MOSCOW • Ignoring pleas from the Kremlin for calm after more than a week of unrest, protesters in Russia's far east last Saturday staged their biggest display of defiance yet, with tens of thousands of people pouring into the streets to protest against the arrest of a popular regional governor.
Russian media reported that about 50,000 people had joined a rally in the capital of Khabarovsk Krai, a sprawling territory nearly 6,400km east of Moscow.
Thousands more attended demonstrations in other regional towns and in Vladivostok, a major Pacific port city in the neighbouring Primorsky Krai.
The government in Khabarovsk, the regional capital, said in a statement that only 10,000 people had gathered "at the beginning" but gave no figure for the overall turnout.
Police officers in Khabarovsk made no effort to stop what the authorities described as an "illegal" but peaceful protest and instead handed out face masks. In Vladivostok, however, a number of arrests were reported.
The demonstrations began after the arrest on July 9 on murder charges of Khabarovsk's Governor Sergei Furgal, one of a handful of regional leaders not affiliated with a party entirely controlled by the Kremlin.
Protesters carried slogans demanding the release of Furgal, according to footage posted on social media. The independent Ekho Moskvy radio estimated that 20,000 people had joined the unsanctioned protest.
Police detained Furgal earlier this month on allegations that he organised several murders in 2004-2005. He denies the accusations.
Instead of being held in Khabarovsk, where the authorities allege the crimes took place, Furgal was flown to Moscow immediately after his arrest, a move seen by many locals as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs and an effort by the Kremlin to grab control of the case.
The case has crystallised longstanding resentments in Russia's far-flung regions towards Moscow, which is often seen as demanding loyalty while giving little in return.
In a blow to local pride, the Kremlin responded to Furgal's election victory in 2018 over its own candidate by rejiggering bureaucratic boundaries in the far eastern regions to give primacy to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk's long-time rival.
Furgal is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, a far-right outfit that has grown increasingly restive over its Kremlin-assigned role as a largely powerless "opposition" party in Russia's tightly controlled political system.
The governor's prosecution comes amid a series of moves by security forces against opponents of President Vladimir Putin since he won a crushing endorsement of his right to extend his rule until 2036 in a constitutional vote on July 1 that observers said was marred by irregularities.