Just a month after sealing a referendum victory that allows him to remain as Russia's president until 2036, Vladimir Putin is suddenly facing the biggest protests against the government in years. So far, the Kremlin's allowing them to happen.
Residents of the Far East city of Khabarovsk have taken to the streets in daily rallies sparked by the arrest of their popular local governor, Sergey Furgal, with numbers swelling into tens of thousands at weekends. They plan to march again on Saturday amid signs their anger is evolving into broader demands for Putin to step down.
"Nobody spoke about Putin" at first, said Kristina, 35, a manager in Khabarovsk who's taken part in the protests and declined to give her last name. "Now as the demonstrations have grown, it's 'freedom for Furgal and goodbye Putin'. It gets bolder every Saturday."
Still, despite concern in Moscow, the authorities have no plans to crush the demonstrations, said two officials involved in Kremlin efforts to defuse the situation. The use of force against tens of thousands of people could provoke an even bigger political crisis, one of them said.
The Khabarovsk rallies are the largest sustained anti-government demonstrations since 2011-2012 protests in Moscow that ended with a harsh Kremlin crackdown. The challenge to Putin's authority thousands of miles from the capital comes after he claimed overwhelming approval in the July 1 referendum for constitutional changes that give him the right to seek two more six-year terms after his present one expires in 2024.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn't immediately respond to a request to comment. "The situation will calm down" as the new leadership in Khabarovsk gets down to work, he told reporters on a July 29 conference call. "We hope so."
In power since 2000, Putin, 67, has seen his popularity tumble to a record low amid an economic slump sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and a plunge in the price of oil, Russia's main export earner.
With the protests attracting up to 60,000 or more in a city of 600,000, "the authorities can't round up one in ten people," said Natalya Zubarevich, head of regional studies at Moscow's Independent Institute for Social Policy. "People across the country are watching with interest because Khabarovsk is an example of how to stand up for your rights."
The show of defiance has spread to other parts of the Russian Far East including the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, where protesters have declared support for the Khabarovsk marchers.
There's evidence of wider sympathy too. A July 24-25 survey of 1,617 Russians by the independent Levada Center found that 45% viewed the protests favorably and 29% said they were willing to join similar actions in their own regions.