Protesters challenge Kremlin over Sergei Furgal arrest

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Protesters challenge Kremlin over Sergei Furgal arrest

Thousands of protesters once again marched in Russia’s Far East city of Khabarovsk on Saturday to protest against the arrest of the region’s governor.

Sergei Furgal, the Khabarovsk region governor was arrested on July 9 on charges of involvement in multiple murders.

Since then hundreds of people have rallied in Khabarovsk every day this week against the arrest of the popular governor, who was flown to Moscow to be jailed for two months.

The mass rallies in the city 3,800 miles east of Moscow reflect widespread anger over the arrest and a simmering discontent with the central government’s policies.

Crowds gathered on Saturday despite attempts by the local officials to discourage people from taking to the streets, citing coronavirus epidemic and an alleged averted terrorist threat.

Local media estimated the rally drew between 15,000 and 50,000 people, while local authorities put the number at 10,000.

Russia’s Investigative Committee alleges Sergei Furgal of involvement in several murders of businessmen in 2004 and 2005.

The governor has denied the charges, which relate to a time when he was a businessman who imported consumer goods.

Humiliating Blow to United Russia

Sergei Furgal is a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and he was elected in 2018, defeating the Kremlin-backed incumbent governor.

His victory was unexpected for everyone as Furgal didn’t actively campaign. He even toed the Kremlin’s line and publicly supported his rival.

But people voted for him and delivered a humiliating blow to the main Kremlin party, United Russia, which has been losing seats in different regional governments over the past two years.

Khabarovsk residents have dismissed the charges against Sergei Furgal as unsubstantiated and denounced Kremlin for targeting a leader they have elected.

A protester said that it was not just about Furgal’s arrest and its legality. People in the region were fed up with the way they are treated by the central government, a protester said.

Sergei Furgal: People’s Governor

During his two years in office, Sergei Furgal has earned a reputation of being “the people’s governor.”

He cut his own salary, sold of an expensive yacht bought by the previous administration, significantly reduced flight fares for the residents of remote areas, and met with protesters when rallies happened over any issue.

“Furgal became a political symbol for the residents of the region, and all accusations — no matter how grave — are from another, non-political dimension,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said in a Facebook post.

Unrelenting Protests in Khabarovsk

Protesters keep pouring out on Khabarovsk streets every day, creating a tough situation both for the local authorities and the central government.

Last Saturday, up to 35,000 people rallied in the city demanding to move Furgal’s trial to Khabarovsk. “We have elected him and it’s up to us to judge him,” one protester remarked.

Others questioned the timing of the arrest and pointed out that the murder charges never came up before during Furgal’s decade-long stint as a member of the Russian parliament before running for governor.

The protests are the largest Khabarovsk, a city of 590,000, has ever seen. And, Moscow is yet to appoint an acting governor.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov this week called the situation “not standard.”

Police on Saturday didn’t hinder the way of protesters, who were holding banners demanding Furgal’s freedom and chanting “I, you, he and she – the entire country is for Furgal”.

Smaller rallies in support of Furgal also took place in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, another big city in the Khabarovsk region, and in the city of Vladivostok in the neighboring Primorye region.

An old man at a rally said he is sincerely worried about his region, his country, and his nation. He said he was also deeply worried about Furgal which now symbolized their freedom.