Putin names new governor to Far East region hit by protests


Moscow (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin named a new leader of the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk from the nationalist LDPR party on Monday after the arrest of its popular governor brought thousands to the streets.

Putin sacked Sergei Furgal, who was detained this month on murder charges, and named LDPR lawmaker Mikhail Degtyarev, 39, as his replacement.

A Kremlin decree said Furgal was sacked over a "loss of confidence" in his ability to govern.

The arrest of 50-year-old Furgal, who defeated a candidate from the ruling United Russia party to win the governorship in 2018, has sparked daily demonstrations in Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 on the border with China.

The biggest demonstrations on the last two Saturdays drew tens of thousands, with some estimates putting the crowds at more than 50,000.

Critics say the charges are politically motivated and have demanded that Furgal, who was flown to Moscow to stand trial, face the charges in Khabarovsk.

Putin named Degtyarev as acting governor during a televised video link-up, saying he faced "a very demanding, very important" job in the region.

Putin did not mention the protests in Khabarovsk but said Degtyarev needed to focus on helping the region's "very talented and active" residents.

"We have to look to the future and not forget about the strategic plans for developing this huge and very important region," Putin said.

Degtyarev, who unlike Furgal is from central Russia and not the Far East, said he was ready to head to the region immediately.

He said he would aim to ensure the "stable work" of the regional government and the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Kremlin decree, Degtyarev will serve as acting governor until an election can be held next year.

Furgal's arrest also sparked an outcry from members of the LDPR, a Kremlin-friendly party that has been led for decades by nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

- Move could 'deepen' anger -

Kremlin critics said Putin had ignored frustrations in Khabarovsk with the appointment of Degtyarev, and analysts said the move may not defuse discontent in the region.

"Why the hell do they need a governor from Moscow?" opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on Facebook, adding that the new acting governor had seen Khabarovsk "only on TV."

A high-profile opposition activist in Khabarovsk, Alexei Vorsin, said the new regional chief did not have any political or managerial experience apart from being a lawmaker.

He posted a picture of a half-naked Degtyarev sitting in a bathhouse together with LDPR leader Zhirinovsky.

"That's his main achievement," Vorsin quipped.

Political analyst Vitali Shkliarov said the appointment could "deepen" anger with the Kremlin.

"The problems of the regions cannot be solved with such a trick," he wrote on Telegram.