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July 20, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8850

Russian Commentators Try To Explain Why Khabarovsk Residents Massively Rallied In Support Of Their Governor Sergei Furgal Following His Arrest On Murder Charges

July 20, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8850

On September 8, agents of the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service arrested Sergei Furgal governor of the Khabarovsk region of Siberia on charges of murder and attempted murder going back to 2004-5. Furgal was spirited away to Moscow for arraignment and was remanded till mid-October 2020. [1] In the interim between the commission of the crimes he is charged with and his arrest, Furgal had served in the Duma, where he held committee chairmanships, and in 2018, he was elected governor handily winning a runoff handily against the incumbent, who was backed by the ruling United Russia Party.

Furgal's arrest and imprisonment touched off heated reactions in Khabarovsk, where Furgal was popular and considered, a different breed than other high officials. On Saturday July 11, a crowd estimated at 30,000, a size unprecedented for Khabarovsk, marched in support of the deposed Furgal.[2] A week later, the demonstrations were still going strong. [3] More ominously for the authorities, the protests were spreading to other cities in the Russian Far East. [4]The marchers in the procession carried placards demanding freedom for Furgal and calling for Putin's resignation.


The placard on the left reads "Freedom for Furgal" while the cut off sign to the right reads "Putin resign" (Source: Lentachel.ru)

Petitions also appeared voicing similar sentiments. One petition appearing on the Change.org website read: "It's no secret that Sergei Ivanovich Furgal has become a bone in the throat for United Russia, and they are trying everything to remove him from the post of Khabarovsk Krai governor. On behalf of the people of the Khabarovsk Krai, we want to support Sergei Ivanovich [Furgal] and prevent his resignation. During a short period of time, he showed that he is truly a people’s governor, and not just a public figure. The people are behind him. And now, when the people saw that government could be 'pro' people, they are throwing us a fake in order to remove the people's governor from his office..."[5]

As Furgal was a member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, his arrest aroused the ire of Zhirinovsky, who accused the government of Stalinist tactics on the floor of the Duma: "If needed, the LDPR faction will leave [boycott] the parliament. We’ll let the whole world know what kind of mess is happening in the country. You needed a constitution? We have given you a constitution! And you put handcuffs on our hands! Shame! You sit in your offices and act according to Stalin’s course! But [FSB head Alexander] Bortnikov is not [Stalin's Lavrenti] Beria. And you don’t have police vans for everyone". Zhirinovsky asked the question on everyone's lips "why was Sergei Furgal detained many years after the crimes he is charged with had happened. Why have you been silent for 14 years?" [6]

Several analysts tried to answer the question of what prompted the actions against Furgal. A second issue concerned the demonstrations on his behalf, were they orchestrated or were they spontaneous and did they support Furgal personally or was he merely a lightning rod for the Siberian periphery's resentment towards the Moscow center? These questions will be addressed in the following report.

Time Interval And Failure To Document Accusations Prompt Alternative Theories

The question raised by Zhirinovsky was shared by many government supporters and opponents alike. Retired FSB General Alexei Michaelov believed the authorities were in the chess situation called zugzwang. It was their move to make, but any move would land them in further trouble.:

"How can this be explained at all? The man was a deputy of the State Duma three times; he was let in as governor. Who will believe in these explanations? After all, by and large, those who owned these materials and did not take punitive measures should go to prison together with Furgal. This is zugzwang. Everyone understands that something needs to be done, but they cannot offer any recipe. History shows that mass protests, even revolutions, began with very little reason.[7]

From the opposite side of the political spectrum, economist Sergei Aleksashenko, former deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, argued in an interview with Echo of Moscow: "Our special services, who were supposed to check that all candidates were free of criminality ... President Putin promised us that [the presidential power of] appointing governors is the only way to prevent crime from taking power. So, either those people who checked the files of candidates for elections to the governors of the Khabarovsk Territory turned out to be complete ignoramuses, and you need to dissolve all these units, disperse them... Or you have to admit that this is a political action, and Sergei Furgal, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, is as such a political prisoner. That is, he is being persecuted for political reasons."[8]


