Ending the regime of President Vladimir Putin and the war he started in Ukraine is one of the few things that the Russian opposition can agree on. Debates about what Russia should look like after the fall of the regime or who should become its leader, but Putin’s opponents in exile are fragmenting into small groups. The earlier disputes have deepened even more against the background of the war, and although there are some efforts at unification, the most important faces of the opposition refuse to meet at all.
Russian politician Maxim Kac, who is facing prosecution in his native country for spreading “disinformation” about the war, recently called for a meeting of the Russian opposition. According to him, the loud faces of the opposition should sit at the same table – Mikhail Khodorkovsky and representatives of Alexei Navalny’s fund. However, supporters of the imprisoned politician reject such actions and ended up arguing with Kace via social networks.
It’s not surprising. Navalny’s fund has long refused to cooperate with other subjects of the Russian opposition. Khodorkovsky, on the other hand, blames the group around Navalny for efforts to concentrate power.
According to analyst Pavel Havlíček from the Association for International Issues (AMO), disagreements between representatives of the Russian opposition will not be resolved so easily. It originates from different ideological opinions – from debates on how to bring about regime change, whether it should be by armed means or democratic means.
Oil oligarch and anti-corruption activists
Khodorkovsky, once the richest Russian, spent ten years in prison, where he lost a significant part of his wealth. Even so, this oligarch, who built his empire on the oil industry, has enough resources to finance opposition activities from exile, from independent media to opposition congresses.
The founder of the opposition platform Open Russia lives abroad. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Khodorkovsky has been trying to share his ideas on an international level, talking to politicians from all over the world about the return of democracy to Russia and the overthrow of the regime. He also founded the Russian Anti-War Committee, a group of exiled opposition leaders, which also includes former chess grandmaster and opposition politician Garry Kasparov, who has lived in the United States for a long time.
According to an analysis by The Foreign Policy magazine, Khodorkovsky’s group is urging Western governments to recognize “opposition institutions” as legitimate representatives of Russian society, as this will help it compete with other groups that support the war in Ukraine. Russian opposition groups do not have significant international support, unlike, for example, the Belarusian opposition led by Svyatlana Cichanovská. Their fragmentation also contributes to this.
Mainly supporters of the jailed anti-corruption activist Navalny, apparently Russia’s most popular opposition leader, operate independently.
He began speaking out more forcefully against the regime after the presidential election in 2011, when he protested the way in which Putin was then re-elected as head of state. Since then, a well-organized group with staffs in the regions has formed around Navalny. After the organization was banned in Russia, many of its followers moved into exile, from where they continue their activities.
The Kremlin opposes Navalny’s activities
Read a profile of a Russian opposition leader who was probably poisoned with Novichok because of his activities.
Already last June, the Russian court identified as extremist funds and staffs associated with Navalny, which it also banned. Navalny’s allies and this year also an opposition politician were added to the list of terrorists.
According to analyst Pavel Havlíček, this is an opposition group that is closest to Russian citizens thanks to their support throughout the country.
However, Khodorkovsky and Navalny’s supporters remain only the tip of the iceberg. Other movements that oppose the Putin regime defend, for example, the rights of women, LGBT+ people and other minorities. Their backgrounds are also different, while both Khodorkovsky and Navalny’s supporters have significant financial resources, some organizations rely only on sponsorship donations.
What will happen after the war?
Attempts to meet representatives of the opposition, which is scattered all over Europe – from Riga and Vilnius to Warsaw, Berlin and London – have already taken place several times. But always without a significant result.
“It is a very heterogeneous group of different, rather complex personalities, which is difficult to put together,” describes Havlíček. “However, the efforts are still continuing, or rather these groups are coordinating in some way and there is an effort to proceed in harmony at least in some basic matters,” adds the analyst.
Almost a year ago, 50 representatives of the Russian opposition met in Jablonna Palace near Warsaw, but Khodorovsky and members of Alexei Navalny’s team did not attend the meeting. The conference, where positions of various directions were presented, from the writing of a new constitution to the planning of assassinations, only pointed to the fragmentation of the opposition.
“It’s like always. The Russians in exile were never able to form an opposition force. There are internal struggles, mistrust and a lack of a clear agenda,” described Andrey Soldatov, a journalist who covers extensively the inner workings of Russia’s FSB security service.
The European Parliament also provided a platform for the meeting of Russian opposition forces in June. Even though the MPs involved hoped that they would succeed in unifying their votes, even in this case the split was evident. Navalny’s supporters refused to participate in the event in parliament.
According to Havlíček, self-centeredness also plays a certain role in disagreements.
“In some circles, it is really felt that they want to maintain the glory of their representatives, which may have already passed. They want to continue to be the visible figures and need some credit. There is definitely a share of egoism and incompatibility with others or lack of interest,” he explains.
So far, the most significant success in uniting the Russian opposition abroad is represented by the May conference in Berlin convened by Khodorkovsky, at which part of it agreed on a common position on the war in Ukraine.
Among other things, the declaration describes Putin’s war as criminal, demands the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from all occupied territories of Ukraine and the bringing of war criminals to justice. Even so, it’s still just words, with which it is difficult to win over the Russian population.
“There are certain commitments as to what the common procedure could look like, and there is coordination based on values and, for example, a joint procedure after the fall of the regime, but in many other matters, coordination motives are really at the beginning,” Havlíček commented on the conclusions.
What is the Russian opposition up against?
At home, the Russian opposition encounters little support. Although, for example, Karz refers to the increasing animosity towards the war – this is evidenced, for example, by research by the Russian independent sociological agency Levada Center, according to which in August the share of Russians who unreservedly support the war in Ukraine dropped below 40 percent for the first time – this does not mean support for the opposition groups.
“The longer those groups from Russia are away from the movement itself inside the country, the worse it is to maintain legitimacy and also contacts with ordinary Russians and have an impact within Russian society,” says Havlíček.
However, critical voices inside Russia remain muted. The protests, which represented hope in the early days of the war, were violently suppressed. The activities of independent media and opposition organizations were silenced by the Russian authorities, many of them disbanded or moved abroad.
Opposition politicians who refused to go into exile are now behind bars. Alexei Navalny since 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recovering from Novichok poisoning in Germany. Apart from him, there are also, for example, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who returned to Russia from the United States after the start of the invasion, and Ilya Yashin, a stalwart of Russian opposition politics, who promised to stay in Moscow.
In addition, the Russian intelligentsia living in exile straddles two fronts. In addition to support at home, they also seek support from abroad. But those are different audiences.
However, according to Havlíček, the initiatives on the ground of the European Parliament and other projects prove that the groups manage to gain the support of the West to a certain extent. “The joint approach of the Russian democrats makes a lot of sense from the external point of view, perhaps even more than from the domestic point of view,” the analyst adds.
However, Western states have different attitudes towards supporting the opposition. While there is not much of it from the Czech Republic, according to Havlíček, the United States or even Germany show it strongly. “They provide the opposition with facilities and support because they think it’s a good investment to support these people so that they can somehow continue to engage in communication with Russian society and convincing ordinary Russians that they should not support the war and that they should see the reality as it is it is, not as it is served to them by Russian propaganda on television,” concluded the analyst.