‘We aren’t born democrats’ Vladimir Zhirinovsky explains how his party backs an ousted governor elected by the people of Khabarovsk in voting he opposes

With the arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal and the appointment of Mikhail Degtyarev in his place, the two politicians’ political party — LDPR — suddenly finds itself at the center of Russian politics. Over the course of these events, the party’s long-time leader (the only leader it’s ever had), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has reversed his initial hardline opposition to Furgal’s ouster. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to Zhirinovsky about the erstwhile governor’s arrest, whether Furgal really planned to resign beforehand, about Mikhail Degtyarev’s real estate outside Moscow, and why LDPR opposed an initiative by Russia’s ruling political party to spread voting over multiple days before later endorsing the idea.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who founded the right-wing, misleadingly named “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia” (LDPR) in 1992, says his group will run Mikhail Degtyarev in Khabarovsk’s September 2021 gubernatorial election, if he’s still acting governor and if his predecessor, Sergey Furgal, hasn’t beaten multiple homicide charges. 

Mr. Degtyarev has been on the job for less than a month. So far, Zhirinovsky is pleased with his performance. “Leave him be and I’m confident it will all work out for him,” he told Meduza, adding that Degtyarev has operated independently, without turning to the party leadership for guidance on what to do in Khabarovsk. “When you get an outsider, they need to be taught and mentored. An envoy or somebody takes care of them. But our people [in LDPR] hit the ground running!”

Despite Degtyarev’s apparently smooth start, large protests in his region’s capital have continued for weeks. Zhirinovsky says he understands the public’s anger. First, he says, Governor Furgal was arrested quite suddenly, without even rumors circulating that he’d committed any crime. Second, the allegations concern murders committed 15 years ago, which indicates that the police sat on their suspicions for as many years “and needed to make this arrest precisely now.” Finally, Zhirinovsky points to mass unrest abroad, “in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Belgium — heck, all over the world!” saying that coronavirus quarantine measures have enraged people everywhere. 

Zhirinovsky also acknowledges that Russia’s Far East has been “a bit neglected,” recalling an agreement with Beijing in 2005 that transferred more than 65 square miles in island borderlands to China. “And this wasn’t just a part of the region — folks from Khabarovsk had summer homes, gardens, and relatives there,” Zhirinovsky says. “People had lived there for centuries! And then they up and took it from them. So there’s a lot there that’s pent up.”

LDPR has faced obstacles, as well. Zhirinovsky complained to Meduza that television networks like Ren-TV and Rossiya-24 have spent the past two years trashing party members Sergey Furgal and Vladimir Sipyagin (the governors of the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions) for apparently “pissing off the people are the top.” Senior officials in the federal government have also been eager to drag LDPR governors through the mud, the party’s founder says, recalling how Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rushed to blame Sergey Furgal for a fire at a summer camp in 2019 that killed four children.

Though he’s a fixture of political entertainment in Russia, Zhirinovsky rails against TV hosts like Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeyeva, complaining that Russia’s national networks have ignored the demonstrations in Khabarovsk. “In America, in any state, whenever a child trips and bursts into tears, they show it all,” he says. “Khabarovsk has been boiling over for 23 days and [they show] nothing! This neglect irritates people. They don’t like that they’re invisible. Khabarovsk simply doesn’t register. There’s Ukraine and there’s Belarus — they’re in the news constantly — but not Khabarovsk!”

“For two years, they beat up the governor for one simple reason: he was from another party. And people got mad because they’d elected [this person] themselves,” says Zhirinovsky, admitting that voters “maybe didn’t care about his party.” Nevertheless, he adds, the governor won over his constituents while in office, relying on that patented “LDPR style,” regular meetings with the public, and quick policymaking. “He went around without security guards and he didn’t build himself any mansions. He even sold his yacht. Everyone saw that he was thinking first and foremost about the people,” says Zhirinovsky.

In late July 2020, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny released an investigative report about Mikhail Degtyarev (whom he trounced, incidentally, in Moscow’s mayoral election seven years ago). Navalny says Degtyarev’s parents — people of humble means — mysteriously own nearly $1.7 million in real estate outside Moscow. “That man is getting his information somewhere; someone feeds it to him and it’s often low quality,” Zhirinovsky told Meduza when asked about the corruption allegations. He denies that Degtyarev has ever accepted a bribe or broken a law. “I never read Navalny. The man doesn’t interest me. Mikhail is as honest as they come! Even if he has something [registered to his parents], it’s not stolen and it’s not a bribe,” Zhirinovsky added.

