ZOiS Report 4/2021

Mobilising for Regional Protests on Russian Social Media: The Case of Khabarovsk

by Tatiana Golova 23/06/2021
Protesters show their support for Sergy Furgal in Khabarovsk, July 2020 Dmitry Morgulis/TASS

The 2020 protests in Khabarovsk Krai, triggered by the arrest and subsequent detention of the governor Sergey Furgal on allegations of organising killings in the early 2000s, continued for several months; at their peak, the demonstrations and rallies had more than ten thousand participants in the region’s capital alone. This ZOiS Report offers several possible explanations for the longevity and mass character of the protests.

First, it discusses pre-existing socioeconomic and political developments in the region. Territorial disparity, one of the major structural factors driving social inequality in Russia, affects Khabarovsk Krai on several levels:

  • Due to the southern districts’ modernised occupational structures and infrastructure, they were more vulnerable to the recent economic crisis and the decrease in real incomes.
  • Considering Russia-wide centre-periphery relations and inequality, Khabarovsk Krai lies mid-field in terms of dependency on federal budget transfers. Such transfers, however, were not used in Khabarovsk during the 2018 gubernatorial election to buy the loyalty of voters (a popular electoral techniques). This helped Furgal to win against the Kremlin-backed incumbent, together with the escalation of protest voting when oppositional non-voters participated in the second round after seeing the incumbent’s vulnerability.
  • The results of other major elections and votes in 2018, 2019 and 2020 reinforced Khabarovsk’s newly acquired reputation as a protest region and were vividly remembered during the 2020 protests, in both a positive variant (“Our governor, our choice”) and in a negative framing (“Moscow’s revenge for protest voting”).

Second, the report explores the framing (interpretation) of events around Furgal’s prosecution and the protests on Russian social media. Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques were used to reconstruct the long-term dynamics of positive, negative and neutral social media coverage, and, for two selected periods, to identify clusters of similar texts and main frames supporting mobilisation. The two levels, i.e. background and framing, are interrelated:

  • Furgal’s election was a political victory for discontented voters, and this powered the “our governor” variant of the “people’s governor” framing. Another variant, “the good governor”, complements the “our governor” variant and emphasises Furgal’s own qualities. If both frames are combined, the framing is about Furgal who was elected “by us” out of desperation and then proved himself worthy.
  • The Far East identity as the symbolic counterpart to the socioeconomic centre-periphery dimension has been recursively reproduced through framing of Khabarovsk as the “rebellious city” of the “krai of freedom-loving people”.
  • The negative interpretation of “revenge on the protest region” is constructed in a further group of texts. Regional identity can be reproduced not only by providing related interpretations of events, but is created performatively by posts which make protest actions in the small towns and villages visible.
  • The protest practice of “pigeon feeding” is at the heart of the last cluster and stands both for the ironical prevention of digital repression and for actual street action.

The second period analysed covers events in early October: the attempted protest camp in Lenin Square and its violent dispersal, the first of its kind during this mobilisation:

  • While the expression of shock and indignation is quite similar to the first period, the framing does not show the plurality of voices and interpretations of the “beginnings” period and is focused mainly on police violence and mass detentions (however, different aspects and episodes are emphasised in different clusters).
  • The transformation of who are seen as opponents of the protests and Furgal is crucial here – police forces are no longer seen as “police [that] are with the people”. The regional dimension is applied mainly to the antagonists, with the violent dispersal and the acting governor Degtyarev as its initiator being brought in (to Khabarovsk) from Moscow. While the reaction to repression and police violence can become a mobilising factor and re-invigorate protests, this did not happen in Khabarovsk.