In Khabarovsk, a Russian city nearly 4,000 miles east of Moscow, thousands of people have been protesting President Vladimir Putin for more than three weeks. The protesters want the Kremlin to release their governor, Sergei Furgal, whom federal agents arrested in July and charged in connection with multiple murders from 2004 and 2005.

The protests have been sustained and large, drawing an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators on weekends in a city of 600,000 people. Smaller protests in solidarity have occurred in other major cities, including Omsk, Vladivostok, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even New York hosted a picketer.

Mass protests in support of a governor in Russia’s far reaches are extremely rare — and tell us two critical things about Russian politics. First, the protests suggest that popular support for the Putin regime may be more fragile than polls suggest.

Second, they demonstrate how competitive politics can reemerge in Russia despite its authoritarian political system. Russia’s regions, rather than Moscow, may be the most likely sites for that to happen.

What prompted the protests?

Furgal was elected governor of Khabarovsk two years ago in what was largely a protest vote against the sitting governor, a member of the United Russia party — the party of power aligned with the Kremlin. Citizens blamed United Russia for an unpopular pension reform that raised the retirement age. But Furgal was no anti-Kremlin opposition candidate. He belonged to the loyal opposition party: the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a far-right party.

Russia’s gubernatorial elections are neither open nor fair; only a handful of loyal (or “systemic”) opposition parties may compete. Even then, carefully honed formal and informal rules and practices ensure that United Russia wins nearly all contests across Russia’s 85 regions. Some analysts have said Furgal’s arrest was political payback for flouting the rules of the game with his landslide victory against the Kremlin-backed United Russia candidate in 2018.

Protesters also have strong anti-Putin views

Furgal became popular during the two years he held office. Broadcasting government meetings online and meeting regularly with constituents earned him the label “the people’s governor.”

Rather than promote a particular ideology, he focused on practical issues such as improving roads and schools, and reducing local corruption. (He put the region’s million-dollar yacht up for sale.)

Popular opinion has shifted against Putin for other reasons. Putin shifted responsibility for Russia’s coronavirus response to regional leaders, earning him lower ratings on combating the virus than governors and mayors, according to a study by the independent Levada Center. Putin’s approval rating and his trust rating have dropped in recent months.

Putin could have engaged with protesters by replacing Furgal with an official from the region. Instead, he appointed Mikhail Degtyarov, an inexperienced LDPR politician from Moscow, setting off another wave of local protests.

Police, who have mostly remained on the sidelines of the protests, last week began arresting some of the more visible protesters, such as Rostislav Buryak, the driver of the “Furgalmobile,” and blogger Alexey Romanov whose YouTube channel reports on the protests. The crackdown in Khabarovsk may extend the wave of repression that the Kremlin has unleashed on journalists and activists since the constitutional referendum in early July.

How local mobilization spurs democracy

Of course, growing opposition to Putin in Khabarovsk and other regions does not mean that democracy lies just around the bend in Russia. But events in Khabarovsk reveal how local mobilization has the potential to jump-start democratic politics in Russia. Recent history in Russia’s regions suggests certain parallels.

My research on ethnic mobilization in the waning years of the Soviet Union shows that two factors — elections and protests came together to produce real representative politics in Russia’s regions. The regions then began to challenge policies and leadership in Moscow.

The U.S.S.R. was not a true federal state, as Moscow governed the subnational administrative territories in a highly centralized system. Moscow appointed regional leaders according to Communist Party lists maintained by the Kremlin.

In the late 1980s, Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev decided — as part of his glasnost program — to reduce the power of the Communist Party by holding semi-competitive elections for regional legislatures. Though the party retained many seats in most places, competition transformed rubber-stamp legislatures into fledgling representative institutions whose legitimacy originated in the regions, rather than in Moscow.

Simultaneously, opposition movements based on ethno-national ideas emerged in Russia’s ethnic minority regions. Street protest was one of the few ways for people to make their voices heard in the closed political system. In those regions where support for minority nationalism grew, frequent protests exerted pressure on local politicians, inspiring many Communist Party loyalists to reinvent themselves as ethno-nationalists to remain in office.

Thus, semi-competitive elections and popular protests incentivized regional leaders to shift their focus and respond to local popular opinion. Regional leaders began to draw upon local popular and electoral support to challenge Moscow’s policies, ultimately undermining Soviet rule.

What’s different in Russia’s regions today?

Political circumstances in Russia today may have changed, but the mechanism of popular mobilization is much the same.

Popular discontent, translated into votes, can elect a leader such as Furgal who represents constituents — even in Russia’s highly managed, unfair electoral system. The semi-competitive elections in Khabarovsk produced a politician whose legitimacy originates outside of Moscow — marking a return of competitive politics. Though regional leaders cannot challenge Moscow as they did in the late Soviet period, protesters in Khabarovsk seem to have taken up the mantle.

Elise Giuliano (@gegs32) is a lecturer in political science at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. She is writing a book about popular opinion and the war in Donbas in Ukraine.