Tens of thousands of people marched across the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China to protest the arrest of the regional governor on murder charges, continuing a wave of protests that has lasted for two weeks in a challenge to the Kremlin.
Huge anti-government demonstrations erupted in Russia's Far East on Saturday over the arrest of a popular governor who was replaced this week by a Kremlin appointee who never lived in the fraught region.
Residents of Khabarovsk near the border with China took to the streets en masse for the third Saturday in a row after governor Sergei Furgal was arrested by federal law enforcement and flown to Moscow on murder charges this month.
The running demonstrations have been some of the largest anti-government protests in Russia in years, which the Kremlin said this week were being fuelled by opposition activists outside Khabarovsk.
Tens of thousands of residents marched through Khabarovsk waving the region's flag, carrying banners and chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin as passing cars honked their horns in support.
"We want our governor to be released because we believe he was very likely detained illegally," said 24-year-old protester Alina Slepova.
Furgal was removed by federal officials "for their own purposes, not for the good of our region," she told AFP.
Demonstrators converged in front of the regional administrative building on Lenin square shouting "Freedom" and "Putin resign".
Police wearing masks allowed the demonstrations to go ahead despite a ban on public gatherings as part of measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
'Nothing in return'
The protests that erupted in response to the shock arrest of Furgal over murders that happened 15 years ago are increasingly becoming an outlet to vent frustration with the Kremlin.
"The centre is sucking resources from the Far East," said demonstrator Alexander Gogolev, 45, who voiced anger that the region receives "nothing in return".
Estimates of the turnout varied greatly, with Khabarovsk officials saying that 6,500 people attended. Pro-opposition social media channels placed the number much higher at around 90,000.
Authorities say at least 10,000 people took part in previous demonstrations on July 11 and July 18, though some local media and opposition figures put the figure at 35,000 to 50,000 people or more.
Journalists reporting from the town seven time zones east of Moscow said Saturday's rally was the largest since the demonstrations began this month.
On Monday, Putin officially fired Furgal, 50, and appointed a lawmaker from the same nationalist LDPR party, Mikhail Degtyarev, as his acting replacement.
The move was met with by anger from Khabarovsk residents who said the 39-year-old outsider lacked experience and had no connection to the region.
In a video posted to Instagram this week, Degtyarev dismissed calls for him to step down and said the mass demonstrations did not reflect broader public opinion.
'Nutrient for troublemakers'
Ahead of the demonstrations on Friday he suggested that foreign citizens had flown from Moscow to Khabarovsk to help organise the protests.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed claims of foreign interference but said the protests were a "nutrient ... for troublemakers" and "pseudo-opposition" activists.
Opposition leader and one-time presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny has thrown his weight behind the protesters and this week said the demonstrations could only win concessions "with the support of the entire country".
Furgal's detention ahead of a trial in September sparked an an outcry from his nationalist LDPR party whose firebrand leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky this week vowed to secure a presidential pardon if he is found guilty of the charges.
Russia's Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Furgal was charged with ordering the murders and attempted murders of several businessmen in 2004 and 2005.
Critics say the case is politically motivated after Furgal was elected with a large majority in 2018 in an embarrassing defeat for a candidate of the ruling party backed by Putin.
They have demanded that Furgal face the charges in Khabarovsk and question why investigators waited so long to accuse an official who should have undergone background checks.