was shocked by images of people carrying posters comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler and by the fact that many local administrations tacitly or openly backed the anti-Moscow anger.
However, the current situation in Khabarovsk seems to be undergirded by specific local conditions and that, in turn, could limit the chances of the protests that have gripped the region metastasizing, experts say.
The Khabarovsk unrest “has primarily an emotional foundation,” says Moscow-based economist Sergei Zharovonkov, suggesting that its thickest roots lie not in objective economic conditions but in a long-simmering mistrust of the central government brought to a boil by the actions of the authorities — from Putin to prosecutors — in the last two weeks.
“I have looked at the economic statistics of the Khabarovsk region and this dynamic of the situation there is better than average for Russia in terms of productivity and wages,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “It is an emotional thing.”
Surprisingly, the emotional basis of the protests might be hope, rather than despair.
Economist Andrei Nechayev says that residents of Khabarovsk are primarily angry that Moscow reached into their region and removed a governor who was elected with a huge mandate in 2018 and whose popularity has only grown since.
“And Moscow not only removed him, but put him in prison,” Nechayev says. “Metaphorically speaking, it was a political slap in the face to the region.”
Furgal was elected in 2018, gaining more than 70 percent of the vote in a runoff election with the United Russia incumbent. On July 9 he was arrested in Khabarovsk on suspicion of involvement in two murders and an attempted murder in the mid-2000s and trundled off to a Moscow jail for possible trial.
In a post on Facebook on July 22, sociologist Anastasia Nikolskaya said the previous United Russia governor, Vyacheslav Shport, was overwhelmingly viewed in the region as “a Kremlin puppet who was trying to rob the region.”
The election of Furgal was widely interpreted as a show of regional independence. Moreover, Furgal unexpectedly turned out to be “a good governor,” Nikolskaya wrote, “the kind of leader for which demand in the country has been high for some time.”
He ran a transparent administration, televising government sessions and focusing on practical issues that in many cases were brought to his attention by constituents, she wrote, and raised local expectations by showing that “interaction between the people and the authorities, as well as transparency and accountability was possible.”
“The popularly elected governor did really orient himself toward the people,” Moscow-based political and economic analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev says. “Maybe he didn’t do everything perfectly, but he was a populist in the positive sense of the word and that, undoubtedly, captured the public mood.”
Looking East, Not West
Economist Zharovonkov argues that in many cases the protest potential of a population increases with prosperity and raised expectations. He points to the examples of Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, when people rose up at a time of significant economic growth. Closer to home, he says, Russians did not take to the streets during the economic collapse of 2008-09, but did protest in large numbers in 2011-12, when the possibility that Putin would not return to the presidency after the one-term tenure of Dmitry Medvedev vanished.
“People might revolt when they get some money, some confidence, when their basic needs are met and they aren’t thinking just about survival but about freedom, human rights, and personal dignity,” he says.
Expectations in the Khabarovsk region, as well as in other parts of the Far East and eastern Siberia, have also been raised by the region’s proximity to China and other East Asian economic success stories.
“People there see that not only is Russia not developing, but the region borders China and has access to Southeast Asia and people see the real development happening there,” analyst Inozemtsev says. “That is, on one side they see the Kremlin’s demagoguery and stagnation and on the other side they see a rapidly developing territory that 20 years ago was much poorer than Russia but now looks like heaven on Earth.
“That is why I think the Far East and eastern Siberia as a whole are going to be major problems for the central authorities,” he concludes.
Solving that problem will take more than high-profile special projects that have historically benefited the Moscow-connected interests that are granted the construction tenders more than local economies.
“I am not sure that you can spend some money on onetime payments or start some sort of project in the region like building a new hospital or opening a new school,” economist Nechayev says. “I don’t know to what extent that will satisfy people in Khabarovsk or reduce the ‘protest fever.'”
The solution, Inozemtsev believes, may be something that will be profoundly difficult for Putin’s centralized government to offer. “They don’t need to buy something for anyone,” he says. “They need to stop pressing on people. As in any frontier territory, doing that might produce results.”
“But trying to give money through centralized programs or through new ministries will only bureaucratize the situation and make it worse, in my opinion,” he adds.