Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Khabarovsk, in Russia's far east not far from the border with China, on Saturday. As at previous protests, they called for the release of Sergei Furgal from a Moscow jail. The former regional governor, from the conservative and ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), was ousted from his post and arrested on murder charges last month.
"Furgal is our choice" and "Furgal is not a murderer," the protesters shouted, making their message loud and clear.
Nobody tried to stop them. Car drivers stuck in traffic didn't seem to mind. Many of them sounded their horns and demonstrated their solidarity with the protesters.
Volunteers even distributed protective masks, food and drinks to those who needed them, and when it started to rain heavily, the protesters just took out their umbrellas and raincoats and continued to walk even though they were soon ankle-deep in water. Their good spirits were not to be broken.
Symbol of anti-Moscow resentment
Since Russia is used to unauthorized rallies being quickly broken up by the police and National Guard, the protests in Khabarovsk are being seen as a phenomenon. For many, the city has become a symbol of anti-Moscow sentiment.
It was the third Saturday running that protesters had gathered in front of the regional government building. There is no official organizer. All that is known is the time, midday, and the place, Lenin Square. Official Russian media have not covered the protests yet, but information on them is passed on by the participants themselves on social media or in private conversations.
Saturday's was the biggest demonstration so far, with tens of thousands of the city's 500,000 inhabitants turning up.
When police surrounded the building, the protesters chanted pro-Furgal slogans and marched through the streets.
Accused after 15 years
"I've been here from the start, every Saturday," said Sergei, wearing a T-shirt that read "I am/We are Sergei Furgal."
"I've lived in the region for 50 years and this is the first time I've seen a rally in support of a politician," he said, adding: "People feel humiliated. We voted for Furgal. How can the president just get rid of him?"
The Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Furgal on July 9 and brought him to Moscow. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree dismissing him on the grounds of "a loss of trust" and appointed an acting governor, Mikhail Degtyarev.
Furgal is accused of organizing multiple murders of business rivals in 2004 and 2005
But in Khabarovsk, the protesters, the first of whom took to the streets two days after the arrest, refuse to believe that he could be involved. Even if he is, they say, he should be tried at home. Some question the timing, wondering why this has flared up 15 years after the alleged crimes.
Calls for a local trial
One of them is Alexei Hartmann, a Russian of German descent whose ancestors arrived in the country at the time of Catherine II, knows the former governor.
"He is a decent person," he said. "I know his relatives and I personally don't believe any of the allegations against him."
"People are right to call for him to brought back and for the proceedings to be take place locally in accordance with the law," he added.
Who is Sergei Furgal?
A former businessman, Sergei Furgal joined the LDPR, which was the second officially registered party after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and turned to politics. He graduated with a master's degree in economics from the Russian Presidential Academy of Public Administration and was elected a member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
In 2018, he ran for governor of the region of Khabarovsk and won 70% of the votes. Observers attributed his success to a "protest vote" against the central government. Voters in this remote part of the country feel neglected by Moscow. The region was one of five in which opposition candidates won against proteges of the ruling United Russia party.
Furgal made some popular decisions. For example, he ordered that the regional government's yacht, whose maintenance costs equaled some 600,000 rubles annually (about €7,000; $8,234), be sold. He also cut the pensions of civil servants and deputies in the region, bringing further savings of 9 million rubles (more than €100,000).
'When we're one, we're invincible'
His successor, Mikhail Degtyarev, has already tried to distance himself from Furgal even though they are from the same party. Degtyarev is a young and ambitious politician who has already run twice for Moscow mayor.
He recently canceled an appointment with the press and refuses to meet with the demonstrators, citing physical distancing regulations.
His attitude has triggered criticism in the social media and on his Instagram account. Two regional politicians have left the LDPR out of protest.
The demonstrations are now becoming more widespread. At the end of the rally on Saturday, which ended where it had begun on Lenin Square, protesters shouted that they would be back.
"Freedom," they chanted, and "When we're one, we're invincible."