Russia’s East is Fed Up

Russia’s East is Fed Up

Fresh from a national referendum allowing for the continuation of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, Moscow capitalized on the renewed political mandate by arresting a troublesome regional governor. What followed next was a near unprecedented backlash from the inhabitants of the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s East, with 20-60,000 initial protestors getting involved in the single longest-running protest in the history of the Russian Federation. These protests represent the latest displays of a long-standing resentment of Moscow’s meddling in the east of the country, while also serving as an indictment of the failings of Russian federalism.

An Uneasy Underpinning

The incredible size of Russia often belies the diversity of experiences and communities within its borders, and modern Russia is defined by the development of relations between the capital and its many regions. The protests in Khabarovsk give an insight into the push-back against the consolidation of political power by the various Putin administrations. 

When Vladimir Putin came to the presidency in 2000, he was determined to walk back the economic control ceded to governors and provincial governments in order to combat the chaos gripping Russia’s finances in the 1990’s. Just as Boris Yeltsin infamously told the regions “to grab as much sovereignty as they can swallow” in terms of taking on political power, Putin has dedicated himself to ensuring that wealthy republics like Tatarstan would not pull away from the center. While Putin is often primarily associated with wrestling power back from oligarchs like Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky, his early presidency was defined and energized by his firm handling of the break-away republic of Chechnya

The consolidation of economic and political power under President Putin is a well documented phenomenon, and a 2015 European Parliament Think Tank report made the assessment that the Russian Federation was now a unitary rather than federal system. Control of far-flung and wealthy extremities like Siberia and Russia is crucial for the state, whether it is in order to fill coffers or protect against external threats. Indeed, it was a string of high-profile terrorist attacks that prompted the 2004 law banning direct elections of governors in favour of direct appointment by Putin. The decision was explained as a necessary tool for protecting the public, and would last until 2012.

Furgal, Putin, and the Russian Frontier

Thus, the relatively unprecedented victory of LDPR Sergei Furgal to the governorship of Khabarosvk in 2018 constituted a new potential threat to this vision of political power controlled by the ruling party. LDPR is frequently described as a purely nominal opposition political party, but representation in power was rare enough to be noteworthy. Furgal was described by Russian media outlet Meduza as “made popular, kicking and screaming,” by voters in their attempt to protest a ‘United Russia’’s nationwide grip on elections. Even Governor Furgal’s rumoured links to organised crime in the region did little to temper his popularity, as placards carried by protestors read “We are the power here” or “Our choice, our Furgal.” 

The vast territories of Russia’s Siberian and Far Eastern regions have played a curious role in Imperial Russian and then Soviet histories, serving as both a “Wild West” of possibility for fortune-seeking settlers, as well as final destinations of political dissidents and criminals bound for prison camps and grim penal colonies. Writers like Valentin Rasputin brought Siberian exceptionalism to the mainstream by depicting a natural harmony that made the hardened settlers somewhat more pure and “Russian” than those back in the metropolises of St. Petersburg and Moscow. 

For locals, it was easy to suspect that eastern Russia had become a kind of internal colony, useful only to outsiders for its abundant natural resources and sheer size. It is perhaps telling that, when protests broke out in Vladivostok over the 2008 decision to impose tariffs on foreign vehicles, special riot troops from Moscow had to be flown in to deal with the peacefully protesting citizens. This lack of independence belies the nature of cosmopolitan, exciting cities like Khabarovsk and Vladivostok and their sense of separate identity from western Russia. In 2012, a hugely popular art exhibit in Krasnoyarsk even went so far as to visualise a “United States of Siberia.” 

Putin’s administration has been well aware of this discontent, and how it represents wider desires for devolution. Moscow has attempted to combat this by pursuing a variety of schemes to encourage development and tamp down on dissent in the vulnerable, underpopulated east. The relocation of ethnic Russians from across the “Russian World” to the Siberian hinterlands was widely panned as a failure, but Moscow has been able to pour billions of roubles of development into infrastructure projects like Vladivostok’s Russky Bridge and Island. Investment has been coupled with a return to the xenophobic “Yellow Peril” language of the 20th century, with Putin at one point telling the people of border town Blagoveschensk “If you do nothing to change the economic development of the region, your children will speak Chinese.” 

Concluding Remarks and Forecast

This carrot and stick approach has done little to quell growing resentment however, and events like the Khabarovsk protests were mirrored in other Siberian cities along with smaller support protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The protests are about locals mobilising to protect regional political agency, but they are also a growing commentary on the weakening social contract that has defined the Putin presidency: ‘you will regain economic safety and national pride if you eschew political action’. Unsurprisingly, Khabarovsk’s support for the referendum was one of the lowest in the country.

With Chinese-Russian relations continuing to grow and shift in tone, sanctions and a down-turn in oil prices and the continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that Russia’s east is as strategically and economically important as ever for a struggling administration. Ongoing protests may not threaten the government, but they are certainly an unwanted distraction and potential driver of further protests.

With living standards falling nationally however, and political power in the hands of a few, the Russian public has heard the Khabarovsk protestors. A Levada Center poll on August 20th showed that 47 percent of surveyed Russians had a positive view of the protests, but when asked whether the government would heed the demands of the protestors, 45 percent said that there would be no concessions. Numbers regarding the likelihood of protests occurring in other communities as well as the likelihood of personally getting involved in protest have ticked upward, and it remains to be seen whether the Russian economy will improve any time soon. Even more uncomfortably for the Russian government, protestors have begun to voice support for the anti-Lukashenko Belarusian protests

This growing discontent within Russia looks set to mirror the 2018 protests following a change of law regarding the retirement age. Thus the protests in Khabarovsk are best viewed as a barometer of regional discontent than a catalyst for change in the political order. The underlying issues they point to however, are deeply-troubling for Russia, and show little sign of disappearing. The protests are a symptom of a nation-wide disillusionment with their declining quality of life and lack of political voice, but they are equally an insight into the dysfunctional state of relations between Moscow and its regions. 

The territories of Russia’s east have long been a source of both deep-seated anxieties and fantastic opportunities for the Russian state, but it remains to be seen if Siberians and Far Easterners can harness deep-seated anger in order to start a process of redefining their relationship with the centre.

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

About Author

Austen Dowell

Austen Dowell is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European studies. He previously served as a Boren Scholar in Kyrgyzstan (2016) and a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine (2018-20), while also spending time in Russia and Azerbaijan.