19.10.23 Discussion

Second Chance Opposition: Can the Russian opposition community abroad influence what is happening in Russia?

Alexander Morozov
Professor of Charles University, Prague
Alexander Morozov

In the wake of the war, much of Russia's civil society infrastructure, opposition movements, and independent journalism has been displaced beyond Russia's borders. This massive 'opposition rhizome' not only left the country but also swiftly and vigorously resumed its activities. However, over the past year and a half, this community has failed to create significant political representation for itself – political structures that would be capable of declaring themselves as the opposition and an alternative to the current course of the Kremlin. What does the Russian opposition community represent today? What is happening to it? What factors define its strengths and weaknesses? What might its future look like, and when and how might this community be able to exert influence on events in Russia?

This article by Alexander Morozov delves into these questions, continuing Re:Russia’s series devoted to the challenges and prospects of the Russian opposition in exile. The first contribution to this discussion series was Mikhail Turchenko’s analysis of the experience of 'oppositions in exile'.

The End of Transition and the 'Second Chance' Dilemma 

Between 2011 to 2020, for an entire decade, what is commonly referred to as the 'opposition' or, more accurately, the 'civil movement for political reforms and social modernisation,' was represented in Russia by a wide array of political and civic institutions. Only a few of these had regional networks. Over the years, key roles in this civil movement were played by networks such as the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Yabloko party, the All-Russia Civil Front (OGF), Memorial, Open Russia, the Golos movement, municipal deputy movements, and others. Prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this Russian reformist movement fought for increased representation, participated in electoral campaigns (Navalny, municipal deputies), contributed to the development of reform projects (Kudrin, Civil Initiatives Committee), supported educational projects aimed at creating a community of specialists in new social practices, and backed independent media and human rights projects.

This has now all been dismantled. Amendments to the Constitution and the subsequent attack on Ukraine, followed by the war, have completed the transformation of the Russian political regime. All the institutions established in the past 10-15 years have either been forcibly closed, are unable to continue their operations, or have moved abroad and opened offices outside the country.

The war marks the end of Russia's entire post-Soviet transition and puts a full stop at the end of the story of the 'first chance.' The question of a 'second chance for democratisation' is now tied to the end of the war. Since it is currently impossible to predict what form this will take, the idea of a 'second chance' is still just speculation. Contrary to popular opinion and hopes, none of the potential scenarios for ending the war inherently create any good prospects for the reformist civil movement. Whether the war concludes with the establishment of a new demarcation line or the withdrawal of Russian forces to the 1991 borders, both options entail the preservation of Putinism in one form or another. The 'reformists' can only hope to, at best, become minorities attracted for certain technological purposes. In any case, the hypothetical defeat in the war alone is insufficient for this 'second chance'.

Opposition Abroad

What is happening with Russian political emigres, those individuals and groups who have taken a public stance and were forced to leave the country under these circumstances? Today, we can say that as a result of the mass exodus, a gigantic new landscape of various groups has emerged. Within it, six broad categories can be identified, albeit conditionally: the first – 'cultural resistance'; the second – educational and public space projects; the third – human rights environment; the fourth – activist networks; the fifth – political organisations and groups; the sixth – independent media.

Cataloguing all this activity is extremely challenging, but those organising major conferences in Europe are currently striving to represent all of these different directions. In particular, the organisers of the extensive 'Brussels Dialogue' conference (an initiative of the European Parliament in June 2023) relied on roughly this same classification to achieve maximum representation.

Political organisations or groups. To be precise, we should not talk about 'organisations' but rather about 'personal political offices.' There is Khodorkovsky's office (formerly 'Open Russia'), Kasparov's office ('Free Russia Forum'), Navalny's office (Volkov), Zhanna Nemtsova's office, and Natalia Arno's office. Each of these offices has its own cluster of political, cultural, and educational projects. Unlike political groups or organisations, each of these is not a coalition of political figures united by some factional view of the opposition's tasks or Russia's future, but is more of a project office formed around one 'political personality' or a resource centre. And, even if other 'political personalities' are involved in these offices, they play more of a project management role than that of political figures. This gives the 'offices' a structured and efficient character but reduces their immediate political weight.

