Protests in Russia: regional revolts threaten Vladimir Putin

Public anger over range of issues coincides with fall in Russian president’s trust rating

Police block protesters during a rally in St Petersburg on August 1st in support of  the deposed  Khabarovsk  governor Sergei Furgal. Photograph: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

Police block protesters during a rally in St Petersburg on August 1st in support of the deposed Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal. Photograph: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

 

Vladimir Putin had been reassured that the regional election in September 2018 would be nothing to worry about. Putin’s man would retain the governorship of Khabarovsk Krai, a region in Russia’s far east, securing a small majority in the first round, one of his intelligence agencies had predicted. The upstart local opposition challenger was no threat.

“According to the results of a survey conducted by the Special Services of the Russian Federal Protection Agency. victory in this election, already in the first round, is altogether likely for the incumbent,” the Russian president was advised in a document seen by the Financial Ttimes.

But the confident briefing also came with a footnote of caution – albeit one that reached the wrong conclusion.

“A situation has developed in the Khabarovsk region that about half of the region’s residents are unhappy with the existing state of affairs in the economy and social sphere, but they do not see real alternatives to the current governor,” it concluded.

The results suggested the discontent was felt by significantly more than half. Eighteen days after that official forecast was circulated inside the Kremlin, opposition candidate Sergei Furgal from the Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) defeated the incumbent from Putin’s United Russia by a landslide 69.6 per cent.

If that election was the warning signal that the Kremlin had lost touch with the people of Khabarovsk, the events of the past month have made it stark.

Since July 9th, when Furgal was brusquely arrested, bundled into a car and flown to a Moscow jail on murder charges dating back 15 years, tens of thousands of people have protested, blocking the main streets of the region’s capital Khabarovsk, close to the Chinese border, with daily rallies.

At first they demanded Furgal be sent back to face a trial in his home city, 6,000km east of Moscow. Now they are demanding Putin’s resignation.

Heavy-handed

The protest movement – the largest and longest-running since Putin rose to power more than 20 years ago – is the latest in a growing number of regional campaigns over the past year, sparked by public anger over issues ranging from rubbish heaps in northern Russia to plans to bulldoze a city park in Siberia and build a cathedral in its place.

Protesters against the arrest of their regional governor march in the city of Khabarovsk in far east Russia on August 1st. Photograph: Igor Volkov/AP
Protesters against the arrest of their regional governor march in the city of Khabarovsk in far east Russia on August 1st. Photograph: Igor Volkov/AP

Coinciding with a fall in Putin’s overall trust rating to historic lows this spring and an economy that has been largely stagnant since 2014, the protests have revealed the Kremlin’s vulnerability to local unrest, and exposed its heavy-handed control of Russia’s 85 regions.

While Russia is officially a federation of territories with their own rights and responsibilities, Putin has used his two decades in power to erode their autonomy and institute a one-way system of dictating power from Moscow and demanding obedience in return, ensuring the de jure supremacy of the Kremlin and the presidency.

Officials such as Furgal, elected and empowered by a wave of local support and anti-Moscow sentiment, are viewed as threats to this system of top-down authority. His surprise victory quickly prompted an effort inside the administration to undermine his legitimacy.

A second presidential administration document from March 2019 details the Kremlin’s goal of decreasing Furgal’s popularity rating in the region to the remarkably precise level of 46.1 per cent over the following three years, while simultaneously increasing Putin’s to 48.6 per cent.

That would involve a campaign using Russia’s almost entirely state-controlled or directed media, according to a third administration document.

The instructions, subtitled “Methodological requirements for positive news in the media”, explained that local journalists in the far east were required to “inform about a positive event that directly or indirectly improves the life of the region’s population ... thanks to the decisions and actions of the President of the Russian Federation”.

“The target set for my colleagues was to decrease the approval rating for governor Furgal, and prepare him for election defeat,” one employee of the presidential administration told the FT.

