20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 20, Vladimir Putin finally dismissed Sergei Furgal, governor of Russia’s Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk Krai, who had been earlier arrested on murder charges. His replacement was also named—fellow LDPR member Mikhail Degtyarev. Furgal’s arrest on July 9 sparked massive protests in Khabarovsk that have continued for over 10 days. While arrests of politicians have become routine in Russia, the scale of the unrest in Khabarovsk highlights the growing tension between Moscow and the regions, as well as the artificial nature of the party system.


The arrest of the now former governor of Khabarovsk Krai Sergei Furgal triggered mass protests in the region. Photo: Kremlin.ru


The perilous life of regional elites in Russia

The allegations against Sergei Furgal strain credulity, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand. Before he entered politics, Furgal was involved in the lumber and scrap metal business in the Far East, where business and crime groups are often intertwined. Evidence against him was provided by a former business partner, Nikolai Mistryukov, as part of a deal with prosecutors. The presidential envoy to the Far East, Yury Trutnev, explained that the governor’s past became of interest to law enforcement agencies only after he was elected to executive office. However, Furgal has been a public figure since the mid 2000s. He was swept into governor's office in 2018 as part of a nation-wide protest vote in Russia that saw—for the first time—four regime-backed gubernatorial incumbents lose their re-election bids, as voters punished the government for the unpopular pension reform introduced earlier that year. Before the runoff vote in his region, Furgal was reportedly asked to drop out of the race. He refused and won against the incumbent United Russia governor in a landslide.

Furgal may have had past criminal dealings. Reports have also emerged of a current business dispute with a Moscow investor connected to the Kremlin. But the final straw that led to his removal was likely his repeated failure to fall in line with the Kremlin politically.

More recently, Khabarovsk voters delivered one of the most tepid endorsements of the Kremlin’s constitutional reform in all of Russia. Turnout in the region was 44.2 percent, almost 20 points below the national average, and the “yes” vote was 62 percent, more than ten points below average. Perhaps in the eyes of the Kremlin, Furgal was not adequately playing his part in the power vertical. 

One of the central problems with analyzing authoritarian politics is that decision-making is almost totally opaque. There is little hope of ascertaining the real motivation behind arrests or dismissals. In the absence of the rule of law, Russia is governed through a mixture of formal and informal rules and sanctions. In practice, this often means that violation of informal agreements may be punished by formal sanctions.

Criminal charges against regional elites are not uncommon in Russia. Since 1996, criminal cases have been brought against 32 governors, but arrests of them did not start until 2006. As of today, 13 governors have been found guilty of corruption and other criminal activity. Mayors also risk prison sentences. Thirty-eight percent of Russia’s largest cities have seen the arrest of at least one mayor according to a July 2020 paper published by the Institute for Economic and Policy Research. The same paper finds that while popularity—measured by the margin of electoral victory—insulates regional elites from prosecution, being an oppositionist increases the odds of being arrested fourfold.

There is little in Furgal’s political biography to mark him as an oppositionist. While a State Duma deputy, he voted almost exclusively in line with the ruling United Russia party. Since his election to governor, however, Furgal has garnered genuine popularity in Khabarovsk, which is now fueling the protests. Somewhat ironically, a large part of this popularity is a byproduct of the Kremlin’s own actions and attitudes toward the region.  


“Moscow isn’t Russia” and other provincial grievances

For residents of Khabarovsk, Furgal’s sudden removal is the latest in a string of offences against the region, which included moving the capital of the Far East from Khabarovsk to the rival region of Vladivostok and arresting another popular former long-time governor, Viktor Ishayev. Much has been written about the resentment of the regions toward Moscow. Levada sociologists Lyubov Borusyak and Alexei Levinson outline the chief complaint—overcentralization of power in the capital at the expense of the regions. According to their research, Russian people believe that Moscow takes in 80 percent of Russia’s resources and is the ultimate source of political decision-making.

This dynamic has only been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic during which the Kremlin charged the regions with addressing the health and economic crisis without providing additional resources. As a result, the regions have been left feeling poorer and more powerless. Against this backdrop, the arrest of Furgal, who was well-liked and deemed the “people’s governor,” has become a symbol of the lack of political freedom for residents of Khabarovsk. 

July 18, 2020: Mass protests in Khabarovsk in support of Sergei Furgal. Photo: Alexei Navalny's office in Khabarovsk (Wikimedia Commons).


