- Anti-government protests are growing, and the Kremlin doesn’t have stormtroopers willing to mount a crackdown.
Suppose you ordered a crackdown and nobody came? The continuing protests in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, triggered by the arrest of the elected local governor, do not simply demonstrate pent-up dissatisfaction toward Vladimir Putin’s regime—they also demonstrate some of the potential limitations of its control over the security forces. As the Kremlin seems to be pivoting toward a renewed campaign of repression, the question of the morale and loyalty of its enforcers becomes crucial.
Thousands of protesters have turned out every weekend since July 9, when the Khabarovsk region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on 15-year-old murder-conspiracy charges. This is less about Furgal himself so much as a widespread local discontent about a government they feel only notices the territories outside Moscow’s MKAD beltway when it is time to tax them.
What has been particularly striking, though, has been that although none of the protests have been authorized, the local police have not tried to control them. This weekend, six protesters out of maybe 10,000 were detained: Two protesters were sentenced to a week behind bars, two were fined 10,000 rubles ($134) each, and two more were held overnight then cut loose. Compared with how protests elsewhere in Russia have been handled, this was positively benign.
It is not as if Khabarovsk lacks for security forces. Along with its regular police, it has an OMON riot police unit, a SOBR SWAT team, an Independent National Guard Motorized Battalion and Interior Troop Brigade, and the 21st “Typhoon” Special Designation Commando Detachment. As if that were not enough, as a key city along the Chinese border, the army’s Eastern Military District is headquartered there, and there is also a regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB).