20.09.23 Expertise

Outside and Inside: What The Experience of Russia’s Exiled Opposition Teaches and Does Not Teach Us

Mikhail Turchenko
Visiting Researcher at Indiana University

Despite the exodus of a significant number of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders from Russia in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, they have not been able to establish institutions that could represent the Russian opposition abroad and serve as a voice for the Russian democratic movement. The Berlin conference and later the conference in Brussels, which discussed the problems and prospects of the Russian opposition, did not yield any noticeable organisational results. This situation appears all the more paradoxical considering the relatively low level of Internet censorship of the Russian-speaking web (Runet) and the relocation of a powerful media pool of publications and bloggers from Russia.

How unique is this situation? What can we learn from the experiences of other opposition diasporas that have left their countries due to internal repression? What can such an exiled opposition achieve and what are its limitations? How are relationships with the supporters and opposition forces that remain within the country constructed? What internal conflicts might they face, and what could be the consequences of these conflicts?

Re:Russia begins a new series dedicated to the issues of the Russian opposition abroad with an overview by Mikhail Turchenko, Visiting Research at Indiana University.

Unlike the military juntas of Argentina and Chile, Ferdinand Marcos' rule in the Philippines, and contemporary dictatorships like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's regime in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad's in Syria, Putin's Russia still has relatively few political prisoners, and the Russian security services have not yet resorted to mass killings or abductions of dissidents. Nevertheless, since the full-scale war in Ukraine began, the Putin regime has been primarily governed by fear rather than propaganda. Non-systemic opposition and independent media have been eradicated within the country, and freedom of speech and assembly have been severely restricted. Independent politicians are either in prison or in exile, unable to return due to the risk of political persecution. But what can the opposition achieve in exile? What challenges, risks, and opportunities do they face?

The Regime vs. The Opposition: Strategies and Transnational Repression

In his book 'The Frontier of Loyalty: Political Exiles in the Age of the Nation State', Professor Yossi Shain of Tel Aviv University outlines the standard strategy employed by dictatorships when dealing with political opponents who have been forced into exile. They aim to demonstrate the disloyalty of these exiles to society and the state. The authorities claim that the opposition's goals directly contradict 'national interests,' that it maintains close ties with foreign governments, or that its activities serve the interests of other nations. The purpose of these actions is to delegitimise the opposition within their homeland, reduce the number of active supporters, and limit their capacity for mobilisation. The advantage of this strategy for dictatorships lies in the fact that the opposition is, in reality, beyond their reach, enjoys the protection of foreign governments, and often has to accept their assistance to sustain their existence. In such circumstances, the opposition's defence strategy typically revolves around denying the legitimacy of the ruling elite.

In addition to delegitimising exiled politicians as actors on the 'domestic' political stage, authoritarian regimes also deliberately stoke divisions along the 'departed versus remaining' lines, driving a wedge between emigrated activists and their potential supporters within the country. For instance, Augusto Pinochet's government referred to the emigration of allies of ousted President Salvador Allende as the 'golden exit' and depicted them as individuals who only dreamed of escaping the country to enjoy life abroad. Labels such as 'defectors' and 'foreign agents' were commonly used in Chilean propaganda. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi labelled his opponents 'agents of America,' 'enemies of the Libyan people,' and the like.

A popular weapon used by dictatorships against political opponents in exile is transnational repression, which involves pressuring their loved ones who remain in the country, confiscating their property, pursuing legal actions in absentia, issuing international arrest warrants, conducting propaganda campaigns, launching cyberattacks, surveillance, infiltration by intelligence agents, denying consular services, revoking citizenship, making threats, abductions, and even assassinations. For example, the Turkish authorities refuse to renew passports for supporters of Fethullah Gülen in the country's diplomatic missions abroad. A recently adopted law in Belarus allows Alexander Lukashenko's regime to strip citizenship from individuals residing abroad who have been convicted in absentia on 'extremist' (read: political) charges. The Chinese authorities use the officially permitted social network WeChat to directly send threats to political activists. Many more examples can be found in reports by Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch.

The primary goal of transnational repression is to undermine the opposition's willingness to challenge the regime. It is designed to create an atmosphere of fear and mutual distrust among activists, which inevitably affects the cohesion of the opposition beyond the country's borders. Dana Moss, in her book on the influence of the 'external' opposition during the 'Arab Spring,' argues that transnational repression was the primary reason why Libyan and Syrian migrants did not seek to interact with each other politically before the 'spring'. For example, one Libyan living in the UK told her, '[We] did everything incognito. When we organised demonstrations, we always wore masks. We didn't show our faces,' referring to the threat from Libyan intelligence services, which in the 1980s and 1990s had repeatedly killed opponents of Muammar Gaddafi on British territory. Another respondent, a Syrian student in London who grew up in a family without a dissident background, admitted that '[Bashar al-Assad's regime] made us fear each other because you don't know who works for him.'