At the beginning of 2023, these offices – with the exception of Navalny's office – reached an agreement on the coordination of their activities. There are no particular contradictions between them, but neither is there a unifying task of a real struggle for power.

Activist groups. There are several notable networks in this category. These are primarily the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAW), activists from the youth movement 'Vesna' who fled the country, municipal deputies who left Russia (the 'Zemsky movement'), and a network of Russian-speakers living in Europe for a long time that emerged after Navalny's arrest and became part of a broader network of anti-war initiatives. In 2020-2022, a number of steps were taken to ensure that activist groups formed a common horizontal network, allowing them to conduct actions simultaneously in 25-40 countries and coordinate other activities. In particular, the 1st Convention of Civil Initiatives was held in Prague in July 2022, and a forum of anti-war and humanitarian initiatives was held in Berlin in December 2022.

'Public space groups'. The new wave of emigration has led to an explosive growth of platforms, or 'public centres'. Reforum, Auditoria, and the 'Babel' bookstore are quickly becoming networks in different cities; previously existing platforms (PANDA in Berlin, Interbok in Stockholm) are also booming. This category also includes rapidly developing educational projects. Not long ago, it was just the Free University, but now this includes the Montenegrin educational hub (Adriatic College, 'Ark without Borders,' FLAS), Bazaleti.Uni, and personal projects by Armen Zakarian, Ilya Kolmanovsky, and others.

'Cultural resistance'. This largely consists of personal projects. The war has dramatically increased the price of such activities, given that these are the voices of people who have already had a long experience of cooperation with international institutions. Vitaly Mansky, Marina Davydova, Dmitry Glukhovsky, Arthur Solomonov, Boris Grebenshchikov, Mikhail Shishkin, and many others are integrated into the European cultural dialogue. This category also includes concerts by Pussy Riot, festivals and exhibitions by Marat Gelman, and Anton Litvin's activities in Prague.

The human rights movement. Due to repression, almost all human rights groups have left Russia. They continue to interact with the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and national European governments. The Memorial human rights centre, the network of the well-known Russian defender of human rights Lev Ponomarev, Olga Romanova's 'Russia Behind Bars', organisations defending the rights of journalists, LGBTQ+ rights, and others are particularly noticeable during the war and the final transformation of Russia's legal system into a totalitarian one, where any activity related to the struggle for respect for human rights is persecuted.

However, the most significant surge of activity outside Russia comes from the independent media category (the 'free media system'). It is difficult to estimate the number of journalists and media staff who have relocated abroad, those working on both large and small projects. Outside the country, there are Meduza, Dozhd (Rain), The Bell, The Insider, 'Novaya Gazeta Europe’, Holod, Project, Dossier, Important Stories, Layout, Editorship, Zhivoy Gvozd, and others, as well as renowned regional Russian journalistic groups (7×7, Tomsk TV3, the former editorial team of Samara's Echo of Moscow, and others). Beyond the country's borders, there is also a significant group of speakers and commentators with personal YouTube projects with millions of viewers watching their programmes: Alexander Plushev, Maxim Katz, Ekaterina Shulman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Michael Naki, and others. One might say that a vast media system has emerged, producing more and better content than the Russian media that has remained in Russia. Few well-known Russian journalists are left in the country, and those who remain are limited in their ability to speak freely. The Ministry of Justice's list of foreign agents is primarily populated by well-known journalists and media figures.

All six of these areas of emigration activity intersect in various projects, and the boundaries that separate them are somewhat tentative. Although everyone operating in these different categories has their own motivations and objectives, together, they constitute an enormous interactive ecosystem. It is 'politically motivated', but not in the narrow sense; rather it is framed by their shared worldview, that is the rejection of war and Putinism. Representatives of different groups need only to meet at a major conference once or twice a year to subsequently intensively maintain contacts within this vast rhizome.

