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Is Putin loosening his grip on Russia’s regions? Protests in Khabarovsk could herald big changes to the way the nation is run

Can Putin hang on to the edges of his nation? Credit: Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images

Can Putin hang on to the edges of his nation? Credit: Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images


July 28, 2020   7 mins

The city of Khabarovsk lies close to Russia’s Chinese border, more than 6,000km and seven time zones to the east of Moscow. So far is it from the Russian capital that, until recently, what happened in Khabarovsk could have been expected too stay in Khabarovsk, especially if it was embarrassing to the Kremlin. These days, though, Russians are able to follow something that increases resembles a regional revolt live-streamed on social media.

Street protests in the city have just entered their third week, with tens of thousands gathering on Saturday for a march reported to be the biggest so far. Sparked by the removal of the regional governor, apparently on the Kremlin’s orders, the protests have grown into one of the most sustained regional challenges to the centre for many years. Placards and chants now combine support for the ousted governor, Sergei Furgal, with calls for Putin to resign: “Twenty years in power and we don’t trust you,” they say; “Russia without Putin”, “We are the power here!”

Small protests outside Moscow are not particularly unusual. What is unusual is that these have been so big and continued for so long. Still more unusual is that the local police have stood calmly by, doing nothing more disruptive than distributing anti-Covid masks and accepting the thanks of the marchers.

The demonstrations began on 11 July, two days after the governor’s arrest and summary transfer to a Moscow prison on charges of contract killings that date back more than 15 years. Initially, the protesters were simply demanding that he be freed or allowed to stand trial in Khabarovsk. Ten days later the protests gained new momentum, after Putin appointed a new interim governor, an MP from the Volga region, with no ties at all to the Far East.

This weekend’s vast demonstration in Khabarovsk. Credit: Dmitry MorgulisTASS via Getty Images

Why Sergei Furgal was removed precisely when he was is not clear, but the political charge sheet against him could be long, and he has enemies, local and national. Back in 2018, he had dared to stand for the governorship of the Khabarovsk region against the Kremlin-approved incumbent. Worse, he had won by a landslide. Worst of all, he had then become popular, introducing changes – including televised government meetings, hot meals for schoolchildren, and auctioning off the previous administration’s yacht. Governors seen as competent who become popular in their own right are quite a rarity, so he would have been noticed.

It is possible that the Kremlin wanted to fire a warning shot across the bows of others hoping to emulate Khaborovsk’s brand of autonomy ahead of regional elections across Russia this autumn. The pro-Putin United Russia party fears that it could lose badly to the right-wing populist party — misleadingly called the Liberal Democrat Party. And, as it happens, this is the party that Furgal belongs to.

A more immediate reason could have been the relative lack of enthusiasm shown by Khabarovsk voters at the recent, 1 July, constitutional referendum. The referendum was held to approve amendments, including one that would, in theory, allow Putin another two presidential terms, but both the turn-out and the Yes vote in Khabarovsk were among the lowest in the land. The Governor had clearly fallen down on the job — hence, perhaps, the revival of old criminal charges against him.

The use of criminal allegations for a political purpose is, of course, a standard part of the Kremlin playbook — as it was in Soviet times. The Kremlin’s response to the unrest in Khabarovsk, however, has not entirely followed the script. So far, at least, it has resisted dispatching its own “heavies” to make up for the lack of local police action. And while the replacement governor — 39 year-old Mikhail Degtyaryov — is not a local, he belongs to the same populist party as the ousted governor, which was a concession reportedly made by Putin against his chief political aide’s advice, in the hope of drawing the sting of the protests.

There are other indications that the Kremlin may be trying a more calculated, psychological, approach than its usual swift resort to head-bashing. Attempts to dissuade protesters have included warnings of a local upsurge in Covid infections and of a pending terrorist attack (neither of which, it appeared, had any foundation or any effect). The Russian government then announced a new subsidy for the region, to coincide with the new appointee’s arrival (which did not stop him being booed).

