Andrei Sidelnikov has been a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin for years, but he believes he’s finally doing something practical to prepare for the downfall of the Russian President.
Mr. Sidelnikov, who fled Russia in 2007, joined a group of 76 dissidents last week for a four-day gathering in Warsaw to lay the groundwork for a post-Putin Russia.
The group, called the People’s Deputies of Russia, has drafted a new constitution and developed plans to hold elections for a newly formed parliament.
They also want Russia to join NATO and the European Union as soon as possible, and they’ve proposed laws that would return all land seized in Ukraine since 2014 and offer Kyiv compensation for war damage.
They even voted to change the name of their homeland to the Russian Republic from the Russian Federation.
“All of us know that the time when