By Yury Zolotarev and Andrew Osborn
KHABAROVSK/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Tens of thousands marched in the Russian far east on Saturday, the third such weekend protest in a row, to express their anger over what they say is President Vladimir Putin’s mishandling of a local political crisis.
Residents of Khabarovsk, around 3,800 miles (6,110 km) and seven time zones east of Moscow, are unhappy about the detention this month of the wider region’s popular governor, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested on murder charges he denies.
His arrest, which his supporters say was politically motivated, triggered the protests and created a headache for the Kremlin which is trying to troubleshoot a COVID-19-induced drop in real incomes and keep a lid on unrest.
Protesters chanted “Putin resign!” and “Putin is a thief!”. Demonstrators say they want Furgal, who they think has been set up, to be flown back from Moscow and put on trial in Khabarovsk.
City authorities estimated around 6,500 people had taken part. One local media outlet put the number at up to 20,000, while other outlets and opposition activists said upwards of 50,000 had attended and that it was the biggest protest of its kind so far.
“Give us our Furgal back,” said a local businesswoman called Viktoria. “This is our choice.”
The protests have highlighted anger among some over what they see as policies emanating from detached Moscow-based authorities.
Supporters of Furgal, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, feel he is being belatedly punished for defeating a candidate from the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party in 2018. The Kremlin says Furgal has serious charges to answer.
Such sustained demonstrations are unusual for Russia’s regions, as is the fact that the authorities have not yet moved to break them up.
In an apparent move to defuse tensions, Putin on Monday named a new acting governor. But protesters said they felt insulted by the choice of Mikhail Degtyaryov, who has no connection with the region, and have demanded he step down.
(Reporting by Yury Zolotarev and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Louise Heavens and Grant McCool)