The arrest of a popular governor in the far-eastern reaches of Russia at the weekend has highlighted a widespread crackdown by Russian security services since voters backed constitutional changes allowing Vladimir Putin to extend his presidential rule to 2036.
Sergei Furgal, a former MP who won against a Kremlin-backed candidate in 2018 to become governor of the Khabarovsk region, is the latest target of a recent wave of searches and detentions.
In just over a week, officials arrested a respected former defence journalist on charges of spying for the Czech Republic; raided the homes of activists tied to exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who planned protests against the constitution; and conducted eight searches for evidence against Pussy Riot svengali Petr Verzilov, publisher of Mediazona, a news site that chronicles abuse in Russia’s justice system.
Analysts say the arrests indicate that Mr Putin’s show of force in the highly stage-managed constitutional vote rests on shaky ground.
The Kremlin has hailed the vote outcome — over 70 per cent in favour of the changes — as a “triumphant referendum on confidence in president Putin”. But it came as the Russian president’s approval ratings have sunk to record lows and living standards have stagnated.
It was noticeable that Mr Putin and his officials barely mentioned the clause resetting his term limits during the campaign, said Konstantin Kalachev, a former consultant for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. Instead they focused on social issues such as enshrining a ban on gay marriage in the constitution.
“The Kremlin has realised you can’t push through a vote just on Putin’s shrivelled authority — otherwise they would have put ‘resetting the clock’ at the heart of the campaign,” Mr Kalachev wrote on Facebook.
“This is the first time that pressure from security forces, brazen lies and manipulation have become the main [political] driver. Building a positive image for the president has been relegated to a supporting role.”
Governors like Mr Furgal have also borne the brunt of the Kremlin’s patchy coronavirus response, which saw Mr Putin retreat to his residence outside Moscow while delegating most of the responsibility to provincial officials.
In the normally sleepy city of Khabarovsk, population 600,000, the governor’s arrest triggered anti-Putin protests.
On Saturday, about 35,000 people, the largest show of discontent in the region’s history according to local media, forced through barriers set up by police under the pretext of disinfecting Khabarovsk’s main square. They chanted “Putin must resign!” and “Down with Moscow!”
Mr Furgal was arrested outside his home on his way to work on Thursday, flown to Moscow in handcuffs, and jailed for two months on charges of ordering two contract killings and a third attempted killing in the mid-2000s, when he ran a business selling timber and metals. He denies the charges.
The accusations seem in place with the crime-ridden years following the collapse of the USSR: Alexander Khinstein, an MP close to Russia’s police, tweeted that Mr Furgal had been on law enforcement’s radar since the 1990s and continued to run “dodgy businesses” while in parliament.
The investigation appears to have begun after Mr Furgal refused to drop out in favour of Khabarovsk’s Kremlin-appointed governor and rode his candidacy to victory in 2018. Investigators said four people were arrested last November in relation with the case and had given evidence implicating Mr Furgal in the murders.
“People understand that this all could well have happened — it was the wild 1990s, organised crime was making inroads into business, business went hand in hand with organised crime, and being squeaky clean was impossible,” said Ildus Yarulin, a professor at Pacific National University in Khabarovsk.
“On the other hand,” Mr Yarulin added, “someone decided it was time to take revenge for the offence Furgal made by winning the election in 2018. Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
Mr Furgal previously spent a decade as an MP for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, part of the “systemic opposition” the Kremlin uses to provide a valve for public anger but rarely allows to hold office. Since reaching power in 2018, the governor has cut officials’ salaries, reduced the province’s debt, and put a $1m yacht acquired by a previous governor up for sale.
While Mr Furgal’s popularity rose, helping the LDPR win a majority in the regional parliament, longstanding gripes remained over the Kremlin’s failure to lift living standards.
In a recording leaked online last year, Yuri Trutnev, Mr Putin’s special envoy to the Far East, was heard telling Mr Furgal that “in numbers it’s a very sad story: the governor’s approval rating is going up, and the president’s is going down.”
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”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the comparison was “inappropriate”.
In Khabarovsk, Mr Putin’s constitutional amendments won 62 per cent of the vote amid 44 per cent turnout, one of the lowest figures nationwide.
“Nobody could have drawn a higher turnout,” Mr Yarulin said. “People don’t feel things are getting better — there’s some state support, but it’s not enough to live on in these difficult economic times.”