“They started working on Furgal now because they failed to fulfil the rating plan: he was too popular,” the official says on condition of anonymity. “The arrest is not about murders, it is solely about politics.” The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Propaganda

The so-far disparate ripples of regional rebellion do not as yet present an existential threat to Putin’s national authority. But the lack of response to the continuing protests in Khabarovsk has cast him as either uninterested in public opinion or powerless to respond, and revealed two flaws in his system of control.

A strong grip on traditional media has in the past allowed Moscow to contain local anger and stop it spreading to other parts of the country. But the rise of social media has bypassed state TV’s boycott of the Khabarovsk protests, which polls suggest more than 80 per cent of Russians have heard about.

The protests’ local aspect has also neutered the Kremlin’s previously potent propaganda tactic that blamed past political protests on foreign actors or external threats that were seeking to destabilise Russia by whipping up unrest. That charge has proved ineffective against the largely spontaneous and leaderless protests in Khabarovsk.

People carry a banner reading ‘Return Furgal for us’ during a protest against the arrest of regional governor Sergei Furgal in Khabarovsk on August 1st. Photograph: Aleksandr Yanyshev/AFP via Getty Images
People carry a banner reading ‘Return Furgal for us’ during a protest against the arrest of regional governor Sergei Furgal in Khabarovsk on August 1st. Photograph: Aleksandr Yanyshev/AFP via Getty Images

“Protesters are shouting ‘down with the tsar’ in the streets of Khabarovsk. It has mushroomed beyond the arrest of governor Sergei Furgal to ire with the regime,” says Rebeka Foley, a Russia analyst at Prism Political Risk Management. “Outrage over falling incomes and unfair elections could lead regional protests to metastasise across the country, which is a concern for the Kremlin as Putin’s ratings fall to record lows.”

“The protests illustrate fatigue over both the president’s ‘power vertical’ and Moscow’s disconnect with the socio-economic issues that the regions face,” she adds.

Regional rivalries

From a loose collection of competing principalities to the vast sprawl of the Tsarist empire and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia’s history has always featured a tussle for authority between the centre and constituent territories.

The break-up of the USSR prompted the independence of more than a dozen new states. In a bid to stop cessation movements developing inside Russia itself, Moscow doled out various powers to regional authorities and allowed them to pass their own legislation, resulting in a tapestry of competing laws that often contravened the country’s constitution.

Ever since Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he has made reversing that process one of the defining features of his reign: weakening Russia’s federalism and strengthening the power of the Kremlin.

“Putin’s Russia is a traditional Russian state. Very autocratic, very centralised, very imperial. It is very much like the Russian Empire,” says Artyom Lukin, a political scientist based in Vladivostok, the city on Russia’s pacific coast that functions as the administrative capital of the country’s far east.

“So in this regard, the far east is not discriminated against any more than, say, other regions closer to Moscow,” he says. “Everyone outside the very centre of Moscow feels the same.”

In his first five years in office, Putin gave himself the power to fire and appoint regional governors and replaced single-mandate seats in Russia’s parliament with a proportional vote and party list system – shifting the power to select MPs from local citizens to Moscow-based party bosses. Tax reforms ensured the vast majority of all levies flow from the regions to the central government, which then decides how much gets sent back.

The overhaul, Putin declared in 2004, was necessary to “restore an effective vertical chain of authority”.

One key component of that is the deployment of Kremlin loyalists from Moscow to rule provincial regions: officials colloquially referred to as Varangians – the Russian word for Vikings who came from the west to rule ancient Slavic tribes.

The sharp rise in Varangians over the past decade has made gubernatorial elections – which must take place every five years, with a direct vote – a popular target for disgruntled locals to show their annoyance at Moscow.

The events in Khabarovsk are “definitely a political statement: the people aren’t happy with Moscow”, says one western ambassador to Russia. “And the Kremlin appears taken aback by the situation ... surprised by both the scale and the persistence of the protests.”

Electoral surprises

While unexpected, the Kremlin’s loss in Khabarovsk was not unique. The day before Furgal was elected, United Russia lost another regional gubernatorial election, in Vladimir Oblast, a region just 200km from Moscow. Two months later, it happened again in Khakassia, in eastern Siberia.

