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Saturday's New York Times and Financial Times feature substantial articles on the latest political developments in the Russian Far East bearing piquant titles:
NYT -- "Protests Rock Russian Far East With Calls for Putin to Resign" by Andrew Higgins
FT -- "Russian governor's arrest sparks anti-Putin protests. Khabarovsk leader Sergei Furgal is latest detention in post-referendum crackdown" by Max Seddon
Both journalists are Moscow-based, working at a distance of 6,000 km from the scene of the action, which means that everything they have reported is second-hand, gleaned from their usual anti-Kremlin contacts in the capital, from reading Facebook accounts, from the comments of Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and, one assumes, from stringers in the Far East. However, they do their fact-gathering job well-enough to have two or three pages of text, and I will take their facts as accurate for our purposes.
The intended contribution of this essay is to offer an interpretation of what is going on that goes farther and deeper than what these two opinion-shaping newspapers give us: the notion that Putin's popularity is sagging or that he is using his "new powers" from the referendum on constitutional amendments to settle scores with a troublesome local politician. These factors are undeniably present, but there are other drivers of the arrest and of the protests that merit an airing. Because these factors do not mesh with the belief of mainstream media that Russia has no opposition parties or movements other than those we recognize as such, they are being ignored, even as they are, potentially, very important markers of the general direction of Russian politics today.
I do not offer a definitive interpretation here, since the information is still too sketchy, but I will raise questions that hopefully other commentators will also address in coming days, since the blow-up in the Far East is no small matter. As many as 35,000 protesters may have turned out in Khabarovsk to protest Furgal's arrest. They called for Putin's resignation and carried signs "Down with Moscow!"
The figure at the center of the scandal, Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal, was arrested in the past week and taken to Moscow where he is being charged with murders and criminal business activity in his past. Given the statute of limitations in Russia, the single murder on which the prosecution will likely rest their case must be brought now while it is still actionable.
At the start of his Sunday evening broadcast, Rossiya 1 anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov, who also heads the news services of all state broadcasting, gave the Furgal arrest extensive coverage, starting with an interview with the tearful mother of the alleged victim murdered in 2005. The program sought to demonstrate that this is an open and shut case, with the prosecution having the goods in hand to bring conviction.
Even the Financial Times reporter appears to acknowledge the likelihood that Furgal is implicated in murders, saying they were a widespread practice in business circles from the chaotic 1990s on. He says Furgal's prosecution now, just before the statute of limitations shuts down, is revenge for being too popular, for beating the United Russia candidate and for failing to bring out the vote in favor of the constitutional amendments at the national referendum last month. With 62% approval amidst 44% turnout, in Khabarovsk only 25% of the electorate voted Putin's choice, in contrast to the approval of just over 50% of eligible voters that was achieved nationwide.
One additional fact tossed out at the very end of the FT account bears mention. Seddon remind us that Furgal belonged to the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR, for whom he had been a deputy in the State Duma for more than a decade and he caps this with an otherwise unexplained account of Zhirinovsky's response to the arrest of his protege:
"Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR's leader, threatened to withdraw all its MPs in protest at Mr Furgal's arrest and said that security services were 'acting like under Stalin.'"
The FT does not bother to identify the LDPR, but The New York Times does it quite precisely: they are the party of "the nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky," going on to say that the party is "scorned by Russian liberals as a collection of crackpots and crooks."
But let bygones be bygones. Though the protesters may be crackpots, the journalist Higgins tells us that the protests themselves have won the endorsement of the one man who stands in for a legitimate opposition in Western eyes: "Aleksei A. Navalny, a Moscow-based anti-corruption campaigner and Russia's most prominent opposition leader, cheered Saturday's protests in the Far East, hailing the street demonstration in Khabarovsk as the 'biggest in the city's history.'"
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In my analysis of the voting results from July 1, "Putin's Referendum: Where are the Numbers?" I remarked on how the Far East had given dismal results for the Kremlin.
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