Opposition in the Absence of Voters 

But can this dynamic network of civic, political, and media projects be called an opposition?

In today’s world, there is a clear distinction between civic networks and their strategies and actual political organisations. Civic networks address social issues, while politicians participate in the formation of governing bodies. These are two different clusters that interact in certain ways. The Russian civic environment faces a significant challenge: civic activists often do not trust political initiatives because they do not understand their purpose. Russian opposition politicians lack access to real elections, making it difficult for them to advocate for civic initiatives. Activists are often sceptical of politicians' attempts to represent them, as these have no legitimate mechanisms.

In 2023, the situation has started to change for the better. Political offices are now acting as frontmen in communications with the European Commission, European Parliament, PACE, and the diplomatic offices of various countries. This brings value to both civic groups and networks and helps build trust. Projects like 'Kovcheg' play an important role by bridging political and civic structures. However, operating within such a narrow field of activity still does not fully transform the 'opposition' into an opposition.

Generally speaking, the part of the Russian 'opposition rhizome' that finds itself outside the country continues to act based on old patterns and strives to maintain connections with people inside Russia. However, these patterns and connections are rapidly disappearing and becoming distorted. FBK has fully transformed into a media conglomerate with an embedded investigative group. Khodorkovsky’s office today is a large group of projects, with a media holding at its centre. There is a simple explanation for this deformation. Unable to fight for power or participate in elections, and amid harsh repression in Russia, politicians can no longer build political machines aimed at organising collective actions among citizens. Instead, they are forced to transform into media entities, and their supporters turn into passive listeners, either because they are outside Russia or because they cannot act within it.

On the other hand, personal live streams by prominent figures, such as Yuri Dud, Katya Gordeeva, Alexander Plyuschev, Maxim Katz, Ekaterina Shulman, have become the most vivid political events within the scorched-earth conditions and imposed silence in Russia. Even Russian-speaking streams by figures like Alexey Arestovich or Dmitry Gordon are gaining attention. The Russian social movement in exile has only one tool left in its hands: the media. However, this too is under threat, as the Moscow authorities have made it clear that they intend to block access to independent content in Russia.

Three Questions for the Opposition in Emigration 

Three questions are often discussed regarding the offices of the Russian political opposition in emigration. The first question is whether the opposition should unite, in other words, create a single political movement.

In Russian debates, the 'Belarusian experience', represented by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her team, is often cited as an example. However, the idea of 'unification' seems rather naive. First, activist groups seek coordination but strongly reject any hierarchies. Second, a platform for interaction between major political offices already exists, this is known as the 'Russian Action Committee’. Third, such unification outside the country would not significantly impact the situation within Russia. Nevertheless, in 2023, a process is underway that could lead to the formation of a 'coalition’, as fervently advocated by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The main apparent goal of such a 'coalition' is to gain stronger leverage in communications with the European Union and national European governments. In April 2023, more than 30,000 people signed the 'Berlin Declaration’, which could potentially serve as the basis for such a 'coalition'. Navalny's office still refuses to participate in such projects, and small activist groups look at them with suspicion, but it is likely that by the end of 2023, a ‘coalition’ in one form or another will have been formed.

The second question is whether the Russian political community outside the country should position itself as the representative of the Russian diaspora. In other words, should it advocate 'for the rights of Russians', becoming an 'alternative to Rossotrudnichestvo' (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation)? Given the war and the severance of all communications between Russia and Europe, there are various constraints that Russian passport holders face in different countries. At the same time, there is a problem of symbolic 'representation' of a significant part of the population that has been expelled from the country. However, there are, as it were, 'two communities' beyond Russia's borders: the community of 'political' emigres and the community of those who settled in Europe not for political reasons. In most countries with a substantial number of Russian citizens, a significant portion of these either hold pro-Kremlin views or adopt a 'not everything is so clear' stance, generally aligning with local Eurosceptics and populists. Therefore, Russian political groups abroad can represent the pro-European and pro-democratic part of the community, but it is unlikely that their primary area of activity would become defending the 'rights of ordinary Russians' (visas, passports, bank accounts, the status of students, etc.). Issues related to the 'restriction of rights' are probably best addressed by European politicians and civic organisations, with the Russian political opposition acting as a secondary participant. In any case, this kind of activity, as mentioned above, does not yet grant them the status of opposition.

