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Protests swell in Russia’s far east in a stark new challenge to Putin

Huge anti-government demonstrations erupted in Russia's Far East on July 25 over the arrest of a popular governor who was replaced this week by a Kremlin appointee who never lived in the fraught region.
Huge anti-government demonstrations erupted in Russia's Far East on July 25 over the arrest of a popular governor who was replaced this week by a Kremlin appointee who never lived in the fraught region.ALEKSANDR YANYSHEV/AFP via Getty Images

KHABAROVSK, Russia — The protests in Khabarovsk, a city 4,000 miles east of Moscow, drew tens of thousands of people for a 3-mile march through central streets for the third straight week Saturday. Residents were rallying in support of a popular governor arrested and spirited to Moscow this month — but their remarkable outpouring of anger, which has little precedent in post-Soviet Russia, has emerged as stark testimony to the discontent that President Vladimir Putin faces across the country.

Putin won a tightly scripted referendum less than four weeks ago that rewrote the Constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2036. But the vote, seen as fraudulent by critics and many analysts, provided little but a fig leaf for public disenchantment with corruption, stifled freedoms and stagnant incomes made worse by the pandemic.

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Across Russia, fear of being detained by the police and the seeming hopelessness of effecting change has largely kept people off the streets. Many Russians also say that whatever Putin’s faults, the alternative could be worse or lead to greater chaos. For the most part, anti-Kremlin protests have been limited to a few thousand people in Moscow and other big cities, where the authorities usually crack down harshly.

Partly as a result, Putin remains firmly in control. And independent polling shows he still enjoys a 60% approval rating, though the figure has been falling.

But the events in Khabarovsk have shown that the well of discontent is such that minor events can ignite a firestorm.

Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 close to the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese border, had not seen protests of much significance since the early 1990s. That changed after July 9, when a SWAT team dragged the governor, Sergei I. Furgal, out of his car and whisked him to Moscow on 15-year-old murder accusations.

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Tens of thousands spontaneously poured into the streets on July 11 as residents called for protests online, and they reemerged in greater numbers on July 18.

Russian journalists who have been following the protests since the beginning said Saturday’s crowds were the biggest yet. Opposition activists estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 had turned out.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.