A hostage of the job Constituents in Russia’s Khabarovsk Territory rally to defend their ‘people’s governor’ from murder allegations
The arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal on charges of organizing multiple contract killings has provoked a wave of support from local residents. On social media, locals have started circulating images in the colors of the region’s coat of arms with the phrase “I/we = Sergey Furgal.” In just a few hours, a petition supporting the governor attracted more than 30,000 signatures. Individuals are already picketing in his defense and there’s even talk online of staging an unpermitted protest against Furgal’s arrest. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev, who’s reported extensively on Khabarovsk’s regional situation, explains why Governor Furgal inspires a level of public sympathy rarely found in Russian politics.
Made popular, kicking and screaming
Arresting governors is nothing new in Russia. Since 2015, four sitting regional heads have found themselves locked up and under criminal investigation, but not one of these cases has provoked such a negative reaction from constituents than the arrest of Sergey Furgal. In the past, the public has more or less silently supported the actions of law enforcement. Despite the very serious allegations — organizing contract killings — the people of the Khabarovsk region are largely on the side of their governor, whom they elected just two years ago.
It’s important to understand that Furgal’s transformation into “the people’s governor” (a title he enjoys and embraces throughout Russia’s Far East) was not immediate. Ahead of elections in 2018, the incumbent administration considered Furgal — then a State Duma deputy from the political party LDPR — to be a convenient sparring partner for Governor Vyacheslav Shport. In an election five years earlier, Shport won 64 percent of the vote against Furgal’s 19 percent. When Furgal won his seat in Parliament, the country’s ruling political party, United Russia, didn’t even run an opponent, meaning Furgal was effectively the authorities’ candidate.
In his 2018 campaign, Furgal seemed more interested in reminding the public about himself ahead of parliamentary elections than running for the governor’s seat. His billboard advertisements before the first round of voting didn’t even indicate what office he sought or whether he was running for anything at all — the banners featured just his photograph and name without any slogan. Sources close to Furgal’s campaign say he urged Governor Shport not to run as a “technical candidate,” warning that the campaign could lead (as it in fact did) to unpredictable results.
In the first round, Furgal and Shport each won roughly 35 percent of the votes. In the runoff election, Furgal won in a landslide, receiving 69.6 percent of the votes, despite his ongoing reluctance to campaign in earnest. For example, he appeared in a video vowing to work as Shport’s lieutenant governor. According to a source in the Kremlin, he even left the region entirely during the runoff voting, “just to be safe.”
The protest voting wave that swept the region never asked Furgal if he wanted to be governor. He was simply the only recognizable candidate on the ballot, nominated by a party that opposed the government’s decision to raise Russia’s retirement age. Voters were also fed up with Shport because he was the candidate nominated by United Russia, which supported raising the pension age.
He’s got some fight in him
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to say Sergey Furgal showed no political will at all. Before the runoff election, the region was visited by a whole team from Moscow led by Far Eastern District presidential envoy Yury Trutnev and Alexander Kharichev, who at the time headed the Kremlin’s domestic policy department. They reportedly urged Furgal to quit the race and he allegedly agreed, in which case Shport would have competed against and likely defeated Anastasia Salamakha, an unknown candidate from the Communist Party. But Furgal didn’t drop out. Leaving the race would have cost him his career in politics, and he wasn’t ready to make that sacrifice. Meduza’s sources say Trutnev hasn’t forgotten the broken agreement and believes that Furgal “double-crossed” him.
After Shport’s defeat, the Kremlin retaliated against the region by moving the Far Eastern District’s capital to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk’s widely disliked rival city. Federal officials then added insult to injury by opening a felony investigation against former Governor Viktor Ishaev, who supported Furgal’s gubernatorial candidacy. This, too, looked like an attempt to humiliate the people of Khabarovsk, implying that Ishaev, not the public, was responsible for Furgal’s election.
