'Not Just Trolling, But Humiliation': Putin's Choice To Replace Khabarovsk Governor Unlikely To Calm Unrest

By Yelena Rykovtseva

Robert Coalson

The moment the popular governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region was arrested and hustled off to Moscow on July 9, locals -- who have taken to the streets in daily protests, with crowds twice numbering in the tens of thousands – began wondering who President Vladimir Putin would name as a replacement.

A member of the ruling United Russia party, shipped in from Moscow?

A local figure with ties to the administration of the arrested governor, Sergei Furgal, and his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)?

There was also talk that it could be Mikhail Degtyaryov, an LDPR deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of the national parliament in Moscow, more than 6,000 kilometers away – but that notion was dismissed by some as unlikely, unserious, or both.

“Rumors that it would be Degtyaryov have been circulating for two weeks,” said Dmitry Nizovtsev, a Khabarovsk-based activist who works for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “I spoke with people who know a lot more than I do, asking them if it would be Degtyaryov. And they told me, ‘Seriously? Are you kidding? Of course not.’ Although there were such rumors, everyone scoffed at them.”

But on July 20, that is exactly what Putin did, naming Degtyaryov -- a 39-year-old native of the Volga River city of Samara and an engineer by training without any significant executive experience or connection to Khabarovsk – as the acting head of the vast region of some 1.35 million people.

Putin’s choice seems unlikely to mollify the protesters, who have now taken to the streets in large numbers for 11 straight days, Nizovtsev said. And it could even anger them further.

“The main thing that the people of Khabarovsk wanted, their main demand, was Furgal’s release,” he said. “That he be tried fairly or not at all. And their second demand was that he be replaced by someone local…. They were expecting someone local.”

The appointment “is not simply trolling on the part of the bald one,” activist Olga Bulgakova wrote on Facebook in a reference to Putin, “it is an act of humiliation.”

The message to Khabarovsk residents, she added, was: “If you don’t want someone from United Russia, you can have [expletive deleted].’”

Degtyaryov is a colorful up-and-comer in the LDPR – which, despite its name, is a nationalist party -- and has been mentioned by flamboyant longtime LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a possible successor. He was the party’s unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Moscow in 2013, when he came in fifth after Kremlin favorite Sergei Sobyanin, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, and two others, and again in 2018.

However, his career was launched firmly inside the United Russia establishment. From 2001-03, he headed the Samara branch of the pro-Putin activist youth group Walking Together. In 2003, he joined United Russia and the party’s official youth group, Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard). In 2004, he was elected to the Samara City Duma from the ruling party, but he left United Russia in 2005. 

He joined the LDPR in November 2005 after being recruited for a local leadership post. A few months later, in April 2006, he was named the party’s Samara regional coordinator and an aide to party leader Zhirinovsky. He was elected as a regional lawmaker in 2007 and as a State Duma deputy in 2011.

In 2009 and again in 2018, he was included in Putin’s elite list of young “reserve cadres” after completing a preparatory course in the presidential management academ (RANXiGS).

During his career in the Duma, he has been known as the author of a number of outlandish initiatives, including one to paint the Kremlin’s red-brick walls white, one that would have outlawed the circulation of U.S. dollars in Russia, one that would have given women two paid days off each month during their menstrual periods, and one that would have banned gay men from donating blood.

'How To Pour Kerosene On A Fire'

Once it was announced, Degtyaryov’s appointment quickly became a topic of ridicule on Russian social media. Journalist Mikhail Shevelev asserted on Facebook that although Degtyaryov seemed normal early in his career, that is no longer the case.

“He is a subject for a dissertation in psychology,” he wrote.

The appointment could be featured in “a textbook called How To Pour Kerosene On A Fire,” Muscovite Grigory Kislin wrote on Facebook.

Journalist and Moscow district council member Ilya Azar posted a photograph of Degtyaryov’s office in the Duma which featured a huge scowling portrait of a young Zhirinovsky on the wall and a doormat on the floor featuring a photograph of former U.S. President Barack Obama and the American flag.

But the mood on social media in Khabarovsk itself was a bit different, although there were plenty of memes pointing out Degtyaryov’s lack of any connection with the region.

Nizovtsev told RFE/RL that he was reading local forums both before and after Degtyaryov’s appointment became known late on July 20.

“Before the appointment, people were participating in profound political disputes on topics like should the protests mention Putin, should they collect money for Furgal’s legal defense, or should they openly come out against Moscow,” he said.

“But as soon as Degtyaryov appeared, everyone simply united,” he noted. “The most radical voices became louder and the moderates didn’t simply become quieter – they just fell silent. I didn’t come across a single person who supported Degtyaryov, so I can’t say how other people would have reacted.”

Moscow-based political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL that Degtyaryov’s appointment indicates that Putin was more concerned with mending fences with Zhirinovsky and the LDPR than with analyzing the demands of the Khabarovsk demonstrators.

“Putin always thinks that people don’t come out into the streets voluntarily and for free,” Belkovsky said. “If there is a mass demonstration, that means that someone is financing it and organizing it.”

When the appointment was announced, Belkovsky noted, Zhirinovsky backed away from his previous support of Furgal and said his party had nothing to do with the protests in the region.

Belkovsky added that Putin might be misjudging the seriousness of the situation in the Far East because it is being downplayed by his advisers.

“We shouldn’t forget that the president’s perspective is shaped by his advisers,” Belkovsky said. “Every bureaucrat knows that it is important to show that nothing serious is happening because, just like in the days of antiquity, the person who brings bad news is to blame and he’s the one to lose his head.

“Putin lives in the ether,” he concluded. “His self-isolation began long before the pandemic. He doesn’t think anything extraordinary is happening in Khabarovsk that would force him to fundamentally change his standard political logic of not making any serious concessions to those who are pressuring him.”

Nizovtsev agrees.

“Locals are upset that he is not from Khabarovsk, not from the Far East, that – as Aleksei Navalny said – he has only seen Khabarovsk on television,” Nizovtsev said. “This has really enraged everyone…. This was a huge mistake, but I have the impression that Putin has decided to push it all the way.”

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva. With additional reporting by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.