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A surprise from the Far East

Kirill Shamiev on how the Khabarovsk Region stood up to the ‘Far West’

On 10 July 2020, the Khabarovsk Region (Krai) gained global fame. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the region’s cities and have remained there for more than a week, protesting against the arrest of their governor. He is accused of organising murders of businessmen in 2004–2005. Sergei Furgal, who represented the region in the country’s parliament (Duma) for eleven years on behalf of the right-wing populist LDPR party, won the September 2018 elections on a wave of dissatisfaction with United Russia. His arrest vented public discontent that had accumulated over the years due to the Kremlin’s inefficient and unfair policies.

Russia’s outpost in the East

Residents of the Khabarovsk Region consider their home to be a unique place in Russia. They like to emphasise that the territory of this third largest region in the country could ‘accommodate’ the UK, Italy, Belarus and Belgium taken together. At the same time, the region’s population has been steadily declining, standing at 1,315,000 in 2020 — close to the population of Estonia. The distance from Moscow is about 6,100 km; it takes 8 hours by plane to get there, comparable to a flight between New York and Berlin. The average resident of the Khabarovsk Region needs to pay about 22,000 roubles (USD 300) for such a trip — about a half of their median salary of 43,000 roubles (USD 600). Local residents understand the huge size of their region, which cannot be physically controlled by this number of residents. This creates a sense of a ‘European colony’ in Asia.

In its identity, the modern Khabarovsk Region is stuck in the era when Russian statehood was expanding to the Far East. In the 1650s, adventurer Yerofey Khabarov, whose name is honoured in the name of the city of Khabarovsk, commanded a small unit to win these territories away from local tribes (Duchers, Manchurians, Nanai, Daur people and other Mongolian and Tunguso-Manchu peoples). Then, Moscow was forced to give some of the colonised lands away to the Qing Empire before winning them back in mid-19th century. During the revolution and civil war, the Far Eastern Republic was established in the Khabarovsk Region, briefly seized by American and Japanese invaders who supported the White Army. Asian territorially, the Khabarovsk Region is populated by European people. This creates a sense of being Russia’s ‘outpost’ in Asia.

Governors from the local pool

The Khabarovsk Region has long been considered the patrimony of regional elites. The first head of the region, Victor Ishayev, emerged in regional politics in the late 1980s, becoming the director of the Khabarovsk Aluminium Plant and first deputy chairman of the executive committee of the Khabarovsk Regional Council of People’s Deputies. Ishayev remained governor from 1991 to 2009, becoming a kind of ‘father’ of the region. He survived the ‘gangster era’ of wild capitalism. He became a loyal supporter of Vladimir Putin. Then, he served as an envoy and minister for the development of the Far East for another five years. Yet in 2019, Ishayev was arrested and charged with fraud (facing up to 10 years in prison). In July 2020, the case was reclassified as embezzlement and sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office to be referred to court.

The mayor of Khabarovsk, Alexander Sokolov, who served continuously since 2000, became a key associate of Ishayev. Back in 1989, Sokolov became the First Secretary of the Khabarovsk City Committee. In the second half of the 1990s worked as the General Director of Khabarovsknefteprodukt, the largest distributor of petroleum products in the region. In 2018, Sokolov retired from politics. But a year later, he was back in the news. The Navalny Headquarters in Khabarovsk released an investigation, disclosing Sokolov’s ownership of houses in the U.S. and the Bolshekhekhtsirsky Nature Reserve, as well as apartments in Moscow and Khabarovsk. Many protesters remembered this as an example of Sokolov’s corruption and his ‘betrayal’ of the region. In the view of the Far Easterners, a mayor of a city with 600,000 inhabitants cannot legally own houses in the United States. This fact is perceived as a token of obvious corruption and lack of regional patriotism.

The Ishayev-Sokolov tandem controlled the Khabarovsk region for 20 years. In the 1990s politicians’ local ties were an advantage in the context of de-institutionalising political power in the country and surging crime. In the end, though, these qualities turned out insufficient as the situation in the country began to stabilise. The change in the post of governor in 2009 did not help the region. In his 10 years in office, Vyacheslav Shport was unable to achieve higher-than-average growth rates. His negative rating was so high that Shport’s portrait was vandalised several times and covered with spittle in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, his home city.

Data: Rosstat

An overturning detention

Besides Furgal’s victory, in 2018–2019 United Russia lost control of the City Dumas of Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the city councils and the authorities of Amursk and Sovetskaya Gavan. A year later, United Russia suffered a crushing defeat in the Duma of the Khabarovsk Region. Residents of the region did not just hold an overturning election. They virtually erased United Russia from of the region’s active life.

At the same time, Sergei Furgal himself is far from being a symbol of progressive opposition. At the age of 12, the future governor lost a finger when his homemade pistol exploded. In 1992, in the midst of post-Soviet decline, he began working as a doctor in his home village. From 1999 to 2006, Furgal traded in Far Eastern timber and black metal, before becoming a State Duma deputy representing the LDPR party. As a governor, Furgal quickly won popularity after solving obvious yet acute problems and thanks to his unprecedented political openness. Furgal helped to achieve a sharp reduction in the number of deceived shareholders, provided free meals to schoolchildren from low-income families, and focused on building boiler houses, local airports, roads and medical infrastructure in remote areas of the region. All these changes came with active information campaigns: video recordings of meetings; voters included in online receptions on Instagram; and Furgal being personally accessible. Furgal’s style of governance was quickly embraced by voters and praised by experts. In a region where everyone knows everyone else, his simplicity and openness stood out in Russia, becoming yet another factor reinforcing his popularity.