These events made Sergey Furgal into a symbol of popular resistance. The governor welcomed this gift and used his newfound reputation to improve his polling numbers. He started calling out municipal officials (United Russia controlled every city and district in the region), joining demonstrators at local protests, and even meeting with the head of Alexey Navalny’s office in Khabarovsk.
In 2019, riding this wave of protest sentiment, LDPR won a series of elections in the region’s legislative assembly and municipal councils. For example, not a single United Russia candidate won a seat in the Khabarovsk City Duma and the party came away with only two deputies in the regional parliament, winning just 13 percent of the vote. Furgal did what he could to maintain parity, neither heading LDPR’s ticket nor campaigning for the party. He reportedly hoped that United Russia would hold its own in single-mandate races, leading to a roughly balanced legislative assembly.
Once again, however, the protest wave didn’t ask what Furgal wanted or feared, and all he could do was saddle up and ride it out. But the governor didn’t always do this. He avoided direct confrontations with United Russia, though his constituents clamored for it. It didn’t matter, though — the public forgave Furgal for his lack of breakthroughs and major successes, blaming it on Moscow’s decision to punish the region’s upstart voters and the “people’s governor.” Robbing Khabarovsk of its status as the Far Eastern District’s capital, the Kremlin scarcely hid its vendetta.
Flying too high, alebit reluctantly
As a result, Vladimir Putin’s ratings in the region started falling as the governor’s popularity grew. Furgal even took heat from presidential envoy Yuri Trutnev for this turn of events. After LDPR grabbed control of the region’s legislature, the Khabarovsk Territory found itself genuinely outside Russia’s so-called power vertical. By late 2019, the Kremlin made it clear to the governor that it was time to fall in line. The authorities then raided a firm reportedly connected to Furgal and arrested his former business partner, Nikolai Mistryukov, on murder charges. Mistryukov subsequently testified against the governor.
The charges against Furgal could very well be grounded: his old businesses managed lumber and scrap metal, two of the border region’s most viciously competitive industries, both notoriously tied to organized crime. More than a few of the politicians in Russia’s Far East have reputations in the criminal underworld, but local residents often look past these histories, dismissing them as the follies of younger men. Based on the public’s immediate reaction to Furgal’s arrest, the allegations against Khabarovsk’s governor have not convinced many of his constituents. People have raised legitimate questions, like how did a crimelord make it through three State Duma convocations, and not just quietly but as head of the Health Protection Committee and deputy chairman of the Regional Policy Committee? In the end, it seems, they got him for political reasons. They didn’t touch him when he was content with a seat in the Parliament, but they pounced after he won power in the regions without the Kremlin’s consent.
Furgal ultimately became a hostage of his own governorship. On the one hand, the Kremlin was pressuring him to be a team player and resign (possibly even for a promotion elsewhere); on the other hand, there were the public’s expectations that he would pillory the federal government for taxing the region blind. Sergey Furgal probably believed he would be arrested even if he did step down, which is what happened to the head of the Mari El Republic, Leonid Markelov, whom the Kremlin promised a seat in the Federation Council in exchange for leaving office. Furgal apparently believed that his status as “the people’s governor” granted him some level of immunity. After all, they’d never arrest a popular politician, right?
Governor Furgal had one asset — high ratings among his constituents — but he’s always been an outsider if not an enemy in the Kremlin, despite his emphatic loyalty (for example, he actively campaigned in support of the constitutional amendments, including a reform that potentially extends Vladimir Putin’s presidency by an additional 12 years).
Neither his popularity nor his loyalty to Moscow could save Furgal in the end. Plebiscite turnout in the Khabarovsk Territory was one of the worst in Russia (44.2 percent against a national average of 64.9 percent), but the amendments passed in the region with 62 percent of all votes, clearly not without Furgal’s help. After the voting, however, there was no longer any need for a “people’s governor,” whose popularity was suddenly more liability than protection.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock