MOSCOW — After leaving Russia’s regional leaders to take much of the responsibility and heat for battling the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin has sent a blunt message to recently empowered local elites: Don’t even think about challenging the will of President Vladimir V. Putin.
In an emphatic blow against a regional leader long viewed as disloyal, masked security officers in camouflage uniforms on Thursday arrested the governor of Khabarovsk Krai, a remote territory in the Russian Far East. The Kremlin has fired or forced sitting governors to resign in the past but rarely had them arrested.
The Khabarovsk governor, Sergei I. Furgal, who took office in 2018 after defeating a Kremlin-endorsed candidate, was pulled from his vehicle and bundled into a van near his home in Khabarovsk city on suspicion of involvement in multiple murders in the early 2000s while working in business, investigators said.
“The very fact that they could not find anything more fresh to accuse him of is a clear signal that this is an act of political repression,” Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst who studies regional politics, said in a telephone interview “They are telling local elites that if they can arrest a sitting governor for crimes going back 15 or 20 years then they can arrest anyone.”
Like many Russian politicians, particularly in far-flung provinces, Mr. Furgal, a former timber and scrap metal trader who entered politics as a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, has a murky past that may have included criminal activity. But he has held elected positions in local and national legislatures for years without investigators showing any interest in his supposed propensity for murder.
Mr. Furgal, who was flown to Moscow immediately after his arrest in Khabarovsk, appeared in court in the Russian capital on Friday and pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder. He was remanded in custody until Sept. 9.
Fear of having crimes, both real and fabricated, from the past suddenly revived by the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., and other arms of Russia’s vast law-enforcement system has helped glue Russia’s political elite together for years. The decision to investigate Mr. Furgal’s putative crimes after so many years suggests the Kremlin is anxious that elite obedience could be fraying.
His sudden arrest on Thursday, analysts say, signals an effort by the Kremlin to claw back some of the autonomy granted to provincial leaders in the early stage of Russia’s coronavirus crisis. Eager to avoid blame for unpopular lockdown decisions, Mr. Putin retreated to his country residence outside Moscow and largely left governors to decide how to respond.
But opinion polls suggest that this strategy backfired politically, increasing public trust in provincial leaders while eroding confidence in Mr. Putin, who lost his aura as a can-do man of action.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech writer for Mr. Putin, said that the take-down of Khabarovsk’s governor was a message to provincial officials across the country: “Do not try to imagine that the ‘coronavirus federalization’ is serious.” Now that the battle against the virus has been declared won by Mr. Putin, Mr. Glayamov said, in a post on Facebook “all power that was transferred during the epidemic must now be brought back intact.”
The arrest opened a new front in a rolling crackdown undertaken after a recent national plebiscite that gave Mr. Putin the option of ignoring previous constitutional term limits, which would have forced him to step down in 2024, and staying in power until at least 2036.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a series of constitutional amendments scripted by the Kremlin, which declared the outcome a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Mr. Putin.
But the exercise was so transparently rigged from the start that it left the president, whose approval rating has slumped to its lowest level since he took power 20 years ago, looking more reliant than ever on cheerleading by state media, dirty tricks and subterfuge. A respected electoral researcher estimated that more than 20 million votes, more than a quarter of those cast, had been falsified.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the far-right party of which Mr. Furgal is a member, protested the governor’s arrest, threatening that his supporters in the national parliament might resign. “We gave you the constitution, and you’re putting us in handcuffs,” Mr. Zhirinovsky said in a warning to the Kremlin, which he usually supports.
While not mentioning Mr. Putin by name, Mr. Zhirinovsky took aim at the president, saying: “Shameless! You are sitting in high office and start acting like Stalin!”
Tass news agency reported on Friday that security officers had raided the homes of five members of Mr. Zhirinosky’ party in Khabarovsk in connection with the murder investigation into the arrested governor.
In the days since voting on the amended constitution ended on July 1, the F.S.B. has spearheaded a series of moves to stifle criticism of Mr. Putin and the security services that anchor his rule.
On Monday, a court in western Russia convicted a freelance reporter on terrorism-related charges initiated by the F.S.B. that even the Kremlin’s own human rights council had — before being purged of independent-minded members — dismissed as unwarranted.
A day later, the F.S.B. arrested a highly regarded former journalist who had worked in recent months for the Russian space agency, accusing him of treason for passing secrets to an unnamed NATO country. A small protest outside the F.S.B. headquarters was quickly broken up by the police.
On Thursday, security officers searched the homes in Moscow and elsewhere of opposition activists involved with Open Russia, a group highly critical of the Kremlin. Also raided were the home of the editor-in-chief of an independent online publication and the residences of independent politicians who have tried to challenge Kremlin candidates in local elections.
The Kremlin has grown increasingly uneasy about its ability to control the outcome of local polls since gubernatorial elections in 2018, when Mr. Furgal, the governor arrested on Thursday, and candidates in a few other regions defeated Kremlin-endorsed rivals.
Voters in Mr. Frugal’s region, Khabarovsk Krai, which shares a border with China, last week endorsed Mr. Putin’s constitutional changes, but by smaller margin than elsewhere. Sixty two percent voted “yes” in Khabarovsk, compared with a national tally of 78 percent in favor.
More damaging for Mr. Furgal’s standing in the Kremlin, however, was probably the fact the turnout in his region was only 42 percent. Governors are expected to mobilize at least a majority of voters to the polls to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and keep their jobs.
The state-controlled news agency Tass blamed Mr. Frugal’s troubles on his performance as governor, quoting analysts as saying that he had failed to deliver on promises of an economic revival for Khabarovsk. By that standard, however, Mr. Putin and virtually every elected official in Russia should have been arrested or at least lost his job long ago.
Kostantin Kalachev, a political analyst who used to work for the ruling United Russia party, said Mr. Frugal’s arrest so many years after his purported crimes was “an unequivocal signal” to all candidates in upcoming gubernatorial elections in September who are not backed by the Kremlin: “If there is the slightest chance of success do not even try.”
Victory, Mr. Kalachev wrote in a commentary on Facebook, will ensure “your life will not be all milk and honey.”
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.