oDR: Interview

“Our governor”: lessons from the protests in Russia’s Far East, one year on

Last year's protest wave in the Russian Far East captured public attention - but one year on, what have we learned?

Editors of oDR
21 July 2021, 12.00am
Last year, protests in support of Khabarovsk governor Sergey Furgal captured public attention in Russia
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

One year ago, mass protests started in the Russian far eastern city of Khabarovsk – over the arrest of a popular regional governor, Sergey Furgal, on murder charges.

Despite arrests and fines, residents of Khabarovsk protested throughout the summer of 2020. Even when the temperature dropped to -15, people still came out to express their anger at Moscow’s removal of a popular politician. While Russian investigators have claimed they have “undeniable proof” of Furgal’s guilt over two assassinations of local businessmen in the mid-2000s, many believe the case against him is political – or indeed, retribution for his independence and popularity.

Today, Furgal, a member of the right-wing opposition Liberal Democratic Party, is awaiting trial in a Moscow prison, but the protests continue sporadically, making them one of the longest protest cycles in Russia’s recent history.

We spoke to Tatiana Golova, from the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, who has researched how protesters used social media during the Khabarovsk protests.

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Why did you start studying the social media around the Khabarovsk protests?

I had the idea when the protests in Khabarovsk began – that is, last summer – but I managed to implement it only by the end of 2020. If we want to study how people communicate about protest, during protest and after protest, then you can’t bypass social media; all the more so in Russia, where traditional media give only a very truncated idea of ​​people's moods.

On the one hand, people mobilise on social networks. People inform each other and form some kind of grassroots networks of around 100-200 people, using those social networks that they know well – for example, Instagram, VKontakte or Odnoklassniki. On the other hand, if we understand mobilisation in the broader sense of the word – not as the organisation of a specific action, but as the ups and downs of moods during the protests – then social networks allow us to track changes in moods; their fluctuations.

Golova_Khabarovsk_Timeline.png

Is there any explanation why these protests were possible in this region? Protest broke out last summer and for a year it has been smouldering, flaring up again, but not disappearing. Can this be explained by some regional specifics?

The protests with several hundred participants were held before the cold weather began, but I think that four months of big street protests – July, August, September, October – is a lot. Then the Saturday protests took place, and in January fireworks were launched in Furgal’s honour near the Moscow prison where he’s being held – a very touching action for New Year. In the spring, signatures were collected after Furgal’s health deteriorated. He was diagnosed with COVID-19.

As for the regional specifics, much can be understood from the analysis of the results of the regional elections in 2018, which shows a significant electoral split between “European Russia”, on the one hand, and Siberia and the Far East, on the other. Regions dissatisfied with United Russia are mainly found in Siberia and the Far East. There are, of course, some other socio-economic justifications for this, but in principle Khabarovsk is an average region – not so subsidised by the federal centre, but not particularly advanced either.

One of the most interesting findings in your research is how two different narratives emerged during the protests: one that described Furgal as “our” governor i.e. an independently elected official and another that portrayed him as a “good” governor, i.e. an effective official.

The relationship between the “our” and the “good” governor discourses is a dialectical one. The power of the Khabarovsk protests lies precisely in the fact that these discourses, on the one hand, are different, and on the other, interrelated.

At the same time, experts and outside observers often see only one side of things: the claim of “our” governor is very noticeable, political commentators bring it up, it gets into the mass media. “Our” governor is a governor who “we” have elected, and only we can decide his fate. The requirement that the trial of Furgal – an open trial – be held in Khabarovsk belongs to this block of ideas. If we have chosen him, then we want to put him on trial here, because Furgal is “ours,” and Moscow came and took him away.

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Sergey Furgal | Image: Khabarovsk Regional Government

The idea of Furgal as a “good” governor is much less visible from the outside – but is very important in the local context. If you watch videos of Furgal taken before his arrest, you can see that he was very skilled at working with social media. He showed himself to be a populist in a positive way, portraying himself as a person who wants to understand what is happening.

For example, at a local government meeting, it turned out that there were two kinds of children in the region’s schools: some are fed a hot lunch in the canteen for 119 rubles a day at the parents’ expense, while children on benefits are fed for 96 rubles from the local budget. The governor is indignant and gives an order: deal with this before such and such a date. And the most important thing: then he checks how the instruction is fulfilled. Indeed, the situation with school meals in Khabarovsk changed by the next academic year. This led to a conflict between the region and municipalities over the financing of subsidies – but in the eyes of voters, Furgal looked like a person who comes and acts.

Another example: the open loading of coal at the Vanino port. Local residents constantly complained about dust and dirt, and Furgal threatened the loading company that if the situation did not change, he would declare a state of emergency and stop their work altogether. An interdepartmental commission was established to assess the increase in health conditions in the port area. For people, the main thing is that the matter does not end at threats, on the contrary, a solution is sought.

These stories – and others like them – are cited as arguments in favour of “Furgal is a good governor”. Indeed, Furgal took to the role of public politician well. Therefore, in the eyes of many protesters, he is not just “our governor, whom we have elected”, but also “a good governor to be fought for”. The dialectic consists precisely in the combination of these two elements: we elected him ourselves, and he also turned out to be good! This “goodness” – that is, the positive qualities of Furgal as a politician – is something that was less immediately apparent to outside experts.