The third question concerns the influence of the 'Russian social movement abroad' on domestic Russian audiences. It is clear that each group aims to maintain contact with its supporters in Russia. However, it is now impossible to do this publicly. Whereas three years ago, contacts with a select few political offices outside the country (Khodorkovsky, Kasparov, and others) were considered 'toxic' for those in Russia, now this applies to art activities, educational projects, human rights initiatives, and even, to some extent, academic communications. Any public participation in these activities risks exposing those who remain in the country to various forms of repression.

Transforming the Political

What will happen next with this large social movement? What role can it play, given the increasing communication breakdown between those inside and outside the country?

The actual political part of this social movement is not very large, but it repeatedly faces criticism: where is the strategy? What is the 'image of the political future'? However, this criticism misses the point. Those familiar with modern Russian political history know that Alexei Navalny has a well-thought-out programme, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has written a book ('How to Slay a Dragon') entirely dedicated to this strategy and the questions of transitioning to an imaginary future, it is possible to access plans for potential reforms discussed at the Open Government Foundation (OGF) meetings led by Kudrin, Elena Lukyanova has been involved in a project to update the Constitution, Nikolai Bobrinsky has written an excellent guide on transitional justice, and Sergey Guriev has worked on a package of transition measures, and so on.

It is clear that all of this may be in demand at some point. However, it will only be applicable when a group of reformists 'up top' decides to rely on the grassroots social movement 'below.' If and when such a situation arises, creating a 'second chance for democratisation,' what has already been formulated today will undoubtedly be useful. At the same time, the reformist strategy will be developed not for an imaginary situation but as a real political course for the 'post-Putin coalition' that will emerge as a result of a compromise between some 'resource groups', which by the will of unknown factors will find themselves in a strong position at the moment of transition.

For now, the main agenda is the war. This is a crisis event, a catastrophe. People are looking to public figures who have retained the public's trust for interpretations of what is happening. People do not want to hear discussions about a 'political strategy' for an imaginary future but rather sharp reflections, sometimes even metaphorical and existential ones, that provide the audience with a deeper understanding of what is happening, offer hope, and allow them to align their moral choices with the voices that articulate not a political but more of an existential response to the war, the political catastrophe of a 30-year transition, and their own life stories.

In this sense, the Russian social movement abroad has strong and diverse voices all along its perimeter. These voices are constantly being heard thanks to the popular media that have left Russia. At one end, there are well-recognised writers in Europe and around the world, such as Maria Stepanova, Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Glukhovsky, and at the other end, feminist anti-war resistance activists who offer a very clear vision of the brutality of war and dictatorship. In addition, investigative journalism by outlets like The Insider, Important Stories, and Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) continues successfully. The results of their investigations are highly demanded by global media and international institutions. Moreover, there are prominent figures from the Russian theatre, such as Vyrypaev, Chernyakov, or Krymov.

It is evident that political organisations cannot be held to excessively high standards today. In Russia, open political activity and the free expression of alternatives are no longer possible. Beyond Russia, political organisations can and should exist, serving useful functions. However, like the political organisations of past waves of emigration, they cannot participate in political mobilisation within the country. They can be custodians of ideas, centres of expertise, or civil education, but special 'political' articulation of strategies will only begin when the historical opportunity for a 'second chance' arises.

Destabilisation and chaos, as a result of the war and the failure of government policy, always come suddenly and of their own accord. Overcoming the consequences of this destabilisation can only be done by those whose reflections inspire trust. T Those who retain their credibility and their symbolic capital will be able to play a role in the renewal of Russia and will be in demand when this new historical situation arises.