Rejecting speculation that Sergey Furgal’s replacement was selected based on some tacit understanding between LDPR and the Kremlin, Zhirinovsky argues that Degtyarev was one of several members held “in reserve,” primed for a top government assignment. He says the party has others waiting in the wings, as well, and some of these politicians have already attended special training seminars organized by the Putin administration.

Though his alleged crimes were committed in the Khabarovsk Territory, Sergey Furgal is being jailed thousands of miles away in Moscow. This puts him in the same city as his party boss, but Vladimir Zhirinovsky has yet to visit the former governor in pretrial detention. He nevertheless says LDPR is sending care packages, trying to visit with teams of public monitors, and offering him new legal counsel. The party has also organized a handful of events to demand better conditions in confinement. (For example, Zhirinovsky complains that Furgal can’t even listen to the radio or watch the independent television channel Dozhd for updates about the protests back home.) When the case finally goes to court, the trial should take place in Khabarovsk, not Moscow, Zhirinovsky says. 

After federal agents arrested Governor Furgal, Zhirinovsky delivered a speech on the floor of the State Duma denouncing the decision, comparing it to Stalinism. Less than three weeks later, Zhirinovsky appears to have reversed his position, claiming that Furgal had actually planned to resign just before he was arrested. He told Meduza that his comments about Furgal’s intentions have been “somewhat misunderstood.” Furgal’s alleged apprehensions concerned the “Amurstal” metalworks factory, which he supposedly expected (correctly, it turns out) to lose to a Moscow businessman named Pavel Balsky, who in turn reportedly planned to sell the company to the Chinese.

“Literally a week or two before [the arrest], he called me up and said, ‘There’s a situation and I don’t know what to do.’ I could tell from his voice that he was afraid to talk over the phone,” Zhirinovsky recalls. If he’d known that an arrest was imminent, the LDPR leader says he would have taken action. “We would have found a way to avoid it. A voluntary resignation for health reasons and a transfer to a new job,” he says. “Furgal knew they were closing in on him, but he couldn’t have known that they were preparing to arrest him. We would have found a way to stop this. It’s been bad for him and bad for the country.”

Zhirinovsky has also faced criticism recently for LDPR’s apparent change of heart about an initiative by Russia’s ruling party to extend election-day voting beyond a single day. He says LDPR still opposes the idea but backed a three-day voting period to prevent the week-long elections United Russia wanted originally. Zhirinovsky is also optimistic that lawmakers can push Russia’s September elections to next spring when fewer people will be away on vacation. He says LDPR has suffered from the low turnout linked to summertime voting and especially from a lack of optical scan voting systems. “Wherever these machines have been installed, the number of people voting for us is twice as high! There are 40 of us in the Duma right now, but there should be 80!” Zhirinovsky told Meduza.

LDPR’s position on gubernatorial elections complicates its support for Sergey Furgal, whom the people of the Khabarovsk Territory elected two years ago. Unlike the thousands of demonstrators now marching for Furgal, Zhirinovsky says the president should appoint governors: “If [voters] elect people [who aren’t part of the Kremlin’s team], how is the president supposed to lead the country?” He also warns that Russia’s Soviet legacy still handicaps citizens. “We aren’t born democrats but we need to be,” says Zhirinovsky, arguing that this hardline mentality is also what dooms opposition candidates who do win gubernatorial elections. 

LDPR’s only governor who hasn’t encountered problems in office is Alexey Ostrovsky, the head of the Smolensk region. “[In the Kremlin,] they don’t touch him because they appointed him themselves. We asked them to give us at least one governorship.” Zhirinovsky says.

Zhirinovsky says the people of Khabarovsk should get elections if they want them, but he has apparently grave concerns about the supposed excesses of direct democracy: “If you only go by what people ask for, you’ll never build a single road, playground, or even parking lot. You won’t be able to build a thing! People want a waterfront view; they want public gardens and ponds. Trees, lindens, chestnuts, and quiet… You won’t be able to have a cat or a dog or a piano, a saxophone, or a trombone. Some people can’t stand the sound of children crying. But this is the wrong approach!”

(C)MEDUZA 2020

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