In the summer of 2020, Russia was rocked by a series of massive protests in its Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk. The protests rapidly grew into the largest demonstrations in the history of the region, turning into the longest-running protests in Russian history. The Khabarovsk protests are not only significant for their record-breaking nature: they also reveal the tensions between Russia’s central government and its provinces and may offer a glimpse into the future trajectory of Russian demonstration movements.
The Khabarovsk protests were ignited by the following chain of events. On July 9, 2020, Russian state authorities arrested Sergei Furgal, the governor of the city. The federal government claimed that Furgal’s detainment resulted from allegations that he helped orchestrate four murders in 2004 and 2005. However, citizens of Khabarovsk swiftly condemned the conviction for being based on trumped-up charges. They suspected that Moscow viewed Furgal as a threat and targeted him to protect its interests in the region, as Furgal and his Liberal Democratic Party campaign defeated Vyacheslav Shport, the pro-Putin United Russia party candidate, in the 2018 gubernatorial elections.
Starting on July 11, thousands of residents took to the streets to protest Furgal’s arrest and denounce the Putin regime and its interference in Khabarovsk. During the initial weeks of the protests, the crowds swelled up to 50,000–80,000 participants out of the city’s population of approximately 600,000 people. The number of protestors that have come out on a daily basis has dwindled since the movement’s summer heyday, but as of November 2020, demonstrations have endured: for example, on November 29, 142 protesters gathered to protest Furgal’s arrest.
However, the protest movement faces increased challenges in the form of police retaliation and potential legislative pushback. During the first few weeks of the demonstrations, law enforcement officials did little to intervene. Yet on October 10, police officers broke up rallies and ultimately detained twenty-five protestors. Since then, law enforcement officials have increasingly clamped down on protests by breaking up demonstrations and arresting protestors and journalists. Furthermore, Russian lawmakers have discussed implementing two bills that would further restrict Russian citizens’ right to protest, a proposal that appears directly aimed at the events in Khabarovsk.
Although the circumstances surrounding Furgal’s arrest help explain why the Khabarovsk protestors have reacted so strongly to the situation, their grievances run deeper than the specifics of this event. Rather, the Khabarovsk protests reveal the strained relations that exist between Moscow, the core of the Russian state, and its peripheral regions such as Khabarovsk.
Russia has a long history of extensive political centralization, and Putin’s reign has continued this tradition of the Russian capital yielding a disproportionate amount of control over the rest of the country’s provinces. The effects of Moscow’s interference in regional affairs is acutely felt in Khabarovsk and other regions of the Russian Far East. The region contains vast reserves of oil, gas, and other resources, and the Russian government has taken immense advantage of this natural wealth to bolster the national economy. However, residents of the Russian Far East complain that state-sponsored business ventures funnel the majority of profits to Moscow while leaving little behind for local communities. Lackluster investment in the Russian Far East has caused cities to decline throughout the region, which in turn has pushed many people to relocate to Moscow in search of better opportunities. Moscow has also played a major role in selecting government and business officials in the Russian Far East, and its selection criteria tends to be more heavily influenced by the candidates’ loyalty to the Putin regime rather than regional familiarity and experience. Negative perceptions that Moscow uses the Russian Far East as a glorified natural resource appendage have grown increasingly prevalent, and the Khabarovsk protests allowed for such attitudes to be displayed in a very public forum.
The Khabarovsk protests have also highlighted the independent streak that runs throughout Khabarovsk and the Russian Far East. The region’s vast geographical distance from Moscow, compounded by its heritage of settlement by explorers and political dissidents, has given rise to the notion of oblastnichestvo (областничество), which claims that the Russian Far East possesses a distinct sense of identity compared to Western Russia. In its most extreme form, proponents of oblastnichestvo herald separatist campaigns to establish an entity independent from Moscow. While such drastic measures are unlikely to materialize in the near future, the demonstrations in Khabarovsk do indicate a sense of urgency for the region to have greater autonomy in its affairs. Approval ratings for the Putin regime in Khabarovsk and the Russian Far East have steadily slipped due to frustrations over Putin’s displays of authoritarianism, Russian economic decline, and criticisms over Moscow’s reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the Russian Far East can utilize its geographical proximity to such economic powerhouses as China, Japan, and South Korea to establish alternative trade and development ties, thereby lessening its dependence on Moscow. Khabarovsk and the Russian Far East are becoming less intimately linked to Moscow and could pursue steps to diverge from the preferences of the central government.
It would be unwise to label this event as a mere anomaly. The legacy of the protests could inspire the citizens of Khabarovsk to pursue even more resolute political action in the future. In addition, the Khabarovsk protests sparked solidarity protests in a variety of Russian cities, including Vladivostok, Barnaul, Irkutsk, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, and Krasnodar. Such events suggest growing intolerance with Moscow’s heavy-handedness in the affairs of Russia’s peripheral regions, as well as a greater sense of assertiveness in pushing for the respective preferences of these communities. The protests in Khabarovsk may signal a shift in Russian governance, in which Russia’s provinces will have greater capacity to challenge centralized power structures. Although it is still too early to ascertain such a prediction, it is imperative to keep the Khabarovsk protests in mind as a potential turning point in the path ahead for Russia’s political future.