August 27, 2020

The Background to the Protests in the Russian Far East

TASS/Scanpix
Protesters in Khabarovsk with a photo of Sergei Furgal.
Protesters in Khabarovsk with a photo of Sergei Furgal.

Moscow is being arrogant and patronising towards the provinces.

In 2011, Alexander Etkind, an Italian historian of Russian heritage, published the book Inner Colonization,1 in which he analyses the sustainability of the territorial policy of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the modern Russian Federation. The author argues that, while other imperial states have expanded their territory with colonies overseas, Russia has colonised its own territory, moving from the outskirts to the midlands. Readers should take many of the facts and statements in the book with a pinch of salt, but one thing the author got right is that the authorities in Russia have treated and still treat a large part of their territory as resource colonies, the main purpose of which is to contribute to the public treasury.

Those who follow Russian affairs know that, for some time now, extensive protests have been taking place in Khabarovsk Krai in the Russian Far East. By the time this article was written, the protests had already lasted for almost a month, and although the number of participants seemed to be decreasing, there was no sign of the situation ending. The protests have to do with the arrest of Khabarovsk Krai’s popular governor, Sergei Furgal.

Discontent with the actions of the central authorities has been simmering in the Russian Far East and the whole area east of the Urals for a long time. It is quite common in Russia for senior officials, including administrative leaders, to be brought down and prosecuted, and usually this does not bring more than a few protesters onto the streets. The reason multitudes of people took to the streets in the cities of the Far East is rooted in Moscow’s long-standing policy of resource colonies, as well as many economic and administrative shortcomings in the periphery.

Sergei Furgal was elected governor of Khabarovsk Krai on 23 September 2018, surprising everyone, including himself. He was a so-called technical candidate, running to oppose Vyacheslav Shport, a member of United Russia, the incumbent seeking re-election. The goal was to create the illusion of a democratic election with more than one candidate. Furgal had already run as a technical candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party in the region’s gubernatorial elections in 2013. On that occasion, things went “according to plan” and Shport won.

In 2018, the elections were supposed to pan out similarly, but to the surprise of the participants and observers alike, Furgal gained almost 70% of the vote in the second round and won by a landslide. He quickly gained popularity amongst the Khabarovsk Krai community (more on that later) and everything could have gone well, if he had not been arrested by security officials on 9 July this year and taken to Moscow, where the next day he was accused of several crimes.

Furgal is accused of organising the murder of five businessmen in 2004–5. This is not the focus of this article, but the main reason for Furgal’s arrest is said to be pressure from Moscow to hand power over the local economy to people close to the Kremlin, mainly the Rotenberg brothers, friends of president Vladimir Putin.

Khabarovsk Krai is quite well off for a region in the Russian periphery, with iron ore mines, metallurgical plants, shipyards and aircraft factories. The Rotenbergs have started targeting the metallurgy industry, justifying this with a plan to build a bridge between Sakhalin Island and the mainland in the near future. The other reason is said to be that Khabarovsk Krai was one of the two regions in Russia where the necessary voter turnout was not achieved in the national referendum held in early July 2020, and the number of votes in favour of the planned changes to the constitution including enabling Putin to seek further terms as president, potentially up to 2034 was not deemed sufficient.

Historically, the Russian Empire, the USSR and the Russian Federation have been divided into the centre and the provinces. Moscow, and in the last decade Saint Petersburg, are the centres, and everything else is a province. Throughout history, the centre has attempted to control the provinces, while the latter have tried to maintain control over their own economy and political development.

A noticeable shift in the Russian provinces occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially during the final years of this process. Boris Yeltsin’s well-known recommendation to the Russian regions to grab as much sovereignty as they could swallow proceeded from the power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin built a successful union with the regions and defeated Gorbachev.

In the 1990s, the autonomy (“sovereignty” is not the legally correct term in this case) of the Russian regions grew. They pursued their own economic policy and local laws took precedence over federal ones. Once in power, president Vladimir Putin soon began to reduce the autonomy of the regions, in several stages; by 2007–8, this process had been successfully completed.

Developments differed by region, but for the area east of the Urals this meant an ever-larger portion of the profits from local industry and natural resource mining going straight to Moscow and returning in the form of subsidies. The other matter that caused conflict all over Siberia and the Russian Far East was the appointment to local positions of senior officials from Moscow. At first this was limited to heads of administration, but the state has now begun appointing the local managers of large state-owned companies. In neither case do the appointees know the regional situation or try to communicate with the locals. Their attitude towards the local population is irreverent, to say the least. This is a common problem amongst Muscovites in peripheral regions.

The Far East is a unique region in the Russian Federation. The area, inhabited mainly by Slavic people, is a few hundred kilometres wide, stretching along the shore of the Pacific Ocean and the banks of the Amur River. As well as Russians, there are vast numbers of Ukrainians, who call the region the Green Ukraine (Zeleny Klyn), an area with a compact Ukrainian settlement outside their home country.

Khabarovsk Krai’s population is the same as that of Estonia (1.3 million), but its territory of nearly 800,000 km2 makes it the largest and most industrialised administrative unit in the Russian Far East. The area is separated from other predominantly Russian regions by thousands of kilometres of so-called federal republics, such as Sakha, Khakassia, Tuva, Buryatia and Altai. Moscow is over 6,000 kilometres away and flights are consistently getting more expensive. This has created a strong regional identity, with local sub-identities.

Every city, such as Vladivostok, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk, has a strong local identity. This is largely due to the fact that the cities are like separate islands, with very sparse population around them for hundreds of kilometres in some areas. Due to human geographical characteristics, the population of the cities in the Russian Far East is like one big community, where people are connected through work, as well as because of the limited urban areas.

In recent years, there has been a tendency in the Russian Far East towards alienation from the centres. As the cost of flights has increased, the generation growing up in the regions has never been to Moscow or other places in the European part of Russia, or visited only rarely. The people of the Far East usually holiday in Thailand, South Korea or Vietnam and drive cars brought from Japan with the steering wheel on the right. (Importing these is an entire business, notwithstanding Moscow’s attempts to restrict it.) The shops stock goods from China, South Korea and Japan, and businesses have close economic ties with companies from the Asia-Pacific region. People from the Far East are apprehensive about Moscow interfering in local life, as the changes do not usually benefit them. Officials in Moscow see the Far East as a cash cow, while the Far East considers Moscow’s policies colonial and inconsiderate of the locals’ interests. I would go even further and claim that one of the reasons behind the protests in Khabarovsk Krai is the long-standing umbrage and humiliation caused by the “centre”, which treats the people of this region as second-class citizens.

There are many reasons to take offence. A plan to develop the Far East into the leading economic centre in the Asian region has been mulled over in Moscow for a decade. Vladimir Putin has been to the shipyard in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and emphasised that he takes a personal interest in its well-being. Nevertheless, none of the plans to develop ports and special economic zones or establish new lines of communication with China have been successful, hence it is understandable that the locals are pessimistic about Moscow’s promises.

Now add the popularity of the previous elected governor, Sergei Furgal, into the equation. He is from Amur Oblast in this very region. This is important, as it automatically made him one of the locals. In his less than two years in office, the new governor managed to see through many changes that clearly improved the local inhabitants’ livelihoods.

In addition to extensive road repairs and construction, he standardised the lunch programme in kindergartens (previously, the children of parents who could pay would get better food), invested heavily in the socioeconomic development of the region and cancelled suspicious public tenders. Naturally, cuts to the salaries and pensions of the governor and other top officials, the sale of the administration’s yacht, restrictions on officials’ use of first-class flights and reducing bureaucracy were well received.

Furgal was a people person; he is said to have had a rapport with the public. While regional governors usually keep as far away as possible from the people, Furgal at least created the illusion that citizens can have a say in the region’s administration and their opinion mattered. That is why his arrest brought 60,000 people onto the streets of Khabarovsk.

It would be wrong to view these protests as the beginning of a democratic revolution. In time, they will disperse, and life will go back to how it was. It is unlikely that Russia will start including its population in policymaking. The status quo will stand, but the likelihood of new protests will increase.

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1 Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

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