Russia Needs a New Gorbachev

Russia Needs a New Gorbachev

A dialogue between the Russian government and people protesting in the streets is still possible.


The mass protests in the Far East city of Khabarovsk, now in their fourth week, are unprecedented for the Russia of the last 20 years. The spark that lit the fuse of popular outrage was the unexpected arrest of Governor Sergei Furgal in on July 11 on charges of organizing the murders of businessmen in 2004 and 2005.

Furgal, a member of the Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and a native of Khabarovsk, won the election in 2018 against the Kremlin’s protégé, Khabarovsk governor Vyacheslav Shport, from the United Russia Ruling Party, and in the brief time since has organized food programs in schools, cut the privileges of officials, and met frequently in town halls with his electorate. During the national referendum to reform Russia’s Constitution on July 1, most Khabarovsk-region voters did not favor the constitutional amendments that would give Vladimir Putin a practically unlimited term, increase the Russian Orthodox Church’s power, and reduce many civil rights. Official results showed total support for the amendments, but many observers doubt those numbers.

Analysts predicted that Furgal would pay for his independence. And he has. Khabarovsk’s residents saw the governor’s arrest in July as disrespect for their choice. On July 11, in a city with a population just over 600,000, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. (That’s the approximate equivalent to a million people coming out to protest in Moscow, which has a population of about 12.4 million, according to the United Nations.)

The protesters demanded the governor’s release or that his trial on the alleged charges be held in the Khabarovsk region to hopefully allow more freedom from state interference. The police did not disperse the crowds; policewomen handed out protective masks and bottles of water.

The slogans in the early days of the protests described Putin as leader of Russia—and Furgal as leader of the region. Although national television news paid little attention to the July 2020 protests, Internet and independent media companies sent their correspondents to Khabarovsk and reported on events more fully and in real time. The Kremlin’s appointment of an acting governor, Mikhail Degtyarev, a LDPR deputy from the Volga region, prompted a new wave of anger. New slogans called for ending the tyranny of Moscow and the Putin regime. Dozens of Russian cities in the Far East, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Central Russia, and Siberia saw actions in solidarity with the Khabarovsk protesters; the police arrested dozens of activists.

The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta called the events in Khabarovsk “the evolution of dignity.” Sergei Belanovsky’s independent research group (which had predicted the protests of 2011 to 2012 and has been doing sociological research in the region for years) did an immediate analysis of Khabarovsk during the protests as well. It called this a valuable conflict between citizens and government, between Moscow’s imposition of its rules and regional self-rule. The so-called federal vertical, Putin’s strategy of maintaining a strong centralized government where all decisions are made in Moscow, was being tested. The unspoken contract made 20 years ago, based on the relative prosperity of society in exchange for noninterference in politics, is no longer working. Prosperity is over, but even more importantly, people do not want handouts from the government; they want respect for themselves and their choices.

“The Khabarovsk situation is singular and is determined in great part by the character of the Far East, where people, as in Siberia, are more self-reliant than in central Russia,” said Natalya Zubarevich, a professor at Moscow State University and an expert on regional development. “It’s unlikely to extend to other regions. All regional protests are situational. The federal vertical of power will not allow a strengthening of the regions, it is only going to get harsher in the near future. However, the dissatisfaction will also grow, and not only in the Far East. The question is when the authorities will hear it.”

The Khabarovsk protests in July caught the Kremlin unawares, and the referendum in July on the constitutional amendments, which culminated with a formal victory for the national authorities, has elicited profound skepticism. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky called the amendments “the rape of intellectual common sense.” Yavlinsky wrote that the very idea of amendments destroys the state and ruins democracy in Russia. At the same time, the epidemic and related economic crisis have increased the criticism of Putin and his government.

The country’s economy, according to economist Alexei Kudrin, is stagnant. During the epidemic, real income has fallen significantly, unemployment has grown, small- and medium-level entrepreneurs have gone bankrupt, and government aid for children and business is not enough to make up for losses. The current situation has many people recalling the hard years they lived through during the Soviet Union.

In 2018, Putin announced a series of national projects—focusing on infrastructure investment and regional economic development that are central to Putin’s socioeconomic plan—and demanded that they be realized by 2024; that deadline now has been delayed to 2030. “It was clear from the start that the plans were unfeasible,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher, a professor at the Higher School of Economics. “For example, they set the goal of reducing poverty by half by 2024. But even before the epidemic, the Accounts Chamber of Russia found that poverty had grown from 2018 to 2019. For the economy to really start developing, reforms are needed on the same scale as those in 1990.” Regional development expert Zubarevich believes that the reforms must include weakening of the center’s power over the regions and a more rational and transparent distribution of income from oil and gas, which will remain the basis of the economy for many more years. This requires a new regionalism and political will.

In early August 2020, Putin’s rating reached a historic low of 23 percent, according to the independent Levada Center’s poll. People do not trust the state, preferring to rely on themselves and their family and friends. And trust for other institutions, including the police and church, is even lower. Propaganda cannot counter the influence of the Internet. Many Russians trust online media more than state propagandistic TV.

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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