For Ekaterina Ishchenko, it is a certainty: in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, a real fight for democracy is being fought, after the arrest of a governor led to a wave of protests of a scope that baffles the Kremlin.
“During the demonstrations, sometimes I feel like crying with joy when I see that we are all united,” the 21-year-old student tells AFP.
He has spent more than three weeks taking to the streets of Khabarovsk, 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow, on the banks of the Love River, in his first political mobilization.
Thousands of people planned to demonstrate again this Saturday, for the fourth consecutive weekend.
On July 25, tens of thousands of people gathered, according to media and activists, although the police offered a lower balance of 6,500. The movement does not stop during the week, and every night hundreds of irreducible go out into the streets.
The duration and scope of the mobilization are exceptional, especially considering the remoteness of Moscow, the traditional stronghold of detractors of power.
The protests stemmed from the arrest, on July 9, of the regional governor, Sergey Furgal (50 years old), a former prisoner accused of murders committed 15 years ago, and who was sent to Moscow for trial.
For many, the arrest seeks to remove from power an overly independent politician, elected in 2018 against a candidate from Vladimir Putin’s party.
“It’s a spit. We chose Furgal!” Says Marina Beletskaya, a 72-year-old retiree.
A member of the ultra-nationalist LDPR party, generally faithful to the Kremlin, Sergey Furgal revealed himself as an active and accessible governor. Two qualities that could guarantee him a popularity capable of rivaling that of Vladimir Putin.
– Conflict with Moscow –
“As soon as we elected Furgal, the Russian Far East capital was transferred from here to Vladivostok. This is clearly because we had chosen an opponent,” says Viktoria Sajarova, a 22-year-old saleswoman, who is also participating in the protests.
In this region, large as Turkey but populated only by 1.3 million inhabitants, the mobilization is based on a tenacious resentment towards the federal authorities, which the locals accuse of belittling the most remote areas of the immense country.
Added to this are the economic difficulties experienced in the territory, with a very harsh climate, bordering China and specialized in the metallurgical, mining and forestry industries.
Although the public television channels largely ignore the protests, the most independent media do not hide a certain enthusiasm.
In a recent editorial, the Vedomosti newspaper claimed that Khabarovsk was the “new symbol” of the opposition “of the regions facing the center.”
Discontent was also accompanied by slogans that directly targeted Vladimir Putin.
During the constitutional vote in late June, which strengthened the powers of the Russian president, the region was distinguished by a high abstention rate and a percentage of votes in favor of yes by 15% lower than the national average.
– Cold welcome to the new governor –
Moscow hoped to reassure protesters with the appointment of an interim governor, Mikhail Degtiarev, a member of Sergey Furgal’s same party, on July 20.
However, the reception of this 39-year-old deputy, known for his extravagant bills, was rather cold. And it is that the interested party, for a long time, had defended not “having time” to go see the protesters, whom he accused of being backed by foreign “provocateurs”.
“We should have chosen a local substitute ourselves. But instead they sent us someone who the only thing he knows about Khabarovsk is the image stamped on the 5,000-ruble bills,” Viktoria Sajarova complained.
In this context, and in a sign of some nervousness, the authorities showed unusual caution, allowing citizens to demonstrate and making only a handful of arrests.
This week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov even praised the performance of the police, which allowed the protests to take place, while the unauthorized demonstrations are generally harshly repressed in Russia.
“Still, we are afraid of being arrested,” said Yuri Petrov, 47. “We are living in a democratic moment, but it may be ephemeral.”