The mass protests that followed Furgal’s arrest highlight some these grievances. Alongside slogans calling for Furgal’s freedom are others reading: “We Are the Power Here,” “Moscow, Get Out,” “Our Choice; Our Furgal,” and “Hands Off Our Governor.” 

Moscow’s approach to the protests, which caught both the government and the opposition by surprise, has been notably cautious. Unlike other large and small unsanctioned protest actions across Russia, the rallies in Khabarovsk and other local cities have been allowed to take place without interference, with police handing out masks to participants. State officials have expressed support for the protesters. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has also been outspoken in support of the arrested governor, criticizing the government “for acting like in Stalin’s times.”


Russia’s decorative party system: a source of durability and instability

Russia has been described as having a “dominant party system,” meaning that one party— the pro-Kremlin United Russia—determines access to political office, policy making, and political appointments. Unlike China, however, other political parties are allowed not only to exist, but also participate in elections and take seats in legislatures. These other political parties, including Furgal’s LDPR, the Communist Party, and A Just Russia, are known as “systemic” opposition parties. They are permitted to run against United Russia, but do not seriously compete for power. They rarely criticize the ruling party or the Kremlin, and can be counted on to vote with United Russia on policy issues.

Writing over 50 years ago, the political theorist Robert Dahl called political opposition “very nearly the most distinctive characteristic of democracy itself.” In Russia, however, “systemic” opposition parties are an element of authoritarianism, not democracy. Beyond providing the veneer of competition, they also absorb the votes of those aiming to cast a ballot against regime-backed candidates. In this way, systemic opposition parties help unrepresentative institutions survive by giving people the opportunity to continue to act within the system rather than seeking to subvert it. 

Furgal himself, and the LDPR, have benefited from their place in the system. During the 2016 State Duma election, United Russia did not run a candidate against Furgal, allowing him to easily recapture his seat. In turn, Furgal was supposed to be a “technical candidate” in the gubernatorial election in Khabarovsk, enabling the regime-backed candidate to win. It seems as though Furgal tried to do this at first, by barely campaigning and volunteering to be the incumbent governor’s deputy. Still, he was propelled into office by a wave of anti-regime sentiment.

Furgal’s post-election transformation from loyal servant to anti-Kremlin hero points to inherent problems within Russia’s carefully crafted political system. Furgal’s victory and popularity mirror the decline of the regime’s party of power and highlight a system designed to give voters the impression of competition without delivering on the substance. The Kremlin’s choice of replacement for Furgal, a fellow LDPR member, but someone who is unknown in the region itself, signals that Moscow’s priority is maintaining stability within the party system rather than quelling unrest. It is unlikely that the interim governor will appease Khabarovsk, but the Kremlin seems to be worried more about elite unity than ongoing protests.


Profile: Sergei Furgal 

A Khabarovsk native, Furgal, 50, joined Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in 2005. Previously, he worked as a neurologist in a regional hospital, then became a businessman, dealing with the import of goods from nearby China, and later with lumber and scrap metal. He was elected deputy of the regional parliament in 2005 and to the State Duma in 2007, where he held public offices for over ten years. He ran for the post of Khabarovsk governor twice—in 2013 and 2018. In the first election, Furgal lost to another local politician, United Russia functionary Vyacheslav Shport. In 2018, he tied with the incumbent Shport, and as the election went to a runoff—a rare case in Russia’s highly controlled regional politics—he won in a landslide. An LDPR member, Furgal has been one of only three other regional leaders in the 85 constituent entities of the Russian Federation who were not members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia.


Profile: Mikhail Degtyarev

Degtyarev, 39, like Furgal, is a member of LDPR. He was born in Samara and rose to prominence in 2001 on creating the pro-Kremlin youth movement Idushchiye Vmeste (Walking Together). In 2003, Degtyarev joined the United Russia party, but two years later switched to LDPR. He has held various public offices since 2004, including two deputy terms in the Russian State Duma (2011 and 2016). Some of Degtyarev’s initiatives in the Duma were controversial. In 2014, as head of the committee for physical culture, he proposed banning dollar circulation in Russia “to protect Russian sports against foreign threats.” Three years later, he endorsed his party’s idea to replace Russia’s current anthem with the old imperial anthem, since the former was not sufficiently patriotic.