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Mikhail Degtyarev meets a small group of local residents at Lenin Square in central Khabarovsk on July 26, 2020
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Making Khabarovsk great again Mikhail Degtyarev has a chance in Russia’s Far East to prove himself, but his new constituents don’t want the federal attention he offers

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Degtyarev meets a small group of local residents at Lenin Square in central Khabarovsk on July 26, 2020
Mikhail Degtyarev meets a small group of local residents at Lenin Square in central Khabarovsk on July 26, 2020
Khabarovsk Territory Press Service / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Mikhail Degtyarev was appointed the acting governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region on July 20, after President Putin declared a “loss of confidence” in Governor Sergey Furgal, following the latter’s arrest on murder charges. Degtyarev has been in office for about a week now and in that time mass protests against his predecessor’s ouster have only grown. The most recent Saturday rallies on July 25 were the biggest yet, according to multiple independent estimates. Demonstrators appear to be adopting more radical slogans, as well, as protesters last weekend shouted anti-Putin chants not previously heard in the region. Meduza special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva, who’s spent more time in Khabarovsk than its acting governor, reviews Mikhail Degtyarev’s first week on the job and examines why his affinity for Russia’s federal authorities alienates his new constituents.

“No time”

In the late evening on Sunday, July 26, Governor Mikhail Degtyarev finally visited Lenin Square, the epicenter of mass protests in Khabarovsk for the past two weeks. He was careful to arrive after 10 p.m., waiting until the city’s demonstrators had gone home for the night. Yet, when Degtyarev showed up, he encountered a crowd of a few dozen young men — all unusually large and muscular, looking suspiciously like plainclothes agents from the region’s anti-extremism police unit. They seemed to be waiting for him.

When journalists pointed out that Degtyarev wasn’t in fact meeting with protesters, he dismissed the criticism and said he didn’t want to fixate on “labels.” The governor’s publicity stunt lasted 40 minutes, which he spent reiterating his support for Sergey Furgal and defending the legitimacy of his own appointment by the president. Degtyarev also plugged the “People’s Council” — his initiative to create an advisory body where “public opinion leaders” can voice concerns to the governor.

Sunday’s outing was the first time Degtyarev dared to visit Lenin Square, despite arriving in Khabarovsk five days earlier. Though his appointment has appeased Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of LDPR (both Degtyarev’s and Furgal’s political party), protests against the removal of the region’s duly elected governor have only grown. This week, some demonstrators started chanting “Shame on LDPR!” “Degtyarev, get out!” and “We don’t want him!”

On Instagram, Degtyarev said he has “no time” to meet with protesters, citing a heavy workload, though he’s also acknowledged that he watches live-streams from the rallies.

When Degtyarev was tapped to lead Khabarovsk, federal officials promised more. On July 23, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the people of Khabarovsk have the right to be heard. Meanwhile, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko has described Degtyarev’s appointment as “a huge chance to prove himself [...] through dialogue with people.” Instead, he left town during his first weekend in office. While Degtyarev was gone, his constituents staged their biggest protest yet, prominently chanting anti-Putin slogans for the first time. 

Afterward, responding again on Instagram, Degtyarev depicted the rallies as potentially dangerous, claiming that a handful of demonstrators brought “several knives and even an axe” to Saturday’s march.

Thousands of documents

In his first week on the job, acting Governor Degtyarev managed to visit two schools and one hospital, host multiple live-streams, join a conference call about the region’s coming cold season, and sign “several thousand documents,” says his office.

Despite Degtyarev’s gaffes, local officials say they’re glad to have someone — anyone — back in the governor’s seat. “For 10 days, not a single sheet of paper got signed, not a kopeck was allocated, and we couldn’t send any deputy chairs into the field,” a source told Meduza.

Continuity has been an issue, nevertheless. Almost everyone from Furgal’s staff has stepped down: Press Secretary Nadezhda Tomchenko, adviser Zakhar Sinyagovsky, and Deputy Prime Ministers Yuri Zolochevsky and Vladimir Khlapov. In accordance with Khabarovsk’s charter, the regional government’s remaining ministers now serve on an acting basis. Many of these officials have worked in the government since Furgal’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Shport, a source told Meduza.

A source with ties to the regional government and the Kremlin told Meduza that Degtyarev’s first major decision in office will be to appoint Andrey Bazilevsky as his government’s deputy chairman. A member of United Russia (not LDPR), Bazilevsky held this same position under Governor Shport and served as education minister during Governor Viktor Ishaev’s tenure. “He knows all the local influential groups very well,” a source in the Putin administration told Meduza.

The same source in the Kremlin says Degtyarev has been given a free hand in Khabarovsk to rein in the unrest, which has also saddled him and his political party, LDPR, with the responsibility for what happens next. Yet, Degtyarev has been reluctant to address the demonstrations and prefers instead to take cues from President Putin’s envoy in the region, two sources with ties to the government told Meduza. That envoy, Yuri Trutnev, has not yet met publicly with the new acting governor.

The return of “Shportism”

At the end of his first week as governor, Mikhail Degtyarev visited a couple of schools in Khabarovsk and met with teachers and parents, interrupting the administrators as they tried to explain new policies. At one point, a disgruntled mother approached and complained about problems registering her children in the district. Speaking to the school’s principal, Degtyarev alluded to “how things are done in Moscow” and asked her to “make an exception” for the woman, offering no details about how the school should expand its capacity to accommodate extra students.

The acting governor also stopped the principal mid-sentence to ask about remote learning and tablet shortages, chiding her in a way that echoed some of Sergey Furgal’s public performances, like a heated conference last year that provided viral footage of him unloading on education officials over school lunch shortages. 

“His behavior is interesting,” one school employee told Meduza delicately after Degtyarev left. “He’s confident. He probably feels like he’s got power behind him.”

“We call this ‘Shportism’ — all these public appearances and theatrics,” a source close to the government told Meduza. “It’s already started with Degtyarev. Now they’re spending 10 hours getting approval for a single press release.” 

Putting Khabarovsk back on the map

Since taking the job as governor, Mikhail Degtyarev has repeated many times that he wields the influence in Moscow needed to make Khabarovsk great again. While live-streaming on his way to the office, for example, he explained that key national politicians and captains of industry are always willing to take his phone calls. These connections, he says, guarantee more subsidies and business flowing into the region. “If you lack the pull, you can count on me,” he’s promised. 

On Friday, Degtyarev said he spoke to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and secured an additional 1.3 billion rubles ($17.9 million) for the region. Federal economic assistance is allocated nationwide, however, in an agreement reached when Sergey Furgal was still in office. In fact, the Khabarovsk region received even more money from Moscow in May: 1.7 billion rubles ($23.4 million). “It’s just the amount of the next installment,” a source in the government explained. Spokespeople for Governor Degtyarev did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the federal money.

Before the end of the week, Degtyarev was also spotted meeting with Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, albeit at the airport during the minister’s layover en route to Chita.

“All this is coming from the presidential envoy’s office [not from Degtyarev] — that Khabarovsk isn’t getting enough federal attention and needs more,” a source in the government told Meduza. “In fact, people here want the opposite — they want the feds to leave them alone. Instead, they’re dragging ministers here.” 

The Kremlin says it’s too soon to judge the results of Governor Degtyarev’s first week in office. In a press conference on July 27, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists: “You see that he’s active on the job and familiarizing himself with the situation. He’s tackling the top priorities. We see that he’s doing this quite energetically.”

Mikhail Degtyarev declined to speak to Meduza for this story.

Story by Anastasia Yakoreva, reporting from Khabarovsk, with assistance from Andrey Pertsev in Moscow

Summary by Kevin Rothrock