If there is anything the spontaneous outburst of popular anger in the Far-Eastern town of Khabarovsk shows it is the steady decline of Putinism. Arrest a popular governor (Sergey Furgal) for not delivering on election results ánd being more popular than Putin is usual stuff, as are trumped-up charges from a distant past. But not foreseeing the response is a sign of the times, says our columnist Mark Galeotti. Once again the people shout: 'Putin is a thief' and 'Furgal is our guy'. But it could have been any provincial town, struck by economic crisis and corona.
Arrest of Khabarovsk governor Furgal sparked unrest in the Far-Eastern town of 600.000 (picture Russian Investigative Commission)
A governor who didn’t want to be a governor, representing an opposition party that doesn’t really want to oppose. The case of Sergei Furgal, the governor of Khabarovsk, illustrates how the Kremlin is squandering any chance of building a new constituency, and instead creating new sources of opposition.
When officers from the Investigative Committee arrested Furgal and four others on 9 July, accused of the murders of several businessmen in 2004-05, there was presumably little awareness of the kind of backlash this would cause. Even as Furgal was being flown to Moscow, pictures of him being handcuffed showing on local TV, anger was growing at home.
Two days later, more than 30,000 people protested his arrest, the largest rally in the city’s history, many chanting anti-Putin slogans. The event was unauthorised, but the police did nothing, perhaps to avoid exacerbating the situation and also perhaps because of a degree of sympathy with the protesters.
The rise of an unlikely champion
The irony is that Furgal is hardly a poster child for liberal, anti-Putin oppositionism. Trained as a doctor, after 7 years at Poyarkov Central District Hospital he instead went into business, first importing Chinese consumer goods, then the timber trade and next scrap metal. While the 2000s saw Russia move beyond the lawlessness of the 'wild 90s', it took a while for this process to communicate itself eastwards as far as Khabarovsk. The timber and scrap industries were notorious for their roughness, and for that matter Khabarovsk was considered something of a 'bandit city'.
Furgal also moved into politics, a characteristic step for a businessman with ambitions. He was regional coordinator for the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky from 2005, and an elected deputy in the State Duma from 2007, a position he held until 2018.
As Andrei Pertsev so compellingly reports for Meduza, though, he never seems to have sought his new fame – or notoriety – as 'the people’s governor'. Like the LDPR nationally, he appears to have been comfortable as a token rival to the ruling United Russia party. They had allowed him to stand virtually unopposed in 2013, and in return this time he was expected simply to be a pro forma rival to the incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport.
Furgal hardly made a serious effort to campaign, and even suggested he was willing to be Shport’s lieutenant governor. However, there was a new and mulish mood in the region. As the best-known alternative candidate, Furgal won in the second round, and became governor, like it or not.
Instead of considering this something of a wake-up call, the Kremlin appeared angered that the people of Khabarovsk did not know how they were expected to vote. Yuri Trutnev, the presidential plenipotentiary to the Far East appears to have considered Furgal’s decision not to stand down as a personal snub, and the Kremlin then moved the capital of the Far Eastern District capital to Vladivostok.
Arguably, the writing was on the wall when an investigation was opened on former Governor Viktor Ishaev, who had supported Furgal. Meanwhile, though, he began to woo the populace, presumably feeling that this was his best krysha – ‘roof,’ protection. He joined protests, reined in expenditures on regional civil servants’ perks, even put up for auction a yacht that the regional administration owned, and which was costing it 600,000 rubles a year simply to maintain. (It didn’t sell.)
In 2019, the LDPR polled very strongly across the region in local elections, but in the recent constitutional plebiscite, Khabarovsk region showed a very low turnout: just 44.2% compared with the national figure of 64.9%. While the yes vote was 62%, given Putin’s apparent desire not just for a victory but a supermajority – 50% of the eligible electorate, not just those who voted – this only gave him little more than a quarter of the total potential vote. Furgal clearly had failed or refused this last test of loyalty.
It is also worth noting that an alternative hypothesis for Furgal’s fall from grace is that in 2018 he had a serious falling out with a former partner over a metals plant – and that partner happened to be close to the mighty Rotenberg brothers, some of the closest friends and allies of the president. Whether or not it is true, it likely does not change the underlying political factor. In other such circumstances, an agreement is brokered and a deal struck so as to ensure that the Kremlin doesn’t lose a valued proxy and that a friend of Putin doesn’t have to disappoint one of his clients.
In any case, Furgal’s trajectory tells us much more about tectonic processes at work in Russian politics and society than anything specifically to do with him. Khabarovsk – the city and the region – are not unique. They have their particular characteristics, of course, but in essence they are like so many other parts of Russia outside Moscow’s MKAD ringroad. Years of relative prosperity – not as much as in the privileged regions, to be sure, but better than in the past – had created expectations, a growing civil society. Meanwhile, the very disparity of economic growth had become increasingly evident, and with it the disparity in political influence.
You worry less about not having so loud a political voice when times are good, but recent years have not been that. As the most industrialised part of the Russian Far East, it has been disproportionately hit by wider economic woes. With COVID, it experienced a predicted $400 million hit as border closures kept out the Chinese tourists who had also become a local mainstay.
The pandemic also saw the Kremlin essentially abdicating responsibility for the crisis, devolving power to regions without resources to match. Then it demanded a vote on a constitutional reform that was a clear fait accompli: not an exercise in consultation but a ritual homage. People, understandably, are fed up. As retired FSB General Alexander Mikhailov told the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets,
In this case, people are tired of many things, from the dictatorship of the United Russia party, to the attitude of the authorities towards the people. Consider even the last amendment vote. From the words of no less than [the Central Electoral Commission head] Ella Pamfilova, it turns out: you are nobody at all,… , because everything has already been constitutionally adopted, your task is just to come and cast a ballot... This is a terrible thing for the people. Internal negative energy is accumulating, and no one is trying to deal with this energy.
It would be easy to dismiss what is happening in Khabarovsk as a local issue, the result of a concatenation of particular processes. As happened in Novocherkassk in 1962, when protests at a reduction in wages at the Novocherkassk Electromotive Building Factory coincided with increased food prices, and as protests became a strike, a strike became an armed confrontation with security forces, and a confrontation became a massacre in which 26 people died. Khabarovsk is not Novocherkassk, and today’s Russia is not the USSR. This is not in any way to predict any kind of violence.
Demonstrations for the release of governor Furgal (picture free)
Rather, the point is that Novocherkassk was not at all unusual. It happened to be there that bad luck and bad management combined so spectacularly but it could have been almost any Soviet city at that time. This was something the Soviet elite realised, even as they assiduously purged any mention of the massacre from the public space. It was, indeed, one of the factors that convinced them that Nikita Khrushchev was becoming dangerous to them and to the system and led to his ouster in 1964.
Again, Putin is not Khrushchev and, more to the point today’s elite are not the Communist Party’s Central Committee. It is not that this will bring Putin down, so much as that it becomes a symbol of the ossification and alienation of Late Putinism.
First of all, its failure to create some new basis for its legitimacy to replace fading memories of the end to the ‘wild 90s’ and the prosperity of the 2000s. An attempt to replace it with a turbocharged blast of historical triumphalism and claims to be a beleaguered fortress in a hostile world simply are not working. There is no new counterpart to late tsarism’s Petr Stolypin, looking to create a new social basis for support.
Secondly, the compromised nature of the elite, in a system which encourages everyone to have skeletons in their closet, so it can decide whose to look in, and when. Of all people, it was the hawkish parliamentarian Alexander Khinshtein who confirmed this, when he tweeted that Furgal’s alleged criminal connections had long been known: 'I’m not surprised about his arrest, I’m surprised that it happened so late.' It was only when it became politically useful that a 15-year-old case became live.
Finally, the paucity of tools in the Kremlin’s toolbox. The days when there was ample money to be able to bury local problems in rubles are gone – even the much-vaunted National Projects are running late, with their target dates pushed back from 2024 to 2030. With Putin fearing encouraging charismatic – or even visibly competent – figures lest they be regarded as potential successors, even relying on powerful local leaders seems problematic. Even the stage-managed political system is not working as it used to, with the once-quiescent Communists and LDPR beginning to show some signs of life. Instead, it is the rule by trial and kompromat, handcuff and video.
Furgal is no liberal hero (although we need to remember that people can and do change as events shape them – a heavy-handed regional boss from Ekaterinburg, after all, became Communist Party-breaking Boris Yeltsin), and Khabarovsk is not a coal that will ignite the rest of Russia. Instead, this case presents, in microcosm, the decline of Putinism.