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‘A criminally punishable act’ Khabarovsk regional official loses job after posting ultimatum to Moscow in defense of ousted governor

Source: Meduza
Andrey Petrov’s personal photos

On August 21, Khabarovsk regional official Andrey Petrov uploaded a video to YouTube with an address to his neighbors throughout the region, suggesting that those protesting the arrest of former Governor Sergey Furgal abandon demonstrations in favor of an ultimatum to Moscow. The conditions Petrov proposed soon cost him his job: either the capital returns Furgal to Khabarovsk for trial, forgives the region’s debts, and allocates an additional 100 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) in “punitive damages,” or Khabarovsk declares the creation of the Khabarovsk Democratic Republic within the Russian Federation. “Sit there and manage whomever you want, if you’re not going to listen to the people,” Petrov said in his video. After it went up on YouTube, acting Governor Mikhail Degtyarev fired Petrov from his position as deputy head of the regional forestry management, calling him a “kook” and describing his comments as “pure extremism.” Meduza special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva spoke to Petrov about his work in the government, the reasons he shared such a controversial video online, and what’s happened since.

Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore

Like many people in Khabarovsk, Andrey Petrov is frustrated with the lack of information available about the state’s supposedly ironclad case against Sergey Furgal, the region’s nominally independent governor who was removed from office and charged earlier this year with ordering multiple contract killings. “They told us they’ve got the evidence in hand. There was a hearing in Moscow on [September] 3 and they delayed the trial to December and the investigation to February. In other words, they have no evidence,” Petrov told Meduza, comparing Furgal’s prosecution to a “Gestapo” case. 

Despite his anger about Furgal’s arrest, Petrov says he never attended any of the protests in support of the ousted governor. “I was a civil servant trying to obey the chain of command,” he says. This patience finally ran out when it dawned on him that the federal government is stonewalling demonstrators until their movement fizzles out. That’s when he decided to “try to draw attention to the Khabarovsk region” with his YouTube video. As a result, he lost his job and the Green Party booted him from its ranks. The group’s local director allegedly told Petrov that he received phone calls from Kremlin officials and agents in the Federal Security Service. “If that’s the kind of democracy we have and a person has no right to say anything, the situation makes me sick,” Petrov told Meduza

The YouTube video’s professional and political fallout has not been a complete surprise for Petrov. He says he recorded it on August 7 and waited until August 15 to share it publicly. “I spent a week thinking about it, analyzing things, and watching the situation,” he says. 

Petrov has strong objections to Mikhail Degtyarev’s so-called “People’s Council” — an advisory group intended for “constructive dialog” with the public, which the acting governor announced on August 18, after President Putin appointed him to take Furgal’s seat. Petrov says Degtyarev is stuffing the council with random state officials. At the same time, the group’s authority remains unclear. Petrov argues that there’s little to justify Degtyarev’s project: “We have 24 different councils in the Khabarovsk Territory under various ministries. We have the Khabarovsk Territory Duma, where the people elect [their own] deputies. That’s the people’s council. They represent our interests. What’s this other people’s council and why do we need to spend money on it or bother at all with this issue? Is it some new counterweight to the Duma? A new branch of state power?” 

Petrov says he tried repeatedly to meet with Degtyarev to discuss a development plan he drafted for the Khabarovsk region while Governor Furgal was still in office. Petrov claims that Furgal would have utilized his blueprint, but Degtyarev refused even to see him. Petrov’s confidence in the region’s former governor goes further still: he says Furgal would have offered to meet even after his YouTube video. “If [Governor Furgal] had seen the video, he would have called me to his office and said: ‘Mr. Petrov, what did you mean? Tell me,’” Petrov says.

A deficit of respect

He acknowledges that the rhetoric he uses in his YouTube video is “aggressive,” but he insists that he rejects separatism. “I wanted to say that people are fed up,” Petrov told Meduza, adding that Russia neglects the Far East and disrespects its residents. Groceries, fuel, everything is more expensive in Khabarovsk, he says, and that’s reason enough for many people to want to leave. He believes that Moscow aggravates these difficulties by ignoring local political initiatives and sending outsiders to manage the region’s affairs. 

Losing his position in the government was hard, Petrov says. “I loved my job,” he told Meduza, explaining that he’s worked as a supervisor at different institutions for more than 20 years. After 1999, following two years in the Army, Petrov was a sales manager at several major foreign companies selling consumer packaged goods, including Cadbury, Dirol, and Craft. These jobs gave him the chance to travel widely throughout Russia. “I know how people live,” Petrov says. “So why in a place like Lithuania, where there’s nothing, are people living better than they do in our region with all its resources?” 

It hasn’t all been sales management and cross-country trips for Andrey Petrov. For the past four years, he’s run for various elected offices in Khabarovsk as a member of the Greens, winning incrementally more votes with each campaign. In last year’s State Duma race, he got about four percent of the electorate — nearly 15,000 people. “That means people believe in us and that’s good, too,” he says, pointing out that the Greens lack real financing. 

Petrov met Sergey Furgal during Khabarovsk’s 2018 gubernatorial race and the two apparently hit it off. He says he was initially reluctant to accept Furgal’s job offer, but the latter won him over by stipulating that the only condition for working in his government was “no stealing.” 

As a state official, Petrov says he witnessed efforts to obstruct Furgal’s actions as governor (“they didn’t allocate the resources they could have given” and “officials tried to force certain things onto the back burner”), but there was some good, too. “I saw that officials in Russia, in fact, aren’t really all bad. Most of them are just so trapped in red tape, state codes of honor, and various laws that they’re simply afraid to say or do anything,” he told Meduza

Not an oppositionist, but...

For all his bravado, Andrey Petrov maintains that he “will never be an oppositionist,” and he says he even voted for Russia’s recent Constitutional amendments, which delivered a series of popular reforms and social-spending promises, in addition to resetting Vladimir Putin’s presidential term clock, which could extend his time in office until 2036. Petrov admits, however, that he’s begun to second guess that vote. “A person still has the right to make mistakes and revise their own personal views,” he says.

After Petrov shared his YouTube video on August 15, the Khabarovsk governor’s cabinet assembled a commission to investigate the matter. “I could see in their eyes that these people understood me. They said I hadn’t intended to offend the state in any way,” Petrov says, recalling his appearance before the commission. But the group’s chairman — “Degtyarev’s right-hand man, says Petrov — cited a dissenting opinion and had him removed from the room while the group deliberated. Petrov says he was later informed that the commission decided that he violated the state’s code of conduct by posting the YouTube video. A day later, he was fired.

The Greens didn’t even invite Petrov to attend his exclusion from the party. “If the director was telling me the truth, then he was asked [to revoke my party membership] by the presidential administration. Their wording was ‘a criminally punishable act’ and ‘extremism,’” says Petrov, who denies all allegations of extremism and separatism. 

Losing his party membership was unexpected, Petrov told Meduza. He says he hopes the Greens’ leaders in Moscow will agree to reinstate him, though he acknowledges that he may have put his colleagues in a difficult position if the Kremlin did in fact threaten criminal prosecution. A warning like that from the Putin administration, he says, is nevertheless a serious indictment of Russian democracy. 

Petrov says he hopes he inspires similar acts of defiance in other Khabarovsk politicians, though he fears that Russia risks a “catastrophe” in the region if politics as usual continue. “Moscow is far away — 7,000 kilometers [4,350 miles]. Maybe they don’t understand what’s happening here, or maybe they’re misreporting things.” 

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Interview by Anastasia Yakoreva

Abridged summary by Kevin Rothrock