Thus, his detention in the morning of 10 July came as a shock to the region’s residents. The detention itself looked like an ostentatious special operation. The governor was instantly evacuated to Moscow and placed in Lefortovo prison, like a local gangster. Moreover, the alleged crime raises questions: the murder of two businessmen occurred in 2004 and 2005, after which Furgal served as a State Duma deputy for many years. Also, the depositions came from Furgal’s former partner Nikolai Mistrukov, who had been detained in the autumn of 2019. A few days before Mistrukov’s arrest, in November 2019, Life published an article indirectly accusing the governor and his close circles of criminal activity. Moreover, Mistrukov himself started to behave strangely shortly before Furgal’s arrest.

Firstly, upon the investigator’s instructions, he refused to have a defence lawyer. He also refused to meet with members of the Public Monitoring Committee several times. Secondly, according to his own words, Mistrukov went blind in one eye. He was gradually losing sight in his second eye, and he was also diagnosed with pelvic cancer. Diagnostic procedures were performed by students and without anaesthesia. The conditions of Mistrukov’s detention resemble prolonged torture; his diagnosis raises questions about his safety.

Finally, while in temporary detention, Mistrukov sold his stake in Amurstal to Pavel Balsky, who is close to the Rotenberg family. At the same time, Balsky began accusing the former management of Amurstal of provoking a crisis in the company which began because of searches performed in Mistrukov’s case.

The investigators have not revealed details of Furgal’s criminal case, stoking suspicions among Khabarovsk residents. Furgal’s arrest looks more like a bad criminal thriller than a well-meaning operation to catch a criminal. This could not go unnoticed by the people of the region.

The governor’s arrest deprived Khabarovsk citizens of hope. The long-lasting resentments towards western Russia, triggered by the centralisation of taxes and various facts showing that the region has been ‘forgotten’, only continue to grow among the residents. For example, a few months after Furgal’s victory, Moscow deprived Khabarovsk of the title of the capital of the Far Eastern Federal District. This fact was perceived as a boorish punishment by the ‘West’ for the defeat of Vyacheslav Shport. Moreover, the city of Vladivostok, Khabarovsk’s eternal regional rival, was always an attractive city for natural reasons. Granted this port city and the base of the Pacific Fleet with a milder climate failed to become the ‘Soviet San Francisco,’ as Nikita Khrushchev once dreamt. Nevertheless it has become the economic centre of the region. The relocation of the administrative centre to Vladivostok left Khabarovsk with even less symbolic capital.

The arrest of Furgal triggered mass protests in the Khabarovsk Region, driven by years of the Kremlin’s inadequate policies. Residents of the city, located 6,000 km away from Moscow, got tired of economic, political and symbolic isolation. While some Khabarovsk residents can afford to fly to the west, few ‘westerners’ have ever been to the Far East. Leading Asian countries are geographically close to the Khabarovsk Region, but are very distant in culture. Culturally close continental Russia is really far away, both politically and territorially. While the protesters might differ in their assessment of Sergei Furgal and Vladimir Putin, all support the idea of a regional investigation and a fair trial, real power for regional and local governance.

On 20 July, Vladimir Putin appointed Mikhail Diagterev, a young Duma deputy representing the LDPR, to the post of the region’s governor. Diagterev comes originally from Samara and is known for running in the elections to the post of the mayor of Moscow alongside Alexei Navalny in 2013 (where he came 5th). Before joining the LDPR, Diagterev was a member of United Russia and became famous for a series of bizarre proposals in the State Duma: banning the use of U.S. dollars in Russia, re-designing the Russian foreign passports to make them look more patriotic, and changing the colours of the Russian flag into black, yellow and white. Diagterev is a political weathercock, constantly supporting Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He is unknown in the Far East and does not know the singularities of the region. His appointment looks like an attempt to break up and mitigate the protests: to calm down the LDPR and its supporters, and to confuse ordinary protesters by offering a young populist governor. However, on the very first day, about a thousand residents opposing this appointment took it to the central square of the regional capital. If Diagterev does not cope with the pacification of the region, then the Kremlin will have to make a choice – either to “calm down” the protesters by force or to make concessions.

It is difficult to predict exactly how the events will develop. Moscow is pressuring the local media, opinion leaders and Furgal’s spokesman to call on residents to stop protesting, one reason being that there is a real threat of the spread of coronavirus. Most likely, Furgal himself is being asked to support Diagterev. His appointment will force even more local politicians to stop backing the protest. Kremlin’s goal is to strip the protest from a broad base of support, after which the most persistent activists can be marginalized and isolated. However, this is unlikely to satisfy the ordinary residents of the region: they did not start the protest to support the LDPR, but to criticise Moscow’s inadequate policies, and to support transparency and fair governance. If the protest does not give rise to a dynamic management soon, and if the authorities begin to resort to more active suppressive measures, then Khabarovsk residents, much like opponents of amendments to the Constitution across Russia, might go quiet but will certainly not forget their cause.

Photo: Scanpix