Sergei Aleksashenko (Source: Rbc.ru)

The director of the Institute of Contemporary State Development Dmitry Solonnikov believes that the authorities should have unveiled the evidence regarding Furgal's alleged crimes to avert the blowup in Khabarovsk:

"Let us recall the situation with Khoroshavin (Alexander Khoroshavin - ex-governor of the Sakhalin region), when there were immediately photos with documents on corruption in the region, millions of rubles, a gold watch, etc. So, in the case of Furgal, all this had to be done the middle of last week. Now time has been lost, and blaming the administration of the Khabarovsk Territory for everything, demanding that it stop all rallies at once, is reminiscent of the famous joke: "Colonel, stop the train" – [Colonel bellows an order:] "Train, stop: one, two!" [9]

As the authorities had failed to convince the public of Furgal's guilt the search began for alternative theories to explain his arrest.

The Kremlin Never Forgave Furgal For Beating United Russia's Candidate In 2018

Some argued that this was payback for Furgal's refusal to withdraw his candidacy for governor in 2018 against the incumbent, United Russia's candidate Vyacheslav Shport, and that he had violated a commitment to do so. Senior commentator and political scientist George Bovt wrote: "He ran for this post in 2018. As everyone involved in this matter understood, he was a spoiler that should not have won. And he had to enhance the victory of the current governor Shport - United Russia. There are rumors that he should have withdrawn or something else should happen to him. And he took and won. Because he focused the so-called protest vote upon himself. And he became one of those four governors who in 2018 won against the plans of the Kremlin administration.[10]"

The head of the "Political Expert Group" Konstantin Kalachev said that Khabarovsk's citizens felt that the Kremlin had already punished the city for backing Furgal: "Last year I talked with the Khabarovsk citizens. Firstly, they were very happy that they got rid of Shport. Secondly, they said that Furgal answered their requests and expressed the opinion that Moscow would not allow him to work. Additionally, the Khabarovsk residents were quite offended when the "capital" of the Far East was moved from their city to Vladivostok (in December 2018, the presidential representative office in the Far Eastern Federal District moved there). They took it very painfully, like a slap in the face. Moreover, this happened immediately after Furgal was elected governor of the Khabarovsk Territory, although it was planned to do this even earlier.[11]

Zhirinovsky: Furgal Refused To Pay Off The Center

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who continued to insist on Furgal's innocence, raised a series of alternative explanations for his arrest. Zhirinovsky said that federal officials allegedly demanded that Furgal transport boxes of money to Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov challenged Zhirinovsky to prove his words.[12] Zhirinovsky also alleged that the Kremlin feared Furgal's growing popularity that would have ensured his reelection and would have bolstered his independence from Russia's president. [13]

A Reassertion Of Coercive Power By Putin And The Security Agencies

Political analyst Alexander Kynev believes that Furgal fell victim to Putin's need to reassert himself after his authority and popularity had receded during the pandemic: "Furgal was one of the best governors in Russia. He had a high rating and more than 15 years of experience in politics. From the moment he was elected 'attacks' on him began... Apparently, they decided to attack him using the testimony of someone in prison. It is a common practice. It is interesting that the ex-governor of Primorsky Krai Sergey Darkin and the current governor of the region, Oleg Kozhemyako, did not bother them, although both have an interesting reputation."

"We are witnessing the political regime's shift to a harsh way of problem solving. The referendum campaign itself showed that the center's main pillar of strength is coercion. The regime became weak during the epidemic, the ratings of the president declined. They need some muscle play; they need to show that Putin is back on horse. So they found how to achieve this and at someone's expense."[14]

Coping With The Unprecedented Size Of The Pro-Furgal Demonstrations

One reason for the regime's hesitancy in reacting to the demonstrators in Khabarovsk was their sheer numbers – nearly 10 percent of the city's population.  Therefore, the regime resorted to a combined policy of blackout, minimization and discreditation. Russia's premier nationally televised news programs, after reporting the arrest of Furgal, either provided no coverage to the demonstrations following his arrest, or briefly mentioned that unsanctioned activities had taken place in Khabarovsk.[15] It is not that the item was not newsworthy as can be seen by the attention devoted in the press and internet outlets, and the coverage lavished by the most prestigious foreign journals and news services.

