KHABAROVSK, Russia – The Kremlin sparked a revolt of sorts in July 2020 when law enforcement arrested the People’s Governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, and replaced him with a temporary member from Moscow, Mikhail Degtyaryov.
Many locals took the move as a personal affront and overbearing from a controlling central government in distant Moscow, and they took to the streets during months of protests that seemed to take the Kremlin by surprise.
Now voters in the region more than 6,000 kilometers east of the capital are heading to the polls in early elections to fill Furgal’s place, and the Kremlin appears determined to ensure that the way is free so that Degtyaryov retains his seat.
Initially, it looked like there would be eight candidates on the ballot. But on August 4, the Greens candidate Mikael Bagdasaryan suddenly and without explanation withdrew from the race. He had been seen as a strong local candidate, well aware of the problems and concerns of the region.
A week later, candidates Igor Logvinov of the Green Alternative Party and Vladimir Chernyshov of the New People Party were refused registration by election officials.
Potential Communist Party candidate Pyotr Perevezentsev failed to submit his documents on time and election officials refused to consider them.
The three refusniks were unable to obtain the necessary number of signatures from the members of the regional district council or the heads of the executive.
“The federal authorities and United Russia are doing all they can to make our campaign difficult because they know that the Communist Party is the only opposition force in the country,” Perevezentsev wrote.
In the end, only three candidates will be on the ballot with Degtyaryov, who has only reinforced the perception that he is an imposed outsider by appointing many people unrelated to the region to the regional administration. On October 10, 2020, Degtyaryov oversaw the violent dispersal of protesters in Khabarovsk, arresting dozens.
Changing their official registration of residence and buying an apartment in Khabarovsk did little to change the perception.
One of the acting governor’s alleged rivals is state television journalist Marina Kim, originally from St. Petersburg and living in Moscow. It was presented by the A Just Russia party and operates under the opaque slogan “Justice begins with the Far East”.
Another challenger – the best known among locals – is entrepreneur Babek Mamedov of the Rodina party. Originally from Azerbaijan, he has lived in Khabarovsk for many years. With a declared income in 2020 of more than 16 million rubles ($ 220,000), he is officially the richest of the candidates. He campaigned primarily on economic issues, appealing to workers in the military-industrial complex, students and intellectuals.
The final “challenger” is a native of Khabarovsk, retiree Vladimir Parfyonov of the little-known Pensioners for Social Justice Party. Voters might be put off by the fact that Parfyonov is married to Degtyaryov’s press secretary Yelena Parfyonova. The Khabarovsk branch of the Social Justice Pensioners Party was hastily formed in May.
“We are in a complicated situation,” said local protest leader Andrei Dudenok. “People are angry. One of the analysts said recently that the residents of Khabarovsk were returning the bird to their pockets. They were equally angry when they voted in 2018.”
2018 was the year the region outraged Moscow by electing Furgal in a second-round landslide against longtime United Russia holder Vyacheslav Shport.
“I conducted an investigation and this is what people are predicting,” Dudenok said. “If Kim is disqualified, they will vote for Mamedov. If Mamedov is disqualified, they will vote for Parfyonov. A lot of people will vote purely in protest.”
Mikhail Zhukov, a local Libertarian Party activist, says this could be exactly what the Kremlin wants.
“I think it is important for Moscow that their interests are represented in Khabarovsk,” he told RFE / RL. “They don’t particularly care who represents them – Marina Kim or Mikhail Degtyaryov. But if Kim wins, maybe the locals will have a false sense of victory and the protests will die. That’s what Moscow needs. “