Tens of thousands of people have marched across Russia’s southeastern city of Khabarovsk on the border with China to protest the arrest of the regional governor on murder charges, continuing a two-week wave of protests that has challenged the Kremlin.
Sergei Furgal has been in a Moscow jail since his arrest on July 9, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has named an acting successor.
Protesters in Khabarovsk see the charges against Furgal as unsubstantiated and demand he stand trial at home.
“People are offended,” said protester Dmitry Kachalin on Saturday. “I think people take to the streets because their vote in the 2018 election was taken away.”
Unlike Moscow, where police usually move quickly to disperse unsanctioned opposition protests, authorities have not interfered with the unauthorised demonstrations in the city of Khabarovsk, located 6,100km (3,800 miles) east of the Russian capital.
But daily protests, peaking at weekends, have continued for two weeks, reflecting anger against what residents see as Moscow’s disrespect of their choice for governor and simmering discontent with Putin’s rule. Local officials’ attempts to discourage people from joining the demonstrations by warning about the risk of coronavirus infection have been unsuccessful.
“We had enough,” said protester Anastasia Schegorina. “We elected the governor and we want to be heard and decide ourselves what to do with him. Bring him here, and a fair and open trial will decide whether to convict him or not.”
Protesters chanted “Freedom!” and “Russia, wake up!” and carried placards voicing support for Furgal and denouncing Putin, as drivers in passing cars honked in support.
On Monday, Putin officially fired Furgal, 50, and appointed a legislator from the same nationalist LDPR party, Mikhail Degtyarev, as his acting replacement.
The move was met with by anger from Khabarovsk residents who said the 39-year-old outsider lacked experience and had no connection to the region.
In a video posted to Instagram this week, Degtyarev dismissed calls for him to step down and said the mass demonstrations did not reflect broader public opinion.
Ahead of the demonstrations on Friday, he suggested foreign citizens had flown from Moscow to Khabarovsk to help organise the protests.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed claims of foreign interference but said the protests were a “nutrient … for troublemakers” and “pseudo-opposition” activists.
Furgal’s detention before a trial in September sparked an outcry from his nationalist LDPR party whose firebrand leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky this week promised to secure a presidential pardon if he was found guilty of the charges.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Furgal was charged with ordering the murders and attempted murders of several businessmen in 2004 and 2005.
Critics say the case is politically motivated after Furgal was elected with a large majority in 2018 in an embarrassing defeat for a candidate of the governing party backed by Putin.
They have demanded Furgal face the charges in Khabarovsk and question why investigators waited so long to accuse an official who should have undergone background checks.