MOSCOW – After leaving the regional leaders of Russia to assume much of the responsibility and heat for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin has sent a clear message to the recently empowered local elites: Don’t even think about the will of To question President Vladimir V. Putin.
In a strong blow to a regional leader who was long disloyal, masked security guards in camouflage uniforms arrested the governor of the Khabarovsk region, a remote area in the Russian Far East, on Thursday. The Kremlin has fired past governors or forced them to resign, but has rarely arrested them.
“The fact that they couldn’t find anything fresher to accuse him is a clear signal that this is an act of political oppression,” Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst studying regional politics, said in a phone interview to local elites, who can arrest a seated governor for crimes 15 or 20 years ago can arrest anyone. “
Like many Russian politicians, particularly in distant provinces, Mr. Furgal, a former lumber and scrap dealer who entered politics as a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, has a murky past that may have involved criminal activity. But he had held elected positions in local and national legislation for years without investigators showing any interest in his alleged murder tendency.
Mr. Furgal, who was flown to Moscow immediately after his arrest in Khabarovsk, appeared in court in the Russian capital on Friday and did not plead guilty to murder and attempted murder. He was detained until 9 September.
The fear that real and fictional crimes from the past will suddenly be revived by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other weapons of the huge Russian law enforcement system has helped hold Russia’s political elite together for years. The decision to investigate Mr. Furgal’s alleged crimes after so many years suggests that the Kremlin fears that the elite’s obedience could fray.
According to analysts, his sudden arrest on Thursday signals an effort by the Kremlin to regain some of the autonomy granted to provincial leaders in the early stages of the Russian coronavirus crisis. To avoid blaming unpopular blocking decisions, Putin retired to his country residence outside Moscow and largely left it up to the governors to decide how to react.
However, opinion polls indicate that this strategy has failed politically and has increased public confidence in the provincial leaders, while undermining confidence in Putin, who has lost its aura as a doer.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter, said the overthrow of the Khabarovsk governor was a message to provincial officials across the country: “Don’t try to imagine that” coronavirus federalization “is serious.” After the fight against the Putin virus was declared won, Mr. Glayamov said in a post on Facebook: “All power transferred during the epidemic must now be returned intact.”
The arrest opened a new front in a rolling process following a recent referendum that allowed Putin to ignore previous constitutional restrictions that would have forced him to step down in 2024 and stay in power until at least 2036.
The voters overwhelmingly approved a number of constitutional changes drafted by the Kremlin that declared the result a “triumphant referendum on trust” in Putin.
But the exercise was manipulated so transparently from the start that the president, whose approval rate had dropped to the lowest level since taking power 20 years ago, was more dependent than ever on cheerleading by state media, dirty tricks, and cunning. A respected election researcher estimated that more than 20 million votes, more than a quarter of the votes cast, had been falsified.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the far-right party, to which Mr. Furgal belongs, protested the arrest of the governor and threatened the resignation of his supporters in the national parliament. “We have given you the constitution and you are handcuffing us,” Zhirinovsky said in a warning to the Kremlin that he usually supports.
Without mentioning Mr. Putin by name, Mr. Schirinowski aimed at the President and said: “Shameless! You are in high office and act like Stalin! “
The Tass news agency reported on Friday that security officials had searched the homes of five members of Mr. Zhirinosky’s party in Khabarovsk in connection with the murder investigation against the arrested governor.
In the days since the vote on the revised constitution ended on July 1, the FSB took a number of measures to suppress criticism of Putin and the security services that anchored his rule.
On Monday, a Western Russian court sentenced a freelance reporter for FSB-initiated terrorist allegations that even the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council dismissed as unjustified before being freed by independent-minded members.
A day later, the FSB arrested a reputed former journalist who had worked for the Russian space agency in the past few months and accused him of treason for sharing secrets with an undisclosed NATO country. A small protest in front of the FSB headquarters was quickly resolved by the police.
On Thursday, security officials raided the homes in Moscow and elsewhere of opposition activists involved in Open Russia, a group that has been very critical of the Kremlin. The house of the editor-in-chief of an independent online publication and the residences of independent politicians who tried to challenge Kremlin candidates in local elections were also attacked.
The Kremlin has been increasingly concerned about its ability to control the outcome of local elections since the 2018 governor election, when Mr. Furgal, the governor arrested on Thursday, and candidates in some other regions defeated rivals advocated by the Kremlin.
Voters in Mr. Frugal’s region, the Khabarovsk region that borders China, approved Mr. Putin’s constitutional changes last week, but less closely than anywhere else. 62 percent voted “yes” in Khabarovsk, compared to a national balance of 78 percent.
Even more damaging to Mr. Furgal’s reputation in the Kremlin was probably the fact that the turnout in his region was only 42 percent. Governors are expected to mobilize at least the majority of voters for the elections to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and to keep their jobs.
The state-controlled news agency Tass blamed Frugal’s problems for his performance as governor, citing analysts that he had failed to keep the promises of an economic recovery for Khabarovsk. According to this standard, Mr. Putin and practically every elected official in Russia should have been arrested a long time ago, or at least lost his job.
Kostantin Kalachev, a political analyst who previously worked for the ruling United Russia party, said Mr. Frugal’s arrest so many years after his alleged crimes was “a clear signal” to all candidates in the upcoming governor election in September, who are not supported by the party Kremlin: “If there is the slightest chance of success, don’t even try.”
The victory, Mr. Kalachev wrote in a comment on Facebook, will ensure that “your life is not just milk and honey”.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the reporting.