Civil Society in Khabarovsk

Political scientist Alexander Kynev offers his views on the recent protests in Khabarovsk. He discusses how protesters are organizing themselves, the government’s inability to communicate with its citizens, and the political consequences awaiting LDPR and Moscow in Russia’s Far East.

ReForum: You recently returned from Khabarovsk. How would you describe what’s going on there?

Kynev: Civil society in Khabarovsk has really started to become active. I say society because Khabarovsk essentially hasn’t had a government for the past three weeks. Following the arrest of ex-governor, Sergei Furgal, the local authorities went into political self-isolation. One week later, Moscow sent Mikhail Degtyarev to serve as governor of Khabarovsk. Degtyarev is a rather special kind of person. He’s trying to portray himself as governor, but he doesn’t know anything about the region, and for the most part, he’s rude and trolls local residents. Meanwhile, citizens are becoming more active. Locals are organizing themselves through social media, planning protest routes, setting times for when protests start and end, and devising a political agenda. But there are no leaders. True, the authorities have recently been trying to provoke protesters. In Khabarovsk right now there is a rather large number of agents from Moscow’s division of the Center for Combating Extremism. These same individuals have often been seen at protests in Moscow. I think the presence of these agents is connected with the recent beatings of two men – Dmitry Nizovtsev and Sergey Naumov – as well as information alleging that an ax had been found among protesters (Degtyarev stated that one of the protesters had been found with a knife and ax).

I see all of this as an attempt to pressure the opposition, and possibly, preparation for a response from law enforcement agencies. In general, we see increased activity among the authorities before every Saturday protest. Empty police vans drive around the city, which sends the signal that the next day arrests will be made. But during the Saturday protests, thousands of people march through the streets and no one is arrested. When I went to Khabarovsk the police came to my hotel and tried to send some of the political scientists and activists who came from Moscow into self-isolation. After the protest that day there wasn’t anyone at the hotel. At the same time, protesters are peaceful, and so there aren’t any serious reasons for the police to go after anyone.

The government has shown that it’s incapable of doing anything other than arrest and scare people. When there’s nothing left to scare people with, then the government finds itself in a stupor. On top of that, there aren’t any figures in government capable of engaging in dialogue with the protesters. Dialogue has broken down. The authorities are looking for famous, apolitical figures who can fly to Khabarovsk, such as musician Sergei Shnurov. But that kind of strategy doesn’t fool anyone. Everyone knows this won’t change anything. The government focused all of its energy on propagating the idea that, the more frigid you are, the greater are your chances of career advancement. And when there’s a crisis, it becomes clear that no one is going to go out and talk to people, and that the government isn’t capable of communicating with its citizens.

That’s what we see happening in Khabarovsk. Before, we saw it happen in Arkhangelsk. And, again, we saw it happen in the protests against the construction of a church in Yekaterinburg. 

There’s a demand for change in society. People are ready to organize themselves. But there’s a lack of suitable political and social mechanisms that can articulate society’s demand for change. We see a social movement without a leader and a government incapable of talking with its citizens. It’s a crisis.

ReForum: What kind of people are participating in the protests?

Kynev: Since we still don’t have any sociological data I can only give my opinion. I think that it’s mostly young people. Those who protest in the center of Khabarovsk every day are young people. That’s about 150-200 people. Whereas different sorts of people attend the massive rallies on Saturday afternoons. That’s between 50 and 60 thousand people in total. I never saw very old people protesting. For the most part, I saw people between the ages of 20 and 50.

One thing that struck me was the difference between information that official media outlets are reporting and information circulating on the internet. Whereas official media outlets aren’t saying anything about the protests, YouTube videos about Khabarovsk are receiving millions of views. A report done by the radio station, Echo Moscow, for example, has already gathered half-a-million views.

ReForum: Have the protests this past month been spontaneous? Has anyone tried to lead the protests?

Kynev: No one has attempted to lead the protests. Though, a lot of well-known figures have made an appearance. One example being MaximKukushkin, a colorful local politician from the Communist Party. But he went to the protests on his own initiative. Alexei Navalny’s team is also participating in the protests, but they’re not trying to organize anything since not all of the protesters are necessarily Navalny supporters.

ReForum: Have the protesters’ slogans or demands changed at all?

Kynev: They’re gradually evolving, becoming more complex, thought-out, and systematic. When the protests first started, everyone was shouting “Free Furgal.” But now the slogans are much broader in their scope. Some protesters are denouncing Putin, Zhirinovsky, and central media outlets. New slogans include “Furgal for president” and “The country stands by Furgal.”

ReForum: In other words, his arrest has made him even more popular in Khabarovsk. How did he become governor?