Moscow also accepted, uncharacteristically, that the protests were home-grown. Asked whether there was orchestration from abroad or associates of the ousted governor, the official Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “No, we are not talking about that.” He went on to say that the priority was for the local authorities to ensure the smooth running of services and insisted that Putin had no plans to visit.

In all, this looks like a distinctly more hands-off approach to protests in the regions than Moscow has generally shown before. And this could make sense,  because while the Khabarovsk protests are unusual, they are also part of an emerging pattern. In recent years, some of the most effective — and perhaps threatening — opposition to Vladimir Putin has taken place not at national level, but over corruption and environmental issues that are essentially local.

Take some of the protests that have made a national mark in recent years. In 2010, there was huge and at times violent opposition to government plans to route the new Moscow-St Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. The then President, Dmitry Medvedev, eventually halted construction and the road was diverted away from the forest. There were also protests in the Far East over tariffs on imported second-hand Japanese cars.

In 2017, there were protests in more than 30 regions against the illegal dumping of waste. Opposition flared up again last year over plans for a vast new waste processing plant in pristine peatland three hours’ drive to the east of Moscow. The protests were routinely broken up by riot police, but this  particular project was eventually abandoned, although other such facilities have gone ahead.

In spring last year the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals was the scene of huge protests against plans by the Orthodox Church to build a cathedral on a city park. So fierce were the confrontations that Putin eventually took it upon himself to mediate and instructed the city to take a poll of local opinion. The result went decisively against the church hierarchy, which agreed to find another site.

In some ways, the anti-corruption campaigner, Aleksei Navalnyy, stole a march on the Kremlin more than a decade ago by anticipating the trend for local activism. Not only was he a pioneer of political mobilisation via the internet and social media, but he eschewed the capital to establish a network of local offices in friendlier places — including the old Siberian university city of Tomsk. These became hubs for collecting information on local complaints of corruption, which then fed into his national campaign. Over the years, the Kremlin has clipped Navalny’s wings, but the methods he adopted have influenced the conduct of Russian politics, and maybe that influence is now reaching the very top.

In his first two terms as President, 2000 to 2008, Putin had two priorities. One was to bring order to the financial chaos he had inherited from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Salaries and pensions were not being paid; and inflation had devoured the earnings of professionals. The other was to keep the Russian Federation together. Scarred by memories of the Soviet collapse, there were widespread fears that Russia would be next. Preventing the break-up of Russia involved concessions to the largely Muslim republic of Tatarstan and is also what the two Chechen wars (1994-6 and 1999-2003) were all about.

Once Chechnya had been mercilessly bombed into semi-submission, Putin had to find a way of governing Russia’s vast expanse without the single-party structures of the Soviet era. His answer was to try to build what he called a “vertikal”, or pyramid, of power that would streamline administration nationally and develop levers that really worked.

Many commentators saw Putin’s “vertikal” as evidence of his autocratic, even dictatorial, ambitions. How effective it ever became, however, is questionable. After his four years as prime minister (2008 – 2012) and extensive travel around the regions, Putin lamented how difficult it still was to get the levers of power to work. In practice, many regions were often a law unto themselves. As the Russian proverb has it, “God is high above and the Tsar is far away”. With their chants of “We are the power here”, the Khabarovsk protesters clearly share some of that mentality.

More recently, however, and especially since his re-election in 2018, talk of Putin’s “vertikal of power” has been far less in evidence. Nor is it just in relation to the Khabarovsk protests that the Kremlin seems so far to be taking, or trying to take, a more cautious approach. From the start, Putin’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic has had much more in common with the approaches of more federally organised countries than is usual for Russia. Authority for deciding such matters as quarantine and lockdowns has been assigned to regional governors and city mayors, as has the building of “instant” hospitals.

Cynics might argue that Putin was deliberately taking a back seat, to avoid the blame if catastrophe ensued. In fact, though — while the figures can be contested — Russia has not done so badly by international comparisons. Its death rate per million of the population stands at 89, which is well down the global table — far below the UK (685), much of western Europe and the United States. There is another possible straw in the wind, too. While the headline from Russia’s constitutional referendum was about Putin being able to extend his presidency, other changes include greater authority for parliament, the Duma, vis a vis the executive, which could be interpreted as part of a wider move to devolve some power from the Kremlin.

