Khodorkovsky: The future of Russia — and its opposition

June 5, 2023

It’s important for Western countries to recognize that the broad-based Russian opposition is a crucial ally in the confrontation with the Putin regime.

Photo © Kirill Kudryavtsev

At the initiative of Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius and others, a two-day conference will take place in the European Parliament in Brussels this week, with the participation of over 200 representatives from Russia’s anti-war and opposition groups, journalists, prominent cultural figures, as well as European politicians.

There are just two topics for discussion on the agenda: the future of Russia and the future strategy of the Russian opposition.

Previous experience, both in Russia and elsewhere, has long shown that personality-based regimes — such as the one in Moscow today — can often implode without warning, unable to withstand the stresses caused by a failed war. And at that critical moment, the country’s future depends, in large part, on who picks up the reins of power — and how.

Interestingly, the present situation in Russia is developing in such a way that at this moment, the West can have a significant — albeit not definitive — voice in this transition, since large segments of the Russian elite have an interest in the repeal of Western sanctions, imposed in response to President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

This gathering in Brussels is by no means the first coordinated action by the Russian opposition, however. The Free Russia Forum, organized by Garry Kasparov, has been meeting regularly in Vilnius since 2016; Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs organizes an annual conference with the Russian opposition; and a very productive meeting, including several of the largest European parliamentary parties, recently took place between the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Russian opposition as well.

Additionally, in preparation for the Brussels conference, around 70 anti-war and opposition groups met in Berlin in April to agree on a common declaration, which has now been signed by 30,000 Russians.

This common position is that the war is criminal, that the regime that unleashed it is illegitimate and must be removed from power, that Ukraine’s sovereignty within its 1991 borders must be restored and war criminals punished, that the victims of the aggression must be compensated and that all political prisoners and prisoners of war must be released.

We also believe that a future Russian leadership must abandon imperialism, both internally and externally.

Some of the discussions in coming to this position were not easy to have. For example, the issue of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea is contentious for many Russians. And matters of compensation and tribunals will require serious work not only with the pro-Putin part of Russia’s population, but even with some of those opposed to the war.

Lest we forget, signing such a declaration is also regarded as a crime by the Kremlin. And the prison terms prescribed are brutal, ranging from 10 to 20 years.

Meanwhile, there’s a part of the human rights community that’s uncomfortable with violent methods of struggle against the regime. Whereas others — and I count myself among them — believe that peaceful regime change in Russia is impossible.

Despite these differences, in our discussions, we also agreed that a unification of the opposition under a single leadership, or gathered into a single party, isn’t needed. This would be a catastrophic mistake, as it would lay the foundations for the restoration of authoritarianism after Putin’s fall.

However, I am convinced that we need to coordinate our actions on key, broad questions that concern us all, and to this end, a whole series of working groups and large-scale joint projects have already been created to provide assistance to Ukraine and Russian refugees, and they are operational. At the same time, some anti-war groups have joined forces to train those ready and committed to return to Russia on the “first flight back” after the fall of the regime.

Thus, we are already gaining experience in working as a coalition, which will serve as a good foundation for building a new, democratic model for the country, with separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.

And today, we all agree that our joint focus should be on three areas: the coordination of anti-war initiatives and humanitarian aid for Ukraine; media support for anti-war activism and counterpropaganda; and help for Russian citizens whose interests are no longer represented by Putin’s criminal regime.

I, for one, have my own ideas of what the future Russia should look like and the preferred paths to transition — the abridged version of my manifesto on this, entitled “How to Slay a Dragon,” has been translated into several European languages. And for me, personally, the key goal of this upcoming meeting in Brussels is to agree, as a coalition, on how to represent the interests of those who have cut their ties with the regime, and how best to help them in practical terms.

Besides that, the conference will also give us an important opportunity to remind European politicians of our stance:

For us, reaching a negotiated agreement with Putin about medium- or long-term issues is out of the question. Merely replacing Putin with another individual with yet another name — without a transition to a parliamentary model of governance with free and fair elections — will change nothing. And a coalition model of transition offers a real possibility of democratization, while a transition through a single revolutionary party guarantees authoritarianism.

What’s more, we believe that the break-up of Russia would be dangerous, not only for Russians but also for the West; that communication with Russian society is no less important than sanctions; and that even though the Kremlin’s unlawful influence on political processes in Western countries has diminished greatly over the past 15 months, it remains significant — and could become stronger.

All in all, it’s important for Western countries to recognize that the broad-based Russian opposition is a crucial ally in the West’s confrontation with the Putin regime — which is fast becoming increasingly fascist.

The article was first published in the Politico Europe