The periphery strikes back: The 2020 protests in Khabarovsk and their impact on protest movements and regionalism in Russia

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Above Photo August 2020 protests.

Marin Ekstrom is Professor of Writing at Toyo University and Head of Programs at the Tokyo Branch of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She graduated from Central European University with a Masters in International Relations. Marin’s research interests include Eurasian integration, foreign policy analysis, language policy, and education.

Although capital cities play a key role in organizing a country’s political and economic functions, over-centralization can fuel resentment in provincial regions. This attitude has steadily gained ground in Russia, where Moscow and the surrounding Moscow region possess immense political administrative capacities and include more than one quarter of Russia’s GDP. The authority that Moscow is ceding is particularly skewed given that Russia is the world’s largest territorial state and the country’s lucrative natural resources are mostly concentrated east of the Ural Mountains.

Putin’s regime has sought to consolidate power in Moscow. In the process he has assigned an increasing amount of Russia’s natural resource profits to enrich capital while leaving diminished returns to other regions. For the most part, Russians outside Moscow reluctantly tolerated this increasing level of centralization. Recent events, however, indicate that Russia’s provinces are becoming less and less accepting of Moscow’s dominance, with the 2020 Khabarovsk protests standing out as an example of pushback from Russia’s peripheral regions.

Background: The 2020 protests in Khabarovsk

In the summer of 2020, Russia was rocked by a series of massive protests in its far eastern city of Khabarovsk. The protests quickly turned into the biggest events in the history of the region and lasted a year. The Khabarovsk protests were triggered by the following chain of events. On July 9, 2020, Russian state authorities arrested Sergei Furgal, the city governor. The federal government claimed that Furgal’s detention resulted from allegations that he helped orchestrating four murders in 2004 and 2005.

However, residents of Khabarovsk were quick to condemn the conviction for being based on false accusations. They suspected that Moscow viewed Furgal as a threat and targeted him to protect its interests in the region, while Furgal and his Liberal Democratic Party campaign defeated Vyacheslav Shport, candidate of the pro-Putin United Russia party, in the 2018 gubernatorial elections. Their suspicions were confirmed when Putin nominated Mikhail Degtyaryov— a man with no connection to Khabarovsk or the Russian Far East — as the region’s acting governor. Despite Degtyaryov’s affiliation with the Liberal Democratic Party, he maintains close ties with Moscow and would have received financial and political support for the Putin regime. Thus, many citizens of Khabarovsk saw the action as an attempt to “appease” them by appointing a governor with the same political affiliation as Furgal while ensuring that a Putin loyalist holds power in the region. .

Beginning July 11, 2020, thousands of residents took to the streets to protest Furgal’s arrest and denounce Putin’s regime and its interference in Khabarovsk. During the first weeks of the protests, the crowds swelled to 50,000 to 80,000 attendees on the city’s population of about 600,000 people. In the fall of 2020, law enforcement officials began to repress by dispersing demonstrations and arresting demonstrators and journalists. Nonetheless, protesters continued to come out daily for months afterwards, although their numbers dwindled after the movement’s summer peak. The protests effectively ended in July 2021 due to limits on large public gatherings, though residents and analysts suspect the new decisions took advantage of the pandemic to finally quell the protests.

Center vs. Periphery: The Independent Tendency of the Russian Far East

While the circumstances surrounding Furgal’s arrest help explain why Khabarovsk protesters reacted so strongly, their grievances go deeper than the details of that event. Indeed, the demonstrations in Khabarovsk reveal the tense relations between Moscow, the center of the Russian state, and “peripheral” regions such as Khabarovsk.

Russia has a long history of extensive political centralization, and Putin’s rule continued the tradition. The effects of Moscow’s interference in regional affairs are keenly felt in Khabarovsk and other parts of the Russian Far East. The region contains vast reserves of oil, gas and other resources, and the Russian government has derived immense benefit from this natural wealth to support the national economy. However, residents of the Russian Far East complain that state-sponsored business ventures funnel the majority of profits in Moscow while leaving little to local communities.

Low investment in the region has caused cities to decline, in turn prompting residents to move to Moscow in search of better opportunities. Moscow also has played a major role in the selection of government and business officials in the Russian Far East, prioritizing loyalty to Putin’s regime over regional familiarity and experience. Locals in the region increasingly believe that Moscow is using it as a glorified natural resource; their actions during the Khabarovsk protests expressed this resentment quite forcefully and publicly.

The protests highlighted the independent streak running through Khabarovsk and the surrounding region. The great geographic distance between the Russian Far East and Moscow, compounded by its legacy of colonization by explorers and political dissidents, gave rise to the notion of oblastnichestvowho claims that the Russian Far East has a distinct sense of identity compared to Western Russian. Ultimately, supporters of oblastnichestvo herald separatist campaigns to establish an entity independent of Moscow.

Although such drastic measures are unlikely to materialize in the near future, the protests in Khabarovsk indicate that there is an urgent need for the region to have greater autonomy in its affairs. Approval ratings of Putin’s regime in Khabarovsk and the Russian Far East have steadily fallen due to the frustrations on Putin’s displays of authoritarianism, Russia’s economic decline and criticism of Moscow’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the Russian Far East can use its geographical proximity to economic powers such as China, Japan and South Korea to establish alternative trade and development links, thereby reducing its dependence on Moscow. Khabarovsk and the Russian Far East are less and less linked to Moscow and could continue their moves to deviate from the preferences of the central government.

Khabarovsk’s legacy and the future of protests in Russia

As of this writing, the 2020 Khabarovsk protest movement has died down: the protests are over, Furgal remains in detention, and Degtyaryov has been re-elected in September 2021 (although the race has faced accusations electoral fraud.) However, it would be unwise to characterize this event as a mere anomaly, as it inspired increased activism across Russia. The first days of the Khabarovsk protests sets off solidarity demonstrations in various Russian cities, including Vladivostok, Barnaul, Irkutsk, Kazan, Chelyabinsk and Krasnodar. At national scale protests following the arrest of Alexei Navalny in early 2021 also signal increased political boldness across Russia. Such events suggested a growing intolerance of Moscow’s heavy-handedness in the affairs of Russia’s peripheral regions, as well as a greater sense of assertiveness in promoting the respective preferences of these communities. Russian analysts have speculated that the protests in Khabarovsk could signal a long-term shift in Russian governance, in which Russian provinces would have a greater ability to challenge centralized power structures.

Unfortunately, the initial optimism of the Khabarovsk protests was countered by Putin’s regime, which promoted a series of reforms aiming to further centralize authority from Moscow and took advantage of COVID-19 to quell the protests. The most devastating blow to Russian civic engagement, however, was the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. At first, the invasion triggered large-scale protests in major Russian cities, including Khabarovsk.

The Kremlin reacted by imposing a law that criminalizes open dissentin particular by describing the war in Ukraine as “war” rather than a “special operation”. Currently, more than 16,000 Russians were arrested for protesting Russian aggression in Ukraine. The repression of civil rights, coupled with a strong base of internal support for the war, has considerably reduced the possibilities of protest in Russia. At the same time, the inherent unpredictability of war could turn against Putin’s regime. Russia’s growing international (and especially Western) isolation, as evidenced by punishments and international brands and organizations withdraw from the country – coupled with heavy military losses on the Russian side, could prove catastrophic for the Kremlin’s control over the country, especially if Russia experiences a devastating military defeat and/or economic collapse.

While the prospects of massive Russian retaliation against Putin’s regime seem unlikely in the near future, events like the Khabarovsk movement in 2020 indicate that Russia is not immune to political surprises. These protests could serve as models for future resistance movements, allowing Russian citizens to advocate for stronger regional autonomy and structural reforms at the federal level.

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