Kynev: Russia was, is, and will be a country built on the personalistic rule. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has a rather specific brand. You have Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his entourage of “littleZhirinovskys” which try to imitate his behavior. They all give LDPR its scandalous image and make sure that the party receives media coverage. The end result is that people either vote for the party just for laughs, or they belong to a small minority of voters. Degtyarov also played a role in all of this. It’s part of the party’s image. But the majority of deputies and governors from LDPR are really just people who buy “franchises” as a way to participate in elections. They don’t take part in any antics. They just need a way to register themselves as candidates in elections. That was exactly the case with Furgal in Khabarovsk, as well as in neighboring Yakutia and Kamchatka. It’s also worth mentioning that various kinds of “controllable” opposition candidates run in elections along with the ruling party. These are statists subordinate to local administrations. They’re workers at organizations that receive funding from the state budget. These are so-called “technical” candidates. Another type of opposition candidates are clowns for whom no one will vote.

Then there are individuals who are well-known in local politics, but don’t run for office. So the government doesn’t feel threatened by them. Furgalbelonged to this group of politicians. For the past two years, regional elections have demonstrated the danger that these kinds of political opponents pose to the government.

People who are increasingly dissatisfied with the government vote for these kinds of candidates. We saw this happen during Perestroika when, instead of voting for leaders from the Communist Party, people voted for no-name candidates, many of whom ended up being colorful politicians. Furgal was able to make a name for himself much in the same way. And he ended up being a decent governor.

ReForum: The accusations against Furgal are being linked to a conflict between him and the President’s representative in the Far East, YuryTrutnev.

Kynev: Without a doubt. There was a public conflict with Trutnev, and it’s pointless for him to deny it. Practically all of the elites in the Far East are criminals. But for the two years that Furgalserved in office they couldn’t even charge him for fraud or abuse of power. When Aleksandr Khoroshavin (ex-governor of Sakhalin) and Vyacheslav Geyser (ex-governor of the Komi Republic) were arrested, we were shown images of money, gold, and other expensive belongings. But nothing like that was found when they arrested Furgal. He’s being incriminated on charges connected to bizarre murders which happened 15 years ago. No evidence, no reasonable suspicion has been presented. The case against him is fraught with logical inconsistences.

During the 2018 elections, Trutnev initially placed his bets on another candidate – Vyacheslav Shport. It’s clear that someone wanted something from Furgal in the long-term, but their requests went unheard. Furgalended up being an independent politician.

ReForum: Why do you think the Kremlin chose someone like Mikhail Degtyarov as the new governor of Khabarovsk?

Kynev: No one knows the exact reason. But there are at least three hypotheses: it’s either an error in judgement, a plan to destroy the reputation of LDPR, or preparation for a new governor.

The first hypothesis suggests that Degtyarov’s appointment was just bad decision-making. In this case, an individual who suits everyone from an administrative standpoint was chosen. Degtyarov has good relations with the presidential administration, its representative in the Far East, as well as with the elites. And whether or not people actually like him doesn’t matter. The fact that he’s publicly unsuitable for office and acts like a thug isn’t a problem.

The second hypothesis argues that Degtyarov’s appointment is really a plan that the Kremlin concocted in order to destroy the reputation of LDPR in Khabarovsk and the Far East on the whole.

The last hypothesis suggests a plan to appoint the most frigid politician imaginable so that, come election time next year, any candid would seem better in comparison. No one can be sure as to which of these three hypotheses is correct. WecanonlysaythatDegtyarov’s actions are creating problems on two fronts. First, LDPR’s ratings are falling. But so too are Putin’s. Afterall, Degtyarov publicly states that the President appointed him.

ReForum: Do you think that Degtyarov will be ousted before the regional elections in 2021?

Kynev: I really don’t see that happening. Of course, anything is possible in our unfortunate country, though, it is hard to believe that such a political wonder likeDegtyarov can last one-and-a-half years.

ReForum: Besides the protests against Furgal’s arrest and the authorities’ inability to communicate with citizens, what else has caused the current political crisis?

Kynev: The first and major cause of the crisis is the protests against Furgal’s arrest. Other than that, there are a number of other causes. In particular, we see among people in the Far East a general dissatisfaction with the federal government. These people have long complained that Moscow ignores the needs of their regions and simply views them as a source of resource-based income. The President’s approval ratings are usually the lowest in the Far East.

ReForum: Do you think that the situation in Khabarovsk will start a new political trend in Russia’s regions?

Kynev: I think that it’s just a precedent, but at the same time, a symbolic event. With any major changes, you can always find some sort of chain of symbolic events that broadens the horizon of what’s possible. This shows the society that there is a horizon.

Translated by Mackenzie Tubridy