In 2020, the arrest of the governor of Khabarovsk Krai triggered mass protests, which continued for several months and posed a serious challenge to the Kremlin. By analysing the framing of the protests in social media, a new ZOiS Report offers explanations for their longevity and mass character.
One year ago, in July 2020, Sergey Furgal, the then governor of Khabarovsk Krai, was arrested on allegations of organising several killings in 2004 to 2005. His detention sparked large-scale protests in the region in Russia’s Far East. In a new ZOiS Report, sociologist Tatiana Golova examines the framing of these events in Russian social media in order to show how they carried a mass protest that lasted several months. She also investigates how these frames are interrelated with economic and political factors, including the history of protest voting and territorial disparity as one of the major structural elements driving social inequality in Russia.
Social media are a main communication sphere for alternative discourses and oppositional activities in Russia. For this report, the author examined thousands of posts, using Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques and qualitative methods to analyse the framing (interpretation) of the events and to identify clusters of similar texts and main frames supporting mobilisation.
For the initial phase of the Khabarovsk protest, several framings are important:
- Sergey Furgal as “people’s governor” was at the centre of two large groups of texts. While the “our governor” variant was powered by the political victory that his surprise election in 2018 meant for discontented voters, “the good governor” variant emphasises Furgal’s own qualities.
- The Far East identity as the symbolic counterpart to the socioeconomic centre-periphery dimension has been emphasised through framing of Khabarovsk as the “rebellious city” of the “krai of freedom-loving people”.
- Regional identity and the stories of protest voting have been interwoven in the framing of the arrest as “revenge on the protest region”. The main opponents of the region and the protesters are Putin himself, state-loyal mass media and, later, as the analysis of the second selected period shows, the police and the new acting governor.
- The protest practice of “pigeon feeding” is at the heart of the last cluster and stands both for the ironical prevention of digital repression and for actual street action. The mass and serial character of the street actions and the endurance of protesters were relevant for motivational framing from the start and are pointed out again and again by protagonists and observers alike.
“The plurality of interpretations is typical of the mobilisation framing around the Khabarovsk Krai protests and shows the non-strategic character of framing and the networked, leaderless character of mobilisation”, Tatiana Golova explains.
The second period analysed covers events in early October: the attempted protest camp in Lenin Square and its violent dispersal, the first of its kind during this mobilisation. “While the expression of shock and indignation is quite similar to the first period, the framing does not show the plurality of voices and interpretations of the ‘beginnings’ period and is focused mainly on police violence and mass detentions”, Tatiana Golova sums up.