The potential for much greater decentralisation is there. Russia has 85 regions headed by governors or an equivalent and the extent of their authority does not depend only on the Kremlin, it also depends on the state of the local economy, how dependent it is on largesse from the centre and on how much authority the governor can exert in relation to other powerful local interests. Observation and anecdote suggest that Russia’s second and third tier cities have become more prosperous in recent years, with families moving from Moscow to enjoy a better quality of life elsewhere. Greater regional confidence may be one factor underlying the defiance towards Moscow being shown in Khabarovsk. Others have suggested it is proximity to China and disappointment with the relatively slow pace of development on Russia’s side of the border.

It is quite possible that, if the Khabarovsk protests continue, the Kremlin will revert to its old ways. But if what is happening is the start of some re-thinking in Moscow about decentralisation, then these could be interesting times. Change direction too quickly, and there could be a real risk of dislocation, such as resulted from the destructive regionalism and protectionism that accompanied the Soviet Union’s collapse. On the other hand, if Putin were to give up on the “vertikal of power” and accept more give and take with the regions, that could just be the key to making Russia governable as a modern state — not just for what remains of Putin’s presidency, but beyond.


Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

marydejevsky

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Eugene Norman
EN
Eugene Norman
3 years ago

Most of this kind of stuff remains wishful thinking. The hope that Chinese nationalism can be directed north to Russia rather than to its south, which is where most Chinese contested regions lie, and the South China Sea.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

The Himalayas are some distance from the South China Sea (SCS), yet the Chinese are being quite bellicose here.

There was trouble on the Amur River in 1969. The Chinese have not forgotten their claim here either.

Although the SCS is currently the priority, any attempt at, say a lunge against Taiwan, stands a good chance of a nuclear response. China is not ready for that …..yet.

Eugene Norman
EN
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

You are dead keen on ww III. I wouldn’t be so sure the Chinese would lose even a nuclear exchange, and as Mao once said they can afford to lose 100M people, the US can’t. And there’s no conventional way to beat them. Luckily they are on the other side of the planet and not our problem.

Mark Corby
CS
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Apposite use of the word “dead”, and yes I am ” keen on WWIII”.

I don’t know what your sources are, but mine assure me that currently, to put it mildly, China would be vaporised in any nuclear contest with the US. Additionally the US would be very unlikely indeed, to suffer even one nuclear strike in exchange, such is the disparity in nuclear capability.

However you absolutely correct in saying that there is “no conventional way to beat them”. Hence it will be nuclear and it is imperative that it is within the next ten years.

Being on the “other side of the planet” as you say, has the additional advantage that we may enjoy the enhanced dawns and sunsets this may bring.

Perhaps also one, and only one of our very expensive submarines maybe allowed to participate in this Sino Armageddon! O what nectar!

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Mark you are a strange strange man, wishing death to hundreds of millions of people whom you have never met, and are no threat to you. This isn’t the Cold War. China is on the other side of the planet, not deep in Central Europe. And as it happens it already has second strike capability via its jin class of submarines, of which 4 are operational and 2 in production. Each with 12 missile launchers.

So as unlikely as it is that you would get support for a nuclear war even if Taiwan was attacked, as extremely unlikely you would get even limited support if it wasn’t, the support would be zero if there was an attack on China that put New York and London at risk of annihilation. (Along with the other risks of nuclear autumn and the economic collapse).

Also I am no expert but China does have a missile defense which some describe as formidable.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Eugene ‘we’ should have done it twenty years ago, now we have almost left it too late.

Do you really think the Chinese will hesitate for a second if they think they have the military advantage?

No,’we’ have indulged them for far too long and now they hang, like the proverbial sword of Damocles over ‘us’.

