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Protests In Eastern Russian City Test Kremlin

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Seven time zones away from Moscow in Russia's Far East, huge crowds have been protesting the arrest of their governor. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, the surprising demonstrations represent an unexpected challenge to President Vladimir Putin.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: On Monday, President Putin held an urgent video conference with a little-known politician named Mikhail Degtyaryov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "There's a very important job for you," Putin said on state TV. "I want you to run Khabarovsk region."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKHAIL DEGTYARYOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "I'm ready," Degtyaryov said and got straight on a plane for the almost 8-hour flight from Moscow. Khabarovsk Region, which borders China, had been without a leader for more than a week after masked law enforcement officers arrested the popular governor, flew him to Moscow and charged him with organizing contract killings 15 years ago. Another offense may have been that he beat the Kremlin's candidate for governor in a landslide two years ago. Spontaneous protests in support of the governor erupted in the capital, Khabarovsk, bringing tens of thousands of people into the streets. When Putin's appointee arrived, they turned their anger on him.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting in Russian).

KIM: "Degtyaryov, go away," protesters chanted on his first night in Khabarovsk. The new governor responded by streaming his walk to work the next morning on Instagram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEGTYARYOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "I won't leave," he said, "because there's a lot of work to be done as ordered by the president."

ARTYOM MOZGOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Protesters' demands have become more radical, says Artyom Mozgov, a political activist in Khabarovsk - first against meddling by Moscow, then in support of the arrested governor and now against Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting in Russian).

KIM: "Putin resign," demonstrators chanted this week. On Saturday, protests in Khabarovsk will enter their third week.

MOZGOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Even more people will turn out than on the past two weekends," Mozgov says, "and will demand their new leader come out and talk to them." But Putin's governor has already said he has better things to do than meet with those who shout below his window. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.