Anti-Kremlin protests in Russia’s eastern city of Khabarovsk entered a fourth week on Saturday as thousands of people rallied against the arrest, dismissal and replacement of the local governor by president Vladimir Putin.
The long-running demonstrations are unprecedented in modern Russia and have made Mr Putin appear either unwilling or unable to respond, and come shortly after the president changed the country’s constitution to allow him to extend his rule by 12 more years.
More than 10,000 people defied torrential rain and the threat of arrest to march through the city centre, calling for Mr Putin’s resignation and demanding that Sergei Furgal, the popular local governor who was arrested on July 9 and flown to a Moscow prison on murder charges, be returned to the city.
Pro-Kremlin analysts have sought to portray the protests in the city 6,000km east of Moscow and close to the Chinese border as a local issue that will soon run out of steam. But small copycat rallies have taken place in other cities in the country’s east and a poll last week by the independent Levada Centre found that 83 per cent of Russians had heard of the protests and 45 per cent viewed them positively.
Mr Furgal was the surprise victor in the region’s 2018 gubernatorial election after defeating the candidate from Mr Putin’s United Russia party. His high popularity made him a rare case of an anti-Kremlin politician succeeding at the ballot box and he was seen as an example for others seeking to topple Mr Putin’s political hegemony.
Mr Furgal denies the charges, which relate to events in 2004 and 2005, according to state investigators. His supporters have decried them as politically motivated, an accusation that the Kremlin has denied.
“[Mr] Furgal had higher ratings than the president and so now he is in a jail in Moscow,” Katya, a 34-year-old beauty salon worker, said as rain poured down. “Putin is a Tsar.”
Local police looked on as protesters chanted “Furgal is our choice” and “We are the power here” during the three-mile march, which temporarily closed many of the city’s main thoroughfares.
City authorities, who have vastly under estimated the scale of previous rallies, said just 3,500 people took part on Saturday.
Drivers sounded their car horns in solidarity with the 90-minute march as protesters waved flags and made victory signs before the rally assembled outside the governor’s office, chanting for Mr Putin’s removal.
“Give us back Furgal,” they chanted, waving handmade flags and placards. “Wake up, this country is massive!”
The Kremlin’s most prominent response to the crisis has been to select a little-known national lawmaker to replace Mr Furgal, a move that has only deepened public anger at what locals say is illustrative of Moscow’s disregard for their views.
Mikhail Degtyarev, the 39-year-old who was appointed acting governor on July 20, is from the same party as Mr Furgal, but has no experience of the region. He has called for a fair trial for his predecessor, but also demanded an end to protests.