The Opposition vs. The Opposition

Despite the expectation that resistance to dictatorship should unite exiled opposition forces, conflicts over political issues within these groups are not uncommon. In the late 1970s, a conflict escalated between the ‘Union of Democratic Filipinos’ and the 'Friends of the Filipino People', both based in the United States. These organisations united opponents of the Filipino dictator Marcos and the martial law imposed by him in 1972. Some believed that the fight against Marcos should involve protests and other direct action, while others preferred more moderate approaches, such as lobbying for the interests of the Filipino opposition within the United States. This conflict undermined the financial support for both organisations and damaged their reputation.

The political divisions that activists from Libya, Syria, and Yemen brought with them into exile hampered the potential for collective action until the beginning of the 'Arab Spring.' The Libyan opposition was divided on the question of cooperating with Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Two groups crystallised within it: one faction of the opposition was uncompromising and refused to collaborate with the Libyan authorities under any circumstances, while reformists were willing to make compromises with the regime. This divide intensified in the 2000s against the backdrop of attempts by Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam to improve the country's image on the global stage. In turn, the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship was fragmented into several warring factions, including Syrian Kurds, liberals, and activists from the Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen was represented by separatists from the south and northerners who supported a unified state.

In addition to conflicts over political issues, organisational disputes can also divide the exiled opposition. The proliferation of opposition groups, competition among them, and activists promoting their own personal brands at the expense of the collective resistance to the dictatorship are issues that opponents of Syria's Bashar al-Assad faced since the protests began in 2011. The Western Kurdistan Association, the Muslim Brotherhood, and organisations uniting Syrian Arabs could not resolve numerous formal disagreements among themselves, such as which flags to use in protest actions or whether to agree on a common agenda or pursue their own interests, and so on. Organisational conflicts undermined solidarity and mutual trust among the opponents of the Assad regime, led to personal grievances, and hindered unity, as Dana Moss notes.

As research into the online activity of Venezuelan opposition figures who left the country after Nicolas Maduro came to power shows, emigration can alienate them from local issues. Jane Esberg and Alexandra Siegel studied over five million tweets written by 357 Venezuelan dissidents, 94 of whom were in exile. They found that exiled opponents of Maduro pay more attention to lobbying tools in their host countries, urging foreign governments to directly influence Venezuela, and pay less attention to organising campaigns within Venezuela that would address issues important to the Venezuelan population. They also become more radical in their opposition to the regime than before. The reason for this is that, in exile, the opposition internationalises its contacts, faces the need to interact with the audience in host countries, and weakens its connections with the activists who have remained at home.

The Opposition vs. The Regime

In exile, the political opposition enjoys rights and freedoms that they did not have in their home country, as well as relative safety. Utilising these opportunities, they can influence the situation back home in various ways: coordinating activists, maintaining contact with supporters, assisting political prisoners and their families, disseminating information about the regime's crimes, organising protests, and constructing an alternative vision of national identity for their compatriots. The opposition can also find resources for their activities among fellow citizens, such as activists, scholars, human rights defenders, and journalists, who have also left their home country due to their beliefs and are willing to participate in the struggle against the authoritarian regime. Finally, the opposition in exile has ample opportunities to interact with external actors, including host countries, international organisations, and global media.

In 1973, a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and began persecuting supporters of the ousted President Allende. Fleeing repression, about 200,000 people (2% of the population), including many activists, left the country. The Chilean opposition was able to organise in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the United States. By working with the elites of their host countries, Chileans urged them to pay attention to the crimes of the junta and to support the Chilean opposition in its fight against it. In part due to the activity of the Chilean diaspora, the United States pressured the Chilean government to relax its censorship and repression before the 1988 referendum on extending Pinochet's powers and provided material support to the opposition within the country to monitor the voting process. The result of the plebiscite, in which 56% of citizens refused to put their trust in Pinochet, put an end to the military dictatorship. Besides working with foreign governments, the Chilean opposition in exile fought against censorship at home by distributing phone book pages among emigrants so that they could contact Chileans and inform them about the crimes of the Pinochet regime. With the same goal, the opposition sent letters to random addresses.

Filipino activists found themselves in a similar situation after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. Under the pretext of martial law, Marcos destroyed the country’s political opposition and crushed independent media. Arrests, torture, disappearances, and political killings became routine. Many politicians and activists were forced to leave. The vast majority of them moved to the United States. While in the US, the Filipino diaspora laid the groundwork for Washington to persuade the Filipino dictator not to resist the mass protests that erupted after he lost the 1986 presidential elections and to step down from his post. Activists in the United States also published the Philippine Information Bulletin, which informed the American audience of the crimes of the Marcos regime, the resistance to it, and the persecution of the Filipino opposition within the country.

While in exile, the opposition can lay the groundwork for protest mobilisation. After the military coup in Egypt in 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi established, in Guriev-Treisman's terminology, a 'dictatorship of fear' in which terror and repression dominated over propaganda and information manipulation. The military regime crushed the opposition and independent media, thousands of dissenters faced torture or imprisonment, and hundreds were killed. Despite the extremely high level of repression, a recent study has shown that it was the Egyptian opposition that managed to mobilise mass protests against the Sisi dictatorship in September 2019. The campaign against Sisi was launched by Egyptian dissident Mohammed Ali, who was based in Spain, and Egyptians living abroad, primarily in Turkey, Qatar, and the United Kingdom played a key role. Migrants were a key link in disseminating information about the corruption of the Egyptian president to a wide audience within Egypt. The blocking of Internet messenger apps and mass arbitrary arrests, accompanied by beatings, however, allowed Sisi to deal with the discontent.