More electoral surprises could be on the cards. On September 13th, dozens of regions hold elections for members of their regional parliaments, alongside a handful of byelections to the federal parliament. Eighteen regions also go to the polls to choose their local governors – all but three of the incumbents are United Russia members or outsiders appointed by Putin.

A woman holds a placard reading ‘Freedom for Sergei Furgal during an unauthorised protest over the arrest of the regional governor, in Khabarovsk on August 1st. Photograph: Aleksandr Yanyshev/AFP via Getty Images
A woman holds a placard reading ‘Freedom for Sergei Furgal during an unauthorised protest over the arrest of the regional governor, in Khabarovsk on August 1st. Photograph: Aleksandr Yanyshev/AFP via Getty Images

Gubernatorial elections will take place in Arkhangelsk – where protests against a landfill site created in the region to hold Moscow’s waste have taken place for 18 months – and two regions in the far east close to Khabarovsk.

“People can see that United Russia lost to LDPR in Khabarovsk,” says the presidential administration official. “On the single day of elections in September, watch out. Russia will probably get more LDPR [members of parliament] and governors.”

In contrast to its name, LDPR is a socially-conservative and nationalist party, and is a member of Russia’s so-called systemic opposition – a network of parties loosely endorsed by the Kremlin that are expected to support United Russia on critical issues.

But voters who flocked to Furgal say they did so not for his or his party’s distinct policies, but as a protest vote against the United Russia incumbent. If that scenario is repeated nationally, a significant fall in support for the ruling party will dilute Putin’s ability to control parliament, where all seats are set to go to the polls in September 2021.

United Russia, which has a parliamentary supermajority, is supported by just 31 per cent of the population, a state-run poll found in July, down from 54 per cent at the previous election in 2016.

But more importantly, a rise in protest votes and a fall in popularity for United Russia dents Putin’s image as the country’s unifying political figure just months after the president rewrote the country’s constitution to allow him to extend his rule by two more terms to 2036.

“When the economic growth in Russia was high, Putin did not face much resistance when eliminating the regional autonomy. It is when the economy stagnates or declines and people on the ground do not see prospects for their future that the regions start feeling the negative impact of the lack of autonomy,” says Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“Federal-level appointees are increasingly viewed as being unfamiliar and uninterested in local issues. As a result, protesters increasingly start demanding more real federalism,” she adds. “Further destabilisation at the regional level in the near future may be coming.”

Growing dissent

The Khabarovsk protests, taking place daily now for almost a month, have been fuelled as much by a sense of a community shunned by Moscow as anger at the treatment of Furgal.

Volunteers buy water and soft drinks for those who march the 5km route and donate cash to help pay legal costs and fines for those arrested.

“People here in this city are good, they take care of one another. We don’t have any problems. The only problem is Moscow,” says Izzatillo, a taxi driver, who wore a T-shirt covered in prints of marijuana leaves.

“Was Furgal a criminal 15 years ago? Maybe. But is Putin a criminal now?” he asked, before shrugging: “They’re all criminals.”

The Kremlin’s sole response to the unrest spectacularly backfired. On July 20th, Putin appointed another LDPR member, Mikhail Degtyaryov, as Furgal’s replacement. He is a classic Varangian: a 39-year-old member of parliament and party apparatchik with no ties to the region and no managerial experience.

The Kremlin saw the appointment of an LDPR politician, rather than a United Russia official, as a concession. The protesters saw the choice of a Moscow insider to replace a local champion as another provocation. The rally the following weekend drew the largest crowds seen so far.

Last Saturday, protests in support of the Khabarovsk rallies took place in Moscow, St Petersburg and 11 other cities. Police arrested 66 protesters, including 14 in Moscow, according to Russian human rights group OVD-Info.

“Right now, general dissatisfaction is being projected on to [Furgal] Furgal to be tried in a local court, they hoped for some form of concession from Putin as an acknowledgment of their disquiet.

“The people’s anger is not going away. So even if we see some calm, a lull, it could flare up again,” says Lukin. “In Russia, you never know when things are going to explode.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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