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The handful of protesters who gather in Khabarovsk every evening are just a shadow of the masses who took part in an unusually strong wave of protests last year in the Russian Far Eastern city, but they are a chronic reminder political tensions that persist.

Protesters are calling for the release of the region’s former popular governor, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested last year for involvement in killings.

Now his Kremlin-appointed replacement Mikhail Degtyaryov is on the ballot for governor in the three-day regional poll that ends Sunday. The regional election takes place when the Russians vote for members of the State Duma, the national parliament.

The gubernatorial race is being closely watched to gauge the lingering anger in the region, located seven time zones and 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow.

“The region really worries the Kremlin because they don’t want these incidents to be repeated (protests from last year) of course. Khabarovsk is now under close surveillance, ”said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Three more people are on the ballot for the governorship, but supporters of Furgal and others in the town of about 600,000 are complaining that they are insignificant candidates who have been allowed to stand for election. the appearance of a democratic and competitive race.

“Whoever posed the slightest threat was not allowed to come forward, and they left only spoiler candidates,” 64-year-old protester Zigmund Khudyakov said.

Notably, United Russia – the country’s dominant political party and staunch supporter of President Vladimir Putin – is not running a candidate for governor in Khabarovsk. The second party of Russia neither, the Communists.

Degtyaryov, a member of the Nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, is reportedly largely supported by the Kremlin with both advice and money.

The man who wanted to run on the Communist ticket was excluded from the ballot because he could not get enough signatures from officials. This aspiring candidate, Pyotr Perevezentsev, told The Associated Press that municipal authorities in some districts have been informed by their superiors that petitions for the nomination need to be signed.

“People representing the presidential administration organized these elections,” he said.

Separately, Furgal’s son Anton said he had not been selected for the national parliament. “There is an opinion that if my last name had been Ivanov, for example, I would probably be allowed to introduce myself,” he said.

Degtyaryov rejects such claims.

“As head of the Khabarovsk regional government, I am obliged to ensure transparent, legal, free and fair elections, and we follow all these provisions,” he said in a recent question-and-answer session. televised responses with the inhabitants.

The weeks of protests following Sergei Furgal’s arrest in July 2020 seemed to take the authorities by surprise. Unlike Moscow, where police usually act quickly to break up unauthorized gatherings, authorities have not interfered with unauthorized protests in Khabarovsk, apparently expecting them to die out.

A member of the Liberal Democrats, Furgal won the 2018 regional governorate elections despite refraining from campaigning and publicly supporting his Kremlin-backed rival.

His victory was a humiliating setback for United Russia, which also lost control of the regional legislature.

During his tenure, Furgal gained a reputation as a “governor of the people”, cutting his own salary, ordering the sale of an expensive yacht bought by the previous administration and offering new benefits to residents.

His arrest, which was broadcast on Russian TV channels, came after the Commission of Inquiry, the country’s top criminal investigation agency, said he was accused of being involved in the murders of several businessmen in the region and neighboring territories in 2004 and 2005. During his questioning in Moscow, Furgal denied the charges, according to the Tass news agency.

Ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a seasoned politician known for his candid comments and also a member of the Liberal Democrats, once called Furgal “the best governor the region has ever had.”

Furgal’s arrest brought hundreds, then thousands, to the streets of Khabarovsk during a regular protest on Saturday. A year later, the gatherings – although much smaller – continue.

Local activists say it is because of continued pressure from the authorities concerned to ensure that Degtyaryov wins the elections.

Under new rules enforced by the police who monitor and film protests, gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people. The officers scatter anything bigger.

Protesters say they are under pressure at work and at university, with some adding that they have lost their jobs after being seen during the protests.

Many wear T-shirts with the face of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, while others carry signs depicting Furgal or denouncing the new governor.

“We live in constant fear because we can be arrested on any day,” said Denis Pedish, a 47-year-old education worker who says he now comes to protests with a bag full of merchandise. essential in case he is detained.

“It is difficult. But the people have hope and faith and are actively fighting the anarchy of the authorities and the anarchy of the elections, which are a laughing stock to the world,” Pedish said.


Anna Frants and Olga Tregubova in Moscow contributed reporting.

The Independent Gt