MOSCOW — Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, Russia’s septuagenarian nationalist firebrand, long functioned as a safety valve for public discontent, corralling protest votes but then supporting President Vladimir V. Putin at key junctures.
Now, he says, the Kremlin treats his party “like idiots.”
“Go out on the field and play,” he says his party is told, “but don’t score any goals.”
Outrage over last week’s arrest of Sergei I. Furgal, a popular governor and a member of Mr. Zhirinovsky’s party, has jolted the Kremlin’s carefully calibrated system of make-believe opposition politics. Street protests in support of the governor continued for a fourth straight day in the Khabarovsk region on Russia’s Pacific coast, the latest sign that Mr. Putin faces a domestic political landscape growing ever more volatile.
“Society is becoming uncontrollable,” said Yury Korgunyuk, a political scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The old instruments don’t work anymore.”
Among the Kremlin’s longstanding instruments for channeling discontent are “systemic opposition” parties, the most prominent of which are the Communists and Mr. Zhirinovsky’s nationalists. But the popular anger in Khabarovsk over Mr. Furgal’s arrest threatens to jump the guardrails of the Kremlin’s curated multiparty system.
The Communists and nationalists criticize Mr. Putin on occasion, then lose to him in landslides in presidential elections — Mr. Zhirinovsky, personally, three times. Things play out similarly on the regional level, where Communist and nationalist candidates often split the opposition vote and deliver victory to the ruling United Russia party.
That was supposed to be Mr. Furgal’s role as well when the former scrap metal trader ran for governor of the sprawling Khabarovsk region in 2018. But in a shock to Moscow, he rode a wave of anti-elite sentiment and won in 2018, setting off immediate speculation over how and when the Kremlin would co-opt or remove him.
It finally happened last Thursday, when a squad of camouflaged security forces pulled him out of the back seat of a Lexus S.U.V. and put him on an eight-hour commercial flight to Moscow. He was accused of involvement in multiple murders in the early 2000s.
Disgruntled Khabarovsk residents saw the arrest as a transparent attempt to rob them of their democratic choice, and they rallied by the tens of thousands on Saturday, the biggest protests that the region had seen since the early 1990s.
“He was the only governor who, after many years, started to bring the region up from its knees,” Olesya Usoltseva-Zimina, a 41-year-old census specialist who plans to demonstrate for Mr. Furgal again this coming Saturday, said by phone from Khabarovsk. “He clearly wasn’t acceptable to the Kremlin.”
In a leaked recording of a phone call last year, Mr. Putin’s representative to Russia’s Far East could be heard complaining to Mr. Furgal that the governor’s approval rating in his region was rising while the president’s was falling. Mr. Furgal’s supporters say the last straw came earlier this month, when Khabarovsk recorded only 44 percent turnout in the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that allow Mr. Putin to serve until 2036.
“I think many people would allow that he may have been involved in some not-so-honest things,” another protester, Sergei Mamayev, a 33-year-old event organizer, said of the governor. “But despite all this, we want our choice to be respected.”
The outpouring of anger has put Mr. Zhirinovsky in a bind: stirring the pot too much would irk Mr. Putin and threaten the financial spoils of his political perch. So far he has split the difference: He delivered a rousing defense of Mr. Furgal in Parliament, accusing Mr. Putin of creeping, Stalin-like repressions; but he also warned supporters that participating in unsanctioned street protests would have “only negative consequences.”
“It’s a situation in which he can’t not be in the opposition, but being in the opposition is dangerous,” Mr. Korgunyuk, the political scientist, said. “Zhirinovsky sees his party first and foremost as a business, so it is hard for him to break with the authorities.”
The risk for Mr. Zhirinovsky and for the Kremlin is that discontent over Mr. Furgal’s arrest could benefit more uncompromising opposition politicians, such as Aleksei A. Navalny. Mr. Navalny’s populist, at times nationalist, message taps into a similar vein of public discontent as Mr. Zhirinovsky’s. His branch office in the city of Khabarovsk has been a driving force behind smaller-scale street protests that have continued there this week.
“They should be tougher in pushing for their interests,” Ms. Usoltseva-Zimina said of Mr. Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party. “He needs to somehow take his work as a political leader more seriously.”
Mr. Zhirinovsky, in an interview Tuesday with The New York Times, acknowledged that he could lose support. He said that after Mr. Furgal took office, Mr. Putin’s administration had tried to get the new governor to quit Mr. Zhirinovsky’s party.
“This is horrific,” Mr. Zhirinovsky said. “Who will root for a team that always loses?”
Mr. Zhirinovsky — known for racist and misogynist outbursts and calls for Russia to occupy foreign territory — has been a fixture in the country’s politics since the early 1990s. He backed Mr. Putin’s recent constitutional amendments and has dropped hints that Mr. Putin could become Russia’s leader for life.
But in the interview Tuesday, Mr. Zhirinovsky signaled he was prepared to embrace Russians’ fatigue with their president, whose current term ends in 2024. Analysts say that the pandemic helped drive Mr. Putin’s approval rating to a 20-year low of 59 percent this spring.
“There will definitely be a new president — either in 2024, or maybe earlier, or in 2028 or in 2030,” Mr. Zhirinovsky said. “Khabarovsk showed that one can’t do anything by force today, that one can’t falsify elections today.”
Russia’s managed multiparty system has worked for the Kremlin because it splinters the anti-Putin vote. But the protests in Khabarovsk show the potential for discontent to unite disparate groups.
Saturday’s rally drew longtime Putin critics like Vitaly Blazhevich, 56, who teaches Russian at a university across the border in China and says he finds Mr. Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric “absolutely unacceptable.”
“Furgal is, of course, no Václav Havel,” Mr. Blazhevich said, referring to the Czech dissident and anti-Communist leader. “But where will we get a Václav Havel? If the people chant, ‘Putin resign!’ then I’m with my people.”
Oleg Matsnev contributed research.