MOSCOW • Tens of thousands of people protested in Russia's far east last Saturday in a rare display of opposition to President Vladimir Putin in the country's vast hinterland, chanting "Putin Resign" and demanding the release of a regional governor arrested this past week on suspicion of multiple murders.
The protests in Khabarovsk, a city bordering China, and several other towns were the largest in Russia's usually somnolent provinces in many years, rivalling or even exceeding in size demonstrations last summer in Moscow, the main centre of opposition to the Kremlin.
Unlike street protests in Moscow, which the authorities can easily discredit as the work of a privileged metropolitan elite led astray by Russia's enemies in the West, the outburst of anger against Mr Putin in a hardscrabble region nearly 6,400km east of the capital presented an unusual and potentially more troublesome challenge.
The protests in towns across Khabarovsk Krai, a region that stretches from the frontier with China to the Arctic along the Pacific Ocean, followed the arrest last Thursday of the region's popular governor Sergei Furgal. He is one of Russia's few provincial leaders not affiliated with political forces entirely controlled by the Kremlin.
Mr Alexei Navalny, a Moscow-based anti-corruption campaigner and Russia's most prominent opposition leader, has cheered the protests, hailing the demonstration in Khabarovsk as the "biggest in the city's history".
The Ministry of Interior, which controls Russia's regular police forces, estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people had joined the protest in Khabarovsk. Local news outlets put the number at more than 40,000.
Videos showed festive scenes of protesters, both young and old, waving signs in support of the arrested governor and chanting "Freedom for Furgal", "Moscow Get Out" and "Putin Step Down".
Demonstrations were also reported in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, an important industrial centre, Solnechny and other towns in Khabarovsk Krai.
A former timber and scrap metal trader, Furgal has long been trailed by accusations of criminality.
But protesters said they were more concerned that his alleged crimes, ignored for nearly two decades, had suddenly been used to depose a governor who, unlike Mr Putin, had won a real and competitive election.
Appearing in court in Moscow last Friday, Furgal pleaded not guilty to charges of multiple murders and attempted murder in the early 2000s.
His arrest only now is seen as politically motivated, the latest heavy-handed strike by the authorities after an allegedly rigged national plebiscite on constitutional amendments paved the way for Mr Putin to become president for life.
More than 78 per cent of Russian voters earlier this month endorsed amendments that allow Mr Putin to crash through term limits previously mandated by the Constitution and stay in power until at least 2036. He was due to step down at the end of his term in 2024.
But Mr Putin's image as a can-do leader has been badly battered by his often passive response to the coronavirus pandemic and a deepening economic crisis.
His approval rating has slumped in recent weeks to its lowest level since he took office more than 20 years ago.
However, few commentators expect the street protests to snowball nationwide and force Mr Putin to step down, not least because the Kremlin controls an immense security apparatus adept at crushing demonstrations.
But events in Khabarovsk and angry grumbling across the country over growing economic hardship suggest that Mr Putin may have lost his aura as an invincible leader supported by a large majority of the public.