The Opportunities and Challenges facing the Russian Opposition

The still relatively low level of Runet (Russian Internet) isolation allows the Russian opposition in exile to coordinate its supporters inside the country and disseminate information about the crimes of the Putin regime. For example, supporters of Alexei Navalny announced the opening of 'Navalny Headquarters' in October 2022 'against Putin, war, and mobilisation' to maintain communication with activists inside Russia. The tool developed to coordinate activists within the work of this revamped 'Headquarters' began to be used by the 'Viasna' movement and the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. It is difficult to say how successful this initiative is, as the 'Navalny Team' does not often discuss it publicly. At the same time, the Russian authorities take it seriously, as evidenced by the arrest of two students from HSE University in Moscow who were allegedly collaborating with the 'Headquarters.'

Despite YouTube being the only remaining resource for reaching a broad audience in Russia that has not yet been blocked, the opposition is unlikely to reach Russians who support Putin or the war at the moment. Researchers believe that media consumption in Russia operates on the principle of 'echo chambers' – those loyal to the regime do not follow news or political content that contradicts their beliefs. At the same time, engaging with loyalists is an important task for opponents of the regime. We know from a study conducted a year ago that encountering an anti-war position reduces the optimism of war supporters regarding the prevalence of pro-war views. Information that Putin may not be popular itself lowers his approval ratings. Reaching out to loyalists is the goal of the recent 'Anti-War Agitation Campaign' by the 'Navalny Team.'

For the opposition abroad, it is important to show solidarity with Russians who are against the war and still living in Russia. In a society permeated with fear, where open protest against the regime’s crimes is impossible without the risk of high personal costs, it is important for them to understand that there are political forces on their side, conveying their views and constructing an identity that they would be willing to embrace. A successful example of solidarity between the Russian opposition and independent media with the anti-war movement within the country is the 'You Are Not Alone' marathon in support of political prisoners.

At the same time, it is crucial for the opposition to engage with those who have left Russia and are willing to participate in active political activities abroad. Collaboration with political elites of other countries and international organisations is an important channel for the opposition to lobby for sanctions against the Putin regime and influence decision-making in the interests of their supporters who have left Russia. Interaction with foreign elites will help build a reputation in the West, where financial and advisory assistance will be needed when and if conditions in Russia become conducive to build democracy.

Debates about the future post-Putin institutional structure are likely to be polarising. For example, the Iraqi opposition, pushed out of the country by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, was divided over issues related to the design of political institutions and the distribution of posts, even though they could not influence either at that time. However, it seems that the Russian opposition could collectively and loudly articulate the basic principles of the political system after Putin: respect for political and civil freedoms, the rule of law, pluralism, and decentralisation. The first step in this direction was taken with the adoption of the Declaration of Russian Democratic Forces in Berlin.

All opposition groups should pay more attention to what unites them: opposition to war, experience of repression, and resistance to dictatorship. As Elizabeth Nugent's recent monograph shows, political conflicts generate emotional polarisation, which in turn becomes a barrier to collective action in the present and the future. For example, after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, the Tunisian opposition managed to overcome disagreements and agree on the text of a new constitution. The compromise was facilitated by the fact that both Islamists from the Ennahda Party and representatives of secular parties shared the common experience of the repression they had endured under the previous regime. In contrast, the Egyptian opposition in similar circumstances (President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011) could not reach an agreement. The Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) consistently ignored the interests of secular parties during the drafting of the Constitution. The reason for this was the Islamists' resentment towards their opponents for not having suffered much under Mubarak's regime. As a result, the constitution adopted in December 2012 lacked support outside of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the spring of 2013, protests against President Mohamed Morsi, elected president of Egypt and leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, began and, within two months, led to a military coup that brought General al-Sisi to power.

The activity of the opposition from abroad is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the dynamics of the political regime it opposes by itself. The dictatorships of Pinochet and Marcos enjoyed support for a long time. Both regimes promised 'stability' and initially dealt with internal problems effectively. However, economic crises eventually undermined support for these dictatorships and allowed the opposition to capitalise on the efforts they had made over the years to politicise citizens, assist political prisoners, and engage with the elites and the populations of their host states. Opposition to Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships could not influence political processes in their countries from abroad until the 'Arab Spring' triggered a wave of mass anti-regime demonstrations from Tunisia to Yemen.

Historical examples of authoritarian regimes show that the susceptibility of Russians to alternative information and protest will be higher the more internal problems the Putin dictatorship faces. These could be economic difficulties, military failures, or political crises that we are unable to predict today. If the opposition is given a chance to participate in building a new Russia, it must be prepared and approach this process without internal conflicts that divide its ranks.