Can the Russian Opposition Foment Regime Change?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 75
The Kremlin continues to experience failures on the frontlines in Ukraine at a time when conflicts between various private military companies and the regular Russian army are turning sharper and more public. The founder of the so-called Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, recently recorded an emotional, uncensored video directed at the Russian military leadership demanding supplies for his forces. Prigozhin even threatened to retire his group from the Bakhmut front on May 10 if his demands are not met (ВВС Russian Service, May 5). And only after the intervention of Ramzan Kadyrov did he decide to stay (Gazeta.ru, May 7).
In the meantime, representatives of the Russian opposition have been discussing unification, though not in the sense of creating a single party prepared to participate in elections. Rather opposition groups seek to develop a united approach on what a post-Putin Russia would look like and how it might be possible to foment regime change following his departure or death. In Berlin, at the end of April 2023, a human rights conference was convened in the name of the late Russian attorney Yuri Schmidt and included the participation of diverse representatives of the Russian political diaspora from various countries (Shmidtconference.org, accessed May 9). At the conclusion of the conference, a declaration of the Russian democratic forces was signed proclaiming inter alia the creation of a free, legal and federated Russia. Participants also noted the criminal character of the Putin regime and its war, as well as Ukraine’s undisputed territorial integrity (Change.org, April 30).
The conference’s organizer, former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, repeatedly voiced the principles he favors for the opposition’s unification. Khodorkovsky is convinced that, even if some “revolutionary party” takes power after Putin, its leadership would be authoritarian regardless of the party’s ideology. This is conditioned by the fact that such a party in and of itself would have an authoritarian structure, and under conditions of struggle and political turbulence, it would not change (YouTube, May 3). Moreover, to hold onto centralized power, any Russian leader needs a clearly defined external enemy (Schwingen.net, November 4, 2022).
In connection with this inevitable outcome, Khodorkovsky and his allies envision the transformation of Russia into a parliamentary republic with a strong federalized structure. This is the kind of transformation, they say, that the coalition of democratic forces should seek from Putin’s possible successors; and without such a transformation, participation in elections organized by the current Kremlin regime does not make sense (YouTube, May 3). Thus, participants in the Berlin conference see the primary task of the Russian opposition during any transitory period not as a struggle for power but rather as taking advantage of the split in the Russian elites and being ready to negotiate even with people “on the other side of the barricades” (Poligonmedia.io, April 2).
Furthermore, Khodorkovsky emphasized that, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, a peaceful transfer of power in Russia has been impossible, and therefore, the only real means to influence the situation is by force or the threat of force (Forum Daily, May 5). One main source of this, according to the former political prisoner, lies in Russia’s regions, which he believes must become the basis for a new, better federalized government (Meduza, October 31, 2022). In terms of the regions’ role in a post-Putin Russia, Khodorkovsky admitted that 15, 20 or even 25 united regions would participate in the “re-establishment” of Russia (Forum Daily, February 22).
This plan may be the most realistic of all previously proposed plans by the opposition, though its authors emphasize that the “window of opportunity” after Putin’s departure will be small and the united opposition will have to confront radical patriotic groups that also rely on force (YouTube, May 3). Another problem is the Kremlin’s purposeful policy to destroy the national and regional elites. For example, the former governor in Sverdlovsk region, Eduard Rossel, who was in office from the early 1990s through 2009, advocated for the creation of a Ural Republic. Rossel said that his goal was not the sovereignty of the Sverdlovsk region, but rather its economic and legal independence (Kommersant, July 1, 2020).
Yet, the republic was not officially recognized, and, after 2014, its proponents were accused of “working for the CIA” and hoping for the break-up of Russia (Cont.ws, February 24, 2015). Since 2009, the oblast’s governors have not been representatives from the local elite, but rather authorities from other regions. One of the last remaining popular Ural politicians, Yevgeny Roizman, is currently under investigation for allegedly “discrediting the army” (RBC, April 26). Similar situations can be observed in other oblasts as well.
Yet, practice has shown that even authorities sent from other regions do, in time, begin to stand up for local interests. For example, last year, the current governor of Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, openly clashed with notorious Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov (see EDM, June 7, 2022). Thus, it is clear that the formation of regional elites is possible even under the “Putin vertical.”
Another problem may be the impossibility of defining the true motives of today’s Russian elites (federal or regional), who might express the wish to reach an agreement with the opposition. The intelligence services of various countries regularly report on attempts by the Kremlin to penetrate opposition movements (Delfi.lt, March 9, 2022). Along with this, Russian intelligence sometimes works under a false flag of “systemic liberals.” Logically, when some intra-elite groups find themselves in a difficult situation, they will have to negotiate rather than resort to “spy games.” However, the likelihood of such games and possible cheating cannot be ruled out.
A third problem is the fact that several opposition groups do not desire such a coalition, preferring to act as a “revolutionary party.” In particular, oppositionist Ilya Krasilshchik, in an article titled “Why I am a Navalny Supporter,” wrote that the Anti-Corruption Foundation is the only “opposition force with real support,” and, as such, everyone should rally around it and nothing else (Twitter.com/Ikrasil). Of all these, this problem directly depends on the Russian opposition. The sooner the anti-war forces find a compromise in terms of the desired image for a future Russia, the greater the chance that they will be able to effectively influence the situation in post-Putin Russia.