From, July 24, 2020. Excerpts:

The open confrontation between Khabarovsk residents and the federal center that spontaneously erupted after Russian Investigative Committee staff and FSB officers detained now-former Khabarovsk Territory governor Sergei Furgal is perhaps the most riveting political event of the year. It eclipsed even the vote on the constitutional amendments: The results of the latter, as well as any possible grievances, were pretty much known in advance. Meanwhile, the Khabarovsk “uprising” continues to gain momentum and its outcome is unclear. . . .

 In defending their governor, Khabarovsk residents are ignoring all arguments [by the authorities] – they are not scared off by the coronavirus, nor are they convinced by Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s hastily slapped together “insider information” that Furgal was planning to leave anyway, nor the usual arguments about a “foreign trace” [in the protests]. The rallies are increasingly focusing on the regional aspect – anti-Moscow slogans are appearing, while the Khabarovsk Territory flag is becoming ubiquitous. People are not put off by the charges against Furgal – after all, Yerofei Khabarov, whom the region is named after, also served prison time at one point. . . .

It seems none of the parties involved know what the outcome of the Khabarovsk confrontation may be. Both the protesters and the regime have outlined their tactical goals. The former are insisting on dropping the case against Sergei Furgal, or at least moving the trial from Moscow to Khabarovsk. Considering the extremely negative attitude toward interim governor Mikhail Degtyaryov, the goal is to at least make the [gubernatorial] election as inconvenient as possible for him – and ideally make him leave the region.

The main goal of the regime is even simpler – holding new elections. At least then the region would have some sort of an official leader, the power vertical would stay intact and as for the protests, those would die down eventually. This looks like a feasible goal. So it seems that an early election will be called, and the vote will be pulled off somehow.

But neither goal gives any idea of what the parties to the conflict actually want. Sergei Furgal cannot be acquitted, because that would make the Kremlin look very stupid, and that must be avoided at all costs. It is even more difficult to image that this would happen before the election, and that Furgal would be allowed to run. He has already lost Putin’s trust.

Even by organizing the technical aspects of the election, the regime won’t solve the problem of ending civil unrest in the region. Mikhail Degtyaryov may not be Putin’s candidate, but the latter did officially appoint him, so he is still Moscow’s candidate. And it’s unlikely that he could acquire the necessary political clout in the time remaining [before the election]. . . .

But the main thing is what will happen after the election. Even if he wins, will the fresh-faced carpetbagger have sufficient authority to rein in the local elite and become a better governor for the locals than Furgal? . . .

People want an independent governor, but for the Kremlin this notion is a nonstarter. They don’t need a second Furgal – otherwise, why get rid of him in the first place? At the same time, while tapping into their regional identity, Khabarovsk locals are not quite ready to question the power vertical principle per se. Their territory is a federally subsidized region, and it’s unclear how independent they believe their governor should be. It is equally unclear how managed the governor should be (and by whom) – after all, [the center] can’t respond in manual control mode every time someone on the other side of the country sneezes.

The Russian political system simply does not have solutions for such situations. Like any process, a protest movement is supposed to go somewhere: It’s possible to keep stamping it out, but unless the conflict is resolved, it will crop up over and over again, and continue to escalate.

Talks are better than anarchy, but who will start them? Any political proposals are seen a priori [by the regime] as so revolutionary that even thinking about them is frightening. On top of that, there is no one to voice [these proposals] – the protest movement does not have a leader, unless you count Sergei Furgal, and even the Kremlin does not believe he is behind the protests. [The opposition] also lacks a potential candidate for the upcoming election. If [the opposition] had such a leader, it would have actually made the Kremlin’s job easier: It could either unleash a mudslinging campaign [against this person] or buy them off. But right now, the Kremlin doesn’t even have anyone to go after. In light of this, the federal center can only stick with the familiar – i.e., pushing through its bureaucratic agenda with all the delicacy of a battering ram, while completely ignoring whether [that agenda] correlates with reality. This battering ram has no off switch, and the fact that a non-United Russia member was dispatched to the region is considered enough of a concession. . . .

It is worth noting that of late, President Putin has acquired another interesting tool for overriding unusual situations. The newly adopted constitutional amendments make it possible to create “federal territories” in Russia that are governed directly by Moscow. It probably wouldn’t be all that surprising if this innovation is eventually tested specifically in the Far East. Of course, who knows what the consequences would be.