KHABAROVSK, Russia -- The Kremlin set off a revolt of sorts in July 2020 when law enforcement arrested the popular governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, and replaced him with a temporary appointee from Moscow, Mikhail Degtyaryov.
Many in the region took the move as a personal affront and overreach from a controlling central government in faraway Moscow, and they took to the streets for months of protests that seemed to take the Kremlin by surprise.
Now voters in the region more than 6,000 kilometers east of the capital are going to the polls in an early election to fill Furgal's spot, and the Kremlin seems determined to make sure the way is clear for Degtyaryov to keep his seat.
Initially, it appeared there would be eight candidates on the ballot. But on August 4, Green Party candidate Mikael Bagdasaryan suddenly and without explanation withdrew from the race. He had been seen as a strong local candidate well-versed in the region's issues and concerns.
Voters are going to the polls in the region, which is more than 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow.
A week later, candidates Igor Logvinov of the Green Alternative party and Vladimir Chernyshov of the New People party were denied registration by election officials.
Would-be Communist Party candidate Pyotr Perevezentsev failed to submit his documents on time and election officials refused to consider them.
All three refuseniks were unable to secure the necessary number of signatures from regional district council members or executive-branch heads.
'The federal authorities and United Russia are doing everything they can to make our campaign difficult because they know that the Communist Party is the only opposition force in the country,' Perevezentsev wrote.
In the end, only three candidates will be on the ballot with Degtyaryov, who has only strengthened the perception that he is an imposed outsider by appointing many people with no connection to the region to the regional administration. On October 10, 2020, Degtyaryov oversaw the violent dispersal of demonstrators in Khabarovsk, detaining dozens.
Changing his official residence registration and buying an apartment in Khabarovsk have done little to change the perception.
One of the acting governor's purported rivals is state television journalist Marina Kim, a native of St. Petersburg who lives in Moscow. She was put forward by the A Just Russia party and is running under the opaque slogan 'Justice Begins With The Far East.'
Another challenger -- the one best known to locals -- is entrepreneur Babek Mamedov of the Rodina party. A native of Azerbaijan, he has lived in Khabarovsk for many years. With a declared 2020 income of over 16 million rubles ($220,000), he is officially the wealthiest of the candidates. He has campaigned mostly on economic issues, appealing to workers in the military-industrial complex, students, and intellectuals.
The final 'challenger' is a native of Khabarovsk, retiree Vladimir Parfyonov of the little-known Party of Pensioners for Social Justice. Voters might be put off by the fact that Parfyonov is married to Degtyaryov's press secretary, Yelena Parfyonova. The Khabarovsk branch of the Party of Pensioners for Social Justice was hastily formed in May.
New Governor Mikhail Degtyaryov
'We are in a complicated situation,' said local protest leader Andrei Dudenok. 'People are angry. One of the analysts said recently that the people of Khabarovsk are flipping the bird in their pockets. They were just as angry when they voted in 2018.'
2018 was the year the region outraged Moscow by electing Furgal in a second-round landslide over longtime United Russia incumbent Vyacheslav Shport.
'I conducted a survey and this is what people are planning,' Dudenok said. 'If Kim is disqualified, they will vote for Mamedov. If Mamedov is disqualified, they will vote for Parfyonov. A lot of people are going to vote in a purely protest manner.'
Local Libertarian Party activist Mikhail Zhukov says this might be exactly what the Kremlin wants.
'I think it is important to Moscow that their interests are represented in Khabarovsk,' he told RFE/RL. 'They don't particularly care who is representing them -- Marina Kim or Mikhail Degtyaryov. But if Kim wins, maybe locals will get a false sense of victory and the protests will die off. That is what Moscow needs.'
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Khabarovsk by Yekaterina Khasina and Aleksandr Molchanov of the Siberia.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036