An attempt was made to minimize the number of demonstrators and badmouth them. The regional department of the Internal Affairs Ministry in a press release put the size of Saturday's demonstration at 10-12 thousand people although it had received more accurate reports from the city police.[16] Pro government papers published reports that the size of the demonstration was swelled by drunkards:

"While initially, mostly young people were present among the protesters, by night time they were joined by a lot of drunken citizens." Regnum.ru reported that the Khabarovsk administration received more than 20 complaints from residents of the city about street noise during the night and daytime from rallies and protests in support of Furgal.[17]

The issue of the demonstrators' irresponsibility in endangering their health during the coronavirus pandemic was frequently mentioned. Khabarovsk's mayour Sergey Kravchuk warned: "Such rallies are not needed in the city...They are illegal and adversely affect the health of all those who take part in them."[18]

Pyotr Kiryan, head of the Institute for Regional Problems' social research laboratory, conceded to Izvestiya that the 10-12 thousand-strong demonstration was peaceful with no broken showcases and upturned cars, but he still claimed that the demonstration was dangerous from the contagion aspect. "If we look at the example of Spain, then this is a sweepstakes, and in two or three weeks there will be a strong surge in the incidence [of Covid 19]."[19]

The public health argument was robbed of its potency since the authorities had encouraged mass public participation in the voting for the constitutional amendments. Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky mocked this double standard: "When a mass of people went out to the street, pay attention to how the authorities in Moscow and partly even in the Khabarovsk Territory react - they say that now they can't avoid a new powerful outbreak of coronavirus, because when people go out and start protesting, right there everyone gets sick. When they vote for amendments, naturally, immunity is improved. And when they vote against the amendments, they probably lose it. Apparently, such a logic exists."[20]


Boris Kagarlitsky (Source: Radiokp.ru)

Pro-Government Outlets And Surrogates: The Demonstration Was Not Spontaneous

A further government attempt to depreciate the importance of the demonstrations was to insinuate that they were not spontaneous at all but had been orchestrated  either by Furgal's entourage or by Zhirinovsky LDPR.

The official Ria.ru news agency explained: "The events in Khabarovsk once again reminded about the critical importance of the organizational factor in such matters. If at first some Russian media wrote about the spontaneous nature of the action, it quickly became obvious that there was no question of any spontaneity there.

"Public sentiment - both positive and negative - is in itself unproductive. In order for them to provide a real political effect, they must be correctly used, organizing and directing in the right direction. Behind the mass movements there are always interested political forces that pursue their own goals, and this is concerns 'spontaneous' processes first and foremost."[21]

Political analyst Marat Bashirov of the Institute of Communications accused Furgal's sbordinates of organizing the demonstrations to protect themselves from arrest. They mobilized the crowd via the media and printed the stickers. But these stupid actions would have a positive outcome: But, on the other hand, it's good that all this comes out. The new interim [governor], who will most likely arrive in Khabarovsk next week, will understand who i needs to be removed from the power structures in the first place."

Bashirov felt a bit more sympathy for the duped demonstrators, who had exposed themselves to infection: "Most people went out in a dense stream without protective masks. I would not rule out an outbreak, a coronavirus infection. This disorder worked against people. On the other hand, many learn that it is not always necessary to follow the lead of those who organize such events. Still, you need to think about your own security." Finally, Bashirov reverted to the low estimate of the demonstration's size despite the claims of the demonstrators: "A certain angle of shooting is visible. But a maximum of ten thousand people participated in the procession. Given the population of Khabarovsk in 617 thousand people, this is less than 2%. In the end, about three thousand people reached the central square of Lenin. Given the fact that the LDPR knows how to organize such meetings and they often focus on such public events, nothing critical has happened in Khabarovsk. We must tell what happened to Furgal and why he was arrested. This will be one of the tasks of the presidential envoy in the Far Eastern Federal District and security officials."[22]

The director of the Institute of the Newest States, Alexei Martynov, claimed that Furgal's associates had organized the demonstrations. He also sought to consolidate the authorities' description of Furgal as a crime boss: "Furgal has a tough team there with clear submission, as befits a criminal authority. As it should be in the gang - everything is strictly vertical, without unnecessary thoughts in the head. The meeting was organized by his deputy. Everything was prepared in advance. After all, Furgal's comrades-in-arms clearly also can expect questions from the investigation."[23]

Local journalist and blogger Denis Kovalev was incensed by the charges that the demonstrations were not spontaneous but orchestrated:

"Do you really think that the Khabarovsk residents are so spineless and are not able to decide for themselves whom they should go out for? There was no "patient zero" in this spontaneous action - nobody organized anything, did not draw up lists, did not pay money. I can say that the representatives of the press service were awestruck when they saw how many people came out to support the governor. It was as unexpected as the arrest of Furgal."[24]

For its part, the LDPR denied that it was the force behind the demonstrations the party's faction in the State Duma said on its Telegram channel. "We are a parliamentary party and act only within the framework of the law." [25]

Vladimir Putin has remained silent during these demonstrations, but his spokesman Dmitry Peskov broke cover on July 14 to acknowledge that the demonstrations were genuine: "The message of the residents of Khabarovsk and the region is understandable because the actual situation is extremely abnormal and emotionally quite resonant." He asked the citizens for patience because the case involved severe criminal charges such as complicity in murder.[26]

Were The Demonstrations An Exhibition Of Personal Support For Furgal Or A Sign Of Regional Discontent With Moscow?

 

The two themes come together in this poster reading we are all Sergei Furgal and on the bottom the [Russian] Far East is with you (Source: Dvnh.ru)

While not mutually exclusive, analysts explained the size of the demonstration either as a show of personal support for Furgal or claimed that he had merely served as a lightning rod for the periphery's dissatisfaction with Moscow.

Yulia Latinina: Furgal's Crime Was That He Was A Good And Honest Governor

All this shooting [the alleged crimes] did not excite the authorities until Furgal committed 4 crimes. First: he won the election against United Russia. Second: he began to really engage in the region. For example, he actually cut costs, put a government yacht up for sale. He forbade an official to fly in business class. He lowered the salary of the governor. The third crime: he really had a higher rating than Putin... And the fourth and fifth crimes: last September, in the wake of this popularity, his party took the majority in the local Duma. And the fifth crime –Furgal did not fake the results of the referendum. According to official figures, the turnout in the Khabarovsk Territory was 44%, support for resetting [Putin's terms of office] 63% that were approximately real numbers."[27]


Yulia Latinina (Source: Vnnews.ru)

A resident of the region offered this testimonial: "Not a single governor has ever gone on long trips to our villages", says Lyudmila Arkhangelskaya, a resident of Okhotsk. "He drove through many settlements, looked at what was really happening on the ground, helped restore the infrastructure. Of course, people support him. Our opinion: he is the first to whom it was really important how people live in the region. Not for the report to Moscow, but for his conscience. I don’t know who he was interfering with - political rivals or businessmen. Do not underestimate how many resources from us go to the center of the country and abroad. A lot of money is spinning in the region, but we don't see it.[28]

Other analysts saw the demonstrations as essentially a sign of discontent with Moscow that had removed a governor that the people had elected and were trying him in Moscow rather than in Khabarovsk.

Kiril Martinov wrote in Novayagazeta.ru that the periphery had risen against the center: "It is rather a question of the endless fatigue and irritation of the Khabarovsk citizens about how no one takes their opinion into account. The federal center refers to the Far East (and is it only to them?) as a taxable population that has lost the status of citizens."

"No matter what they do to people - be it pension reform or the actual abolition of competitive elections, they will be silent and put up with. From such an axiom the Kremlin departs."

The Kremlin had been fortunate that the regional discontent has boiled up sporadically and not all at once: "There is no doubt that right now an experienced group of 'fixers' is being sent to Khabarovsk, ready to pacify the local elites with threats and money. Similar groups in the recent gubernatorial elections pacified Vladivostok, where the local United Russia party could not win even in the absence of real competitors, so the Central Election Commission simply canceled the vote. Most likely, a wave of popular anger in the region will be beaten down. It is another matter if such 'a withdrawal of political deposits' begins in other parts of the country, then the 'banking system' built by the Kremlin may burst...

"For years, propaganda has claimed that revolutionaries and foreign spies are rocking the boat, but in reality, the main source of political instability in 'zeroed Russia''are the authorities, who simply forgot how to reckon with popular opinion."[29]

Gennady Gudkov, a former high-ranking KGB officer, who broke with Putin and United Russia over the issue of democracy and participated in the 2011 demonstrations against the former, echoed Martinov's sentiments and now viewed the regions rather than upscale Moscow as the potential source of trouble for the regime: " The events, and by and large - the PEOPLE'S RIOT in Khabarovsk [emphasis original] - clearly showed us all how the crisis of power in Russia will develop. First, a 'buzz'will begin in regions where people are more destitute, pissed at 'well-fed' Moscow, at the bureaucrats living in the capital. The security forces in the regions, too, cannot act so harshly and without looking back as in 12 millionth Moscow. Because these security forces live there with their families, it’s impossible to simply crush the neighbor’s head with a club or break his leg lying on the sidewalk with impunity, as happens in Moscow.[30]

Political geographer and political scientist Rostislav Turovsky,  vice president of the Foundation for Political Technologies claimed the protest was clearly an expression of regional resentment and not personal support for Furgal: "It cannot be said that Furgal was an effective governor - today it is simply unrealistic without the strong support of the center, which he did not have. In addition, from his predecessor, he inherited a huge public debt, which completely limited freedom of action in the financial sector. The Furgal phenomenon is related to another matter. Firstly, with attempts to conduct a dialogue with society and make at least specific decisions in its favor... Secondly, with the traditional negative attitude towards Moscow in the Far East... Furgal, chosen on a protest wave, became a symbol of attempts to defend regional identity, although he was not a rebel. So, it’s not the personality of Furgal, but the public mood in the Far East, which made him the 'crowd's hero', even if only for a while."[31]

As mentioned, the method of the arrest and arraignment angered the citizens. Participants in the demonstrations demanded that Furgal's trial be held in Khabarovsk and not in Moscow. [32]One demonstrator reacted:  Do we have only the Basmanny court [in Moscow before which Furgal was arraigned], which has the right to judge? Do we have no regional court here in Khabarovsk? Can't we figure out the fate of our governor ourselves? The Far East editor of Vedomosti wrote: Special forces came in a van from Moscow to detain Furgal- what is this? Do we have no law enforcement agencies in the city? [33]


Furgal is led outside for transfer to Moscow (Source: Gazeta.ru)

Aleksander Melman: The Crisis Shows That The Judicial System Has Lost All Credibility

Mk.ru's television and movie observer Aleksander Melman claimed that the crisis recalled the mistakes of the overcentralized Soviet Union in dictating to the regions. It also revealed that the Russian judicial system had lost all credibility. He wrote: "Don’t events in Khabarovsk and in Komsomolsk-On-Amur seem familiar to you? Well, they are familiar to me. In 1986, Moscow appointed Gennady Kolbin to the quite Republic of Kazakhstan, instead of the Dimuhamed Kunaev. And these quietest people, mostly ethnic Kazakhs (they were a minority in the Kazakh SSR back then) took their protest to the streets. Their slogans were: 'Dictate. No more!', 'To each nation - its own leader!', 'We need a Kazakh leader!' This was the first mass protest of Perestroika. The first sign. Back then Moscow, albeit not immediately, but made concessions, and in 1989 Kolbin left the office. But that didn’t help. Karabakh, Tbilisi, Sumgayit, Baku, Yerevan, Transnistria, Vilnius, Riga ... and Moscow [protests] followed! Everyone knows how it all ended."

Yes, conceded Melman, today's Russia is stronger than the Soviet Union "whose stupid economy planned how many nails each republic needs to produce... But the amazing Moscow arrogance is still there: the desire of the federal center, of the capital, of the best city in the world to interfere in everything. If at the very beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms, the quietest Kazakhs did not tolerate this, then the quietest Khabarovsk citizens will not tolerate this too. "

However, Melman argues, the protest also shows that the politicized judicial system has lost all credibility in the eyes of Russian citizens:  "I forgot to mention the most important thing. The vicious [Stalinist] court system of 1937 has remained too. Law enforcement agencies are just an instrument, a tool, a lever in the hands of the ruling party. They thoroughly and precisely carry out quiet 'telephone orders'. Moreover, in post-Soviet, 'free' Russia, judicial lawlessness only intensified. At first, in the 90s, the courts were almost entirely bought up by the oligarchs, but the state took revenge in 2000s.

:In fact, both situations are terrible: now no one trusts the decisions of the courts, the actions of the investigative committee or the FSB. People are told: journalist Safronov is a spy, he sold secrets of his homeland. 'But we do not believe this' - answer the people, "prove it!". But they cannot. People are being told: 'Governor Furgal is a murderer, gangster, criminal baron'. 'But we do not believe this' - answer the people, 'prove it!  And even if you will prove it, we are still not going to believe it.' This is what is happening now.

"[People] think and wonder: why did they arrest Furgal? Some say: he thinks too much about himself, his rating is already higher than that of the president. Others say: he did not use an administrative resource in the voting process [for constitutional amendments], and the turnout was one of the lowest in the Khabarovsk Krai, and only 62% of voters gave their voters for the amendments. He didn’t provide the necessary 78%!

"But then it turns out that the authorities knew about Furgal’s criminal past, but was silent for the time being, only hanging the governor by the string. And then how many such gangsters rule Russia? And if the state didn’t know, then what kind of authorities are this?"[34]


Alexander Melman (Source: Echo.msk.ru)

 

[1] Tass.ru, July 9, 2020

[2] News.ru, July 11, 2020.

[3] Rbc.ru, July 18, 2020.

[4] Forbes.ru, July 19, 2020.

[5] Kommersant.ru, July 9, 2020.

[6] Meduza.io, July 9, 2020.

[7] Mk.ru, July 13, 2020,

[8] Echo.msk.ru, July 15, 2020.

[9] Eadaily.com.ru, July 13, 2020.

[10] Radiokp.ru, July 10.2020.

[11] Rbc.ru, July 16, 2020.

[12] Radiokp.ru, July 10.2020.

[13] Echo.msk.ru, July 13, 2020.

[14] Rosbalt.ru, July 9, 2020.

[15] Rosbalt.ru, July 14, 2020.

[16] News.ru, July 11, 2020.

[17] Regnum.ru, July 14, 2020.

[18] Mk.ru, July 14, 2020.

[19] Iz.ru, July 11, 2020.

[20] Nakanune.ru, July 14, 2020.

[21i] Ria.ru, July 13. 2020.

[22] Vz.ru, July 11, 2020.

[23] Gazeta.ru, July 11, 2020.

[24] Mk.ru, July 13, 2020.

[25] Vedemosti.ru, July 12, 2020.

[26] Interfax.ru, July 14, 2020.

[27] Echo.msk.ru, July 11, 2020.

[28i] Mk.ru, July 15, 2020.

[29] Novayagazeta.ru, July 11, 2020.

[30] Echo.msk.ru, July 12, 2020.

[31] Mk.ru, July 13, 2020.

[32] Evening-kazan.ru, July 11, 2020.

[33] Novayagazeta.ru, July 13, 2020.

[34] Mk.ru, July 12, 2020.

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