KHABAROVSK, RUSSIA - Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the streets of Russia's Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk for a third weekend on Saturday to show their anger over the Kremlin's replacement of a popular regional governor.
The sustained demonstrations represent a growing challenge for President Vladimir Putin, who is viewed as having a role in sparking the regional crisis after he fired Sergei Furgal on Monday.
Many called for Putin’s resignation. Others chanted "Disgrace" and denounced the acting governor that Putin appointed in Khabarovsk.
Municipal authorities in Khabarovsk estimated about 6,500 demonstrators took part in the Saturday protest. Local media put the number at up to 20,000 people.
But protest leaders and independent journalists said there were more than 50,000 people demonstrating in Khabarovsk, which would make it the largest anti-government protest there since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protesters in Khabarovsk see criminal charges raised against Furgal before his dismissal as unsubstantiated. They are demanding he stand trial at home instead of Moscow, where he has been transferred.
"People are offended," said Dmitry Kachalin, one of the protesters. "I think people are taking to the streets because their vote in the 2018 election was taken away."
Unlike Moscow, where police quickly disperse unsanctioned opposition protests, Russian authorities have not attempted to break up the unauthorized demonstrations in Khabarovsk -- apparently hoping the rallies will dissipate over time.
But daily protests, peaking at the weekends, have been going on for more than two weeks.
They reflect discontent with Putin's rule as well as anger against what local residents see as Moscow's disrespect of their choice to run the region.
Warnings by local officials about the coronavirus have failed to discourage people from taking to the streets and join the protests.
The protests in Khabarovsk, about 6,100 kilometers and seven time zones east of Moscow, have created headaches for the Kremlin as it tries to prevent unrest over the economic impact of coronavirus restrictions.
Furgal was arrested in Khabarovsk on July 9 and transferred to Moscow. He is charged with attempted murder as well as ordering two murders in 2004-05. He denies the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
Furgal, a member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), was elected as the region’s governor nearly two years ago in an upset victory against the longtime incumbent from Putin's ruling United Russia party.
He was officially dismissed by Putin on Monday and replaced the same day when Putin appointed LDPR member Mikhail Degtyaryov as acting governor.
Degtyaryov has said on Instagram that he is following the protests via surveillance cameras.
He also has used his Instagram account to call on Khabarovsk's residents to maintain social-distancing practices during the rallies and has warned that the authorities could tighten coronavirus restrictions there.
He has said protesters should spend time "properly" with their relatives at their summer houses on the weekend instead of taking to the streets.
He has also charged, without providing evidence, that the ongoing rallies are being organized by unspecified "foreigners," adding that he will not meet with the demonstrators.
On Tuesday, two local lawmakers in Khabarovsk, Pyotr Yemelyanov and Aleksandr Kayan, quit the LDPR in protest against Furgal’s dismissal.
With reporting by Current Time, Reuters, and AFP.