I wouldn’t worry about their “second strike” capability, it’s almost useless. Their six Jin class submarines currently operational are, like their Russian counterparts, extremely noisy, and USN Hunter-Killers will make short work of all of them.

Taiwan may not be the catalyst, as you say, after all it looks to many like a Far Eastern version of the Isle of Wight, but there will soon come a moment when decisive action is imperative for ‘our’ survival.

The archaic idea of MAD and the “Nuclear Autumn” as you put it, is extreme unlikely, at least with US nuclear weapons. However with the less advanced Chinese versions one cannot tell.Thus it is axiomatic that she is destroyed as rapidly as possible.

Additionally, because ‘we’ have vacillated for so long, it will not be possible to completely defend our Allies, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea etc. They are just far too close to the Chinese mainland, and impossible to protect from medium range, mobile, ballistic missiles. The superlative US BI ‘stealth’ bombers will hit many but not all of them.

Finally and to cheer you up, it may never happen because we will just ” roll over” like a terrified hamster! Given the absolutely nauseating response to and extreme panic engendered by C-19, the Chinese maybe correct in thinking we are decadent and beyond salvation. All those shriekers and bedwetters who were so very keen to “bend the knee” the other day during the BLM farrago, will be only too happy to Kowtow I suspect.

However to end on positive note, as the late German-Jewish pacifist Richard Gelling put it in 1918 “si vis pacem, fac bellum”.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Mark, yes I think the Chinese are no threat to Europe, or the US, or South America. Taiwan perhaps, but that is a regional issue. Africa as a predatory lender, maybe.

Historically China hasn’t really wanted any kind of land empire beyond their Middle Kingdom and satellites. In fact they built a wall to their north. The Cotswolds are safe.

As for “our allies”, countries have interests not allies. South Korea, Japan et al. have their own furrow to plough.

As for the nuclear autumn, I said autumn rather than winter, because I don’t think that there will be a need, were this to happen, for the full deployment of US or Chinese nuclear weapons.

I am cheered up, as I fail to see the casus belli that would convince people to support even a limited nuclear war. One that would destroy the world economy and could invite nuclear retaliation. ( You seem to be right about the noisiness of the Chinese subs but that may be only a few years away from rectification).

And you seem to think that the US would dominate the local skies or seas, but this seems unfounded. China has intermediate missile dominance.

https://www.reuters.com/art

You are also right that we should never have handed over the manufacturing base to China so that we can do the “smart stuff” which we then outsourced to India. That was a disaster of “world historical” importance as we used to say. But, we are where we are.

Dennis Boylon
DB
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Anti Putin stories in the West are hardly “unherd”

George Kushner
George Kushner
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

The « unherd » part is a way more objective and nuanced take on Russia than most of western media
I’m sure no one in the west would mention the constitutional reform other than to make the point how corrupt Russian politics are , so it’s rare to read about more power being given to Duma

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

An very interesting essay. Could the Chinese exploit this? It seems a perfect opportunity on the face of it.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Possibly pushing Russia away from China at last, then?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Interesting stuff. Funnily enough I spent much of last weekend watching Oliver Stone’s documentary on Putin, recorded between 2015-17. Stone was given remarkable access and spent a lot of time with Putin – the whole thing is about 3.5 hrs long.

Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that much of what Putin tells Stone is lies, but that makes him no different to most leaders worldwide. And we have always known that Putin is nothing if not intelligent, seemingly somewhat more intelligent and knowledgeable than most western leaders. As revealed in various other statements over the years, Putin’s analysis of the west and its weaknesses is particularly acute.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

His schooling in the KGB has served him
well. No western leader has had anything approaching that sort of experience.

Who would you ” put your money on”, Eton and Balliol or the KGB and the Lubyanka?

Mark Corby
CS
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Perhaps.
Historically this has been area of friction and the Chinese particularly resent the 1858 (unequal) Treaty of Aigun, that forced the Qing to cede the area to Imperial Russia.

Putin may have as much to worry about from a resurgent China, as the rest of the Far East.