Khabarovsk and Sofia Parallels

posted by Nikolai Tagarov on July 22, 2020 - 2:07pm

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on around the world, authoritarian regimes such as China, or cultures where the individual's rights are seen as subservient to the public interest such as Japan and Korea, have seen relatively little unrest triggered by the public health crisis. However, in the West - broadly defined not just as the US and Western Europe but also encompassing Eastern Europe and even Russia - have seen relatively high levels of citizen protests and even violence.

While we are relatively familiar with the nature of public debates and opposing ideas on how society and public policy should be organized in the US - e.g. the ideological fault lines of Black Lives Matter, public health restrictions, etc - the causes of recent unrest in Eastern Europe are less well understood. Some of the unrest is very simply due to the public health restrictions themselves, as well as the ensuing financial hardship suddenly imposed on large sections of the populations. Moreover, it is important to note that in much of Eastern Europe, state authorities do not have the luxury of implementing large scale stimulus programs as the US Government or some Western European countries have. This is likely going to linger on in 2020 and into 2021 as a source of political and economic instability throughout Eastern Europe - which in turn will affect the stability of the European Union as well.
One example is Greece, already weakened by a decade of austerity measures, adopted in the wake of the country's debt crisis in 2009. Athens has seen mass protests recently in reaction to the government's decision to regulate demonstrations. Similarly, in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, people stormed the Parliament building in protest against the COVID-19 lockdown and recently reimposed curfew.

Of course the masses in Serbia and other Eastern European countries would not protest so vigorously had their faith in their own government not been shaken by persistently high levels of corruption and authoritarian tendencies which are evident in many polities in the region. Another common thread connecting many of the region's mass protests is the role that Russia has played not only as an instigator of corruption, but also as the direct cause of instability by interfering in the political process. A case in point is Belarus - where President Lukashenko, in the past a staunch supporter of Mr Putin and staunch critic of the West, has accused both the latter and Russia of interference in the upcoming Presidential elections. He went so far as to ban his main political opponent, Mr Viktor Babaryko, widely seen as a pro-Kremlin stooge bankrolled by Gazprom, from running in the elections. This triggered mass protests in Minsk - in some cases triggered perhaps by pro-Russia sympathies, but to a large extent caused simply by the perception that whatever the forces behind the barred candidate, Mr Lukashenko's politically expedient use of the Chief Prosecutor's office to remove his main rival from the election contest has limited people's freedom of choice.

In Bulgaria, the Chief Prosecutor's Office was similarly used by the government as an instrument of political revenge against the Country's President, Mr Rumen Radev. The latter has accused the governing coalition of being deeply corrupt. Then, a couple of weeks ago one of his top aides was accused of corruption and the President's office was raided soon afterwards. The act was seen by the population as an act of gross abuse of power and an act of aggression against a directly elected official by an unelected bureaucrat who is seen as a mere tool in the hands of deeply-corrupt oligarchs - ultimately seen by the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians as controlled and supported by the Kremlin, despite the fact that Bulgaria has been a Member of the EU for over a decade. What is remarkable in this case was the wide coalition of mass protest participants, spanning essentially the whole political spectrum.

The situation in Sofia is in many ways reminiscent of that in Khabarovsk, a city of nearly half a million people and capital of the Khabarovsk Krai region in Russia's Far East. The Governor of Khabarovsk Krai, Mr Sergei Furgal, who had defeated the ruling (i.e. Putin's) party's candidate was seen as non-corrupt and truly concerned about raising the standards of living of ordinary Russians, had approval ratings considerably higher than those of Mr Putin himself. That was obviously seen as a threat by the latter so Mr Furgal was arrested on obviously trumped up charges of ordering the murder of business rivals fifteen yeasrs ago. Immediately after his arrest, as many as 50,000 to 100,000 citizens of Khabarovsk spanning much of the political spectrum spontaneously took to the streets and - in an unprecedented act in Russia's repressed political culture -  have chanted slogans in support of Mr Furgal and in bitter opposition to Mr Putin in daily mass demonstrations.