Today’s New York Times and Financial Times feature substantial articles on the latest political developments in the Russian Far East bearing piquant titles:
NYT – “Protests Rock Russian Far East With Calls for Putin to Resign” by Andrew Higgins
FT – “Russian governor’s arrest sparks anti-Putin protests. Khabarovsk leader Sergei Furgal is latest detention in post-referendum crackdown” by Max Seddon
Both journalists are Moscow-based, working at a distance of 6,000 km from the scene of the action, which means that everything they have reported is second-hand, gleaned from their usual anti-Kremlin contacts in the capital, from reading Facebook accounts, from the comments of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and, one assumes, from stringers in the Far East. However, they do their fact-gathering job well-enough to have two or three pages of text, and I will take their facts as accurate for our purposes.
The intended contribution of this essay is to offer an interpretation of what is going on that goes farther and deeper than what these two opinion-shaping newspapers give us: the notion that Putin’s popularity is sagging or that he is using his “new powers” from the referendum on constitutional amendments to settle scores with a troublesome local politician. These factors are undeniably present, but there are other drivers of the arrest and of the protests that merit an airing. Because these factors do not mesh with the belief of mainstream media that Russia has no opposition parties or movements other than those we recognize as such, they are being ignored, even as they are, potentially, very important markers of the general direction of Russian politics today.
I do not offer a definitive interpretation here, since the information is still too sketchy, but I will raise questions that hopefully other commentators will also address in coming days, since the blow-up in the Far East is no small matter. As many as 35,000 protesters may have turned out in Khabarovsk to protest Furgal’s arrest. They called for Putin’s resignation and carried signs “Down with Moscow!”
The figure at the center of the scandal, Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal was arrested in the past week and taken to Moscow where he is being charged with murders and criminal business activity in his past. Given the statute of limitations in Russia, the single murder on which the prosecution will likely rest their case must be brought now while it is still actionable.
At the start of his Sunday evening broadcast, Rossiya 1 anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov, who also heads the news services of all state broadcasting, gave the Furgal arrest extensive coverage, starting with an interview with the tearful mother of the alleged victim murdered in 2005. The program sought to demonstrate that this is an open and shut case, with the prosecution having the goods in hand to bring conviction.
Even the Financial Times reporter appears to acknowledge the likelihood that Furgal is implicated in murders, saying they were a widespread practice in business circles from the chaotic 1990s on. He says Furgal’s prosecution now, just before the statute of limitations shuts down, is revenge for being too popular, for beating the United Russia candidate and for failing to bring out the vote in favor of the constitutional amendments at the national referendum last month. With 62% approval amidst 44% turnout, in Khabarovsk only 25% of the electorate voted Putin’s choice, in contrast to the approval of just over 50% of eligible voters that was achieved nationwide.
One additional fact tossed out at the very end of the FT account bears mention. Seddon remind us that Furgal belonged to the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR, for whom he had been a deputy in the State Duma for more than a decade and he caps this with an otherwise unexplained account of Zhirinovsky’s response to the arrest of his protégé:
“Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR’s leader, threatened to withdraw all its MPs in protest at Mr Furgal’s arrest and said that security services were ‘acting like under Stalin.’”
The FT does not bother to identify the LDPR, but The New York Times does it quite precisely: they are the party of “the nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky,” going on to say that the party is “scorned by Russian liberals as a collection of crackpots and crooks.”
But let bygones be bygones. Though the protesters may be crackpots, the journalist Higgins tells us that the protests themselves have won the endorsement of the one man who stands in for a legitimate opposition in Western eyes: “Aleksei A. Navalny, a Moscow-based anti-corruption campaigner and Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, cheered Saturday’s protests in the Far East, hailing the street demonstration in Khabarovsk as the ‘biggest in the city’s history.’”
* * * *
In my analysis of the voting results from July 1st, “Putin’s Referendum: Where are the Numbers?” I remarked on how the Far East had given dismal results for the Kremlin.
“In…particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout: Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%).”
This leads to the question: which party has profited at the expense of United Russia and why?
The first part of this question is relatively easy: Zhirinovsky’s party LDPR has profited, not the Liberal-minded, European friendly folks that our mainstream would like to see as an opposition that will eventually unseat Putin and bring Russia back to heel. But ‘why’ is more problematic.
As a first attempt at answering this, I point to the map. Europe as a moral and political compass is still more remote to your average Khabarovsk resident than Moscow, whereas China is right under his nose. These LDPR supporters are nationalists, and it would be reasonable to assume that they are less than delighted by the Kremlin’s tilt to Beijing these past few years. If Moscow liberals may sound off over this because philosophically they prefer a Russia solidly aligned with the West, not in alliance with autocratic, Communist China, the broad population and its political class in Khabarovsk have more concrete reasons to dislike the ever closer ties with the China that they see daily just across the Amur.
It is not just the Yellow Peril issue of 1.3 billion Chinese keen to settle the vast empty expanses of resource rich Eastern Siberia and the Maritime Province. It is the Chinese who connive to illegally harvest pelts, cut down forests and poach fishing resources within Russian territory and the economic zone offshore. Russian federal authorities have been notoriously slow to crack down on these abuses which directly impact the wellbeing of local woodsmen and fishermen. As regards the fishermen, there is also local anger at the poaching by North Koreans, which even is picked up occasionally on Moscow’s investigative reporting.
The curious thing is that one of the key drivers of the Kremlin’s policy tilt to China has been to develop large scale, modern and highly remunerative employment for the Far Eastern population through massive energy infrastructure projects that serve firstly, the Chinese market, and as a byproduct, serve the population of the Russian Far East, as is the case, for example of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, that will finally bring natural gas to the Russian cities of the region and also provide feedstock for a massive chemical industry under construction there.
The protests over Furgal indicate that the benefits of the Kremlin’s investments in the Far East have not yet trickled down to the population and alienation remains high.
But there is more to this story that has direct relevance to the nationwide political balance in Russia.
I believe that the crackdown on Furgal is one more move by United Russia to establish a stranglehold on Russian politics ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections. The leadership of United Russia was surely behind the changeover of the constitutional amendments from a redistribution of power between the three branches of government, the clear intent of Vladimir Putin when he announced the initiative on 15 January 2020, into a ratification of Putin’s eligibility to stand for election again in 2024 and 2030, which is what the 1 July referendum was all about in the end. Surely the leadership of United Russia was also behind the removal of the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma from nearly all television and media appearances for approximately three months this spring, till just before the referendum.
Now, the arrest of Furgal is an open attack on Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party. The crimes that may have been on record for Furgal did not surface so long as the party leader could ensure protection. Now that protection has been removed, Zhirinovsky has threatened to pull his party members out of the Duma in protest. For Russia today, that is very dramatic and newsworthy. It may also reflect the deep disappointment of Zhirinovsky that the sharing of power with the other Duma parties that was promised explicitly in Putin’s 15 January speech, has been ripped up by the President’s entourage to protect their own monopoly on power.
The attack on the LDPR is all the more stunning given that Zhirinovsky had been more royalist than the king in the run-up to the referendum, suggesting that it was unnecessary to hold the ballot given that the reform had already passed both houses of the legislature. Here he was in stark contrast to the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, who alone among the Duma politicians had denounced the constitutional amendments precisely because of the allowance they made for Putin to remain in power forever.
For all of the above reasons, the coming trial of Furgal and resulting political fall-out deserves our full attention in the days and weeks ahead.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]