Sergei Furgal protests: Putin picks new governor after murder allegation

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Media caption‘We’re protesting because our governor was stolen from us’

Russian President Vladimir Putin has named a new acting governor for the Khabarovsk region after days of demonstrations.

Governor Sergei Furgal was arrested for murder on 9 July, sparking protests in the far eastern province.

His supporters believe the charges against him are politically motivated.

Tens of thousands of people are thought to have come out in protest against the arrest – some of the biggest demonstrations in Russia for years.

The protests come just weeks after Mr Putin won backing for major constitutional reforms in a national referendum, which allow him to stay in power for an additional two terms – prompting fears of a crackdown on the opposition.

President Putin formally removed Mr Furgal from his post on Monday and named Mikhail Degtyaryov as the acting head of the region.

Mr Degtyaryov is a member of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), just like Mr Furgal.

The LDPR is an opposition party, although it is usually seen as loyal to the Kremlin. Mr Furgal however has proved to be popular in the region, winning the governorship in 2018 by a landslide – beating a candidate from Mr Putin’s own party.

Russia’s election commission said there would be a fresh regional vote to elect a new governor in September 2021.

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Image caption Thousands of people have demonstrated against the arrest of governor Sergei Furgal

Officials flew in from the Russian capital earlier this month in person to arrest Mr Furgal.

He is accused of organising two murders and one attempted murder of businessmen in 2004-05 when he worked in the metals trade.

The former governor, who denies all charges, is now sitting in a Moscow prison and could face life behind bars.

Residents of Khabarovsk have taken to the streets calling for his release, with some estimating as many as 50,000 people joining marches in a city of around 600,000.

Demonstrators question why authorities have taken 15 years to charge Mr Furgal, and have chanted “Putin, resign” and “Freedom”.

Authorities have played down the scenes in the far east but have not tried to stop them.

President Putin’s choice for acting governor in Khabarovsk is from the same party as Sergei Furgal, the man who’s so popular crowds have been protesting against his arrest on murder charges for 10 days straight now.

Some believe he’s innocent; others just want him tried in his hometown – and all see Moscow trying to reassert its control over their far-flung region.

With this move, it looks like the Kremlin’s now trying to persuade people off the streets, by sending a replacement governor who is, at least nominally, from the opposition.

But he has no link at all with Khabarovsk. And by appointing him, Vladimir Putin has also formally removed Sergei Furgal from office – for “losing the trust” of his electorate.

That line won’t go down at all well with Khabarovsk’s supporters.

Russian overwhelmingly back constitutionally reforms granting Mr Putin the chance to run for a further two terms at the start of the month.

Opposition members denounced the vote as an attempt by Mr Putin to be “president for life” – a claim he rejected. Copies of the new constitution appeared in Russian bookshops before voting had finished.

Mr Furgal’s arrest also comes shortly after the arrest of former journalist Ivan Safronov, following allegations he passed official secrets to a Nato country.

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