Golova_Khabarovsk_Numbers.jpg

Can we say that “good” and “ours” are categories that both local protest campaigns and the national opposition use to talk to the authorities? After all, the discussion about Alexey Navalny goes along similar lines: “Do not touch him. He is ours” and “Do not touch him. He is good”.

Navalny’s problem is that he is not “our guy” to everyone. For obvious reasons, what Furgal has and what Navalny does not have is legitimacy through elections. Furgal was supported not only by people who were against his arrest as such, but also people who supported him as the legally elected governor of Khabarovsk. This is a different argument: we are not protesting, we are supporting Furgal. This strategy avoids the stigma of protest – and in this case it is possible because Furgal was officially elected. He is a person who exercises power. The combination of “our” and “good” in this case is special. Mass protests arose where electoral politics became linked to street politics.

Khabarovsk is an example that the Russian regime is learning from. It has learned not to allow this kind of combination of electoral and street politics in the future. They saw it in the Furgal case, and they’ve seen it in Belarus.

That is, the regime needs to make sure that people do not have enough time to believe that a dissenting politician is “good”?

No, the point here is to prevent any such politician from coming to power at all. The task is to ensure that no one like this even gets close to power – anyone who could be a focus for popular support. This is an unpleasant development, and I think that it will be with us for a long time.

Russia’s protest politics, it seems, is really starting to change from a negative agenda to a positive one. People want a dialogue with the authorities.

Yes, people want to be heard – this is a very important point. But they want to be heard for a reason, with a specific agenda, and a desire to establish policies that will make their own lives better. And, frankly, the authorities in Russia, including the regional representatives of United Russia, are themselves to blame for the fact that any independent agenda becomes oppositional.

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A protest vehicle in support of Sergey Furgal | Image: VKontakte

Does that part of the opposition that actively supports Navalny interact with people who support the “good governor” Sergey Furgal and who, generally speaking, are not necessarily against Vladimir Putin?

Not necessarily, although Navalny’s supporters mobilised for the Furgal protests and took part in them. This can be thought of as parallel play due to the decentralised nature of the protests.

During the protests, people did drive around in Furgalomobiles [vans decorated in support of the Khabarovsk governor], but there was not a single large site where communication took place face to face, audible to everyone. Loudspeakers were used in different places and different people said quite different things.

One of the most notable speakers was the local coordinator of Navalny’s headquarters, Alexey Vorsin: he has both more experience and experience of political organisation. In addition, Khabarovsk was lucky from the beginning in terms of popular video channels. At least two popular Russian video bloggers – Dmitry Nizovtsev, host of the Navalny YouTube channel, and Alexei Romanov, who covered the protests in Belarus – have local roots. Therefore, they had a special interest in the topic, they followed the events and the protests received coverage in the regional media.

I think that for the people in Khabarovsk, the local structures of Navalny and the people associated with Navalny were more important. For example, in counting the number of protesters, one of the sources cited by the local (and not only local) official media is the local Navalny team.

What should protest researchers pay attention to after Khabarovsk?

It seems to me that we are talking not only about the study of protests, but also about the study of self-organised political activity. The most important question now is: what else can you do in Russia? The January and April protests in support of Alexey Navalny this year, despite their scale, showed that the state is ready to destroy anybody, regardless of their services. Even if you were not arrested during the protest itself, the authorities can come to you at any time – two weeks, three weeks, two months later.

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8 August 2020: protest in central Khabarovsk | CC BY-SA 4.0 Incredible Terence / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

The protesters in Khabarovsk were also very much affected by this delayed repression. There are hundreds of people facing administrative court cases over the protests. It is no longer possible to respond to such “creeping” future-oriented repressions during a mass protest, and everyone understands that the authorities can now come to you. Therefore, the main questions for me are “what else can be done?” and “how is it possible to do it?”

It is clear that perhaps very little can be done. But if you look at less radical cases of movements in decline, including the western experience, then everyday practices and everyday networks are possible. The Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci referred to “networks submerged in everyday life”. They are not mobilising opposition right now, but creating a kind of parallel life associated with alternative meaning.

Anthropologist Alexey Yurchak referred to the power of “outside spaces” in producing networks and connections in the late Soviet Union.

Yes, and networks are the basis for mobilisation. Of course, there have been cases when individuals are capable of some high-profile political actions, but these are isolated cases. And the networks that have grown up around non-political issues can be activated for political mobilisation.

But at the moment, to be honest, I look at this whole story with some pessimism. Because the more repression occurs, the more the regime closes the feedback channels for itself. This is a classic problem of an authoritarian regime – they don’t know what is going on, so they are even more afraid and therefore they apply even more pressure. It is curious to see what will happen to the parties that we call the “systemic opposition”. On the one hand, they can become afraid and get rid of liabilities – for example, the Khabarovsk Communist Party has expelled several of its prominent activists, who were seen supporting the protests after Furgal’s arrest. On the other hand, at the local level, these parties can integrate independent candidates. Of course, those who supported Navalny are now out of favour.

I have hope for generational change: in a few years, new people will come along who can not be even minimally linked to Navalny’s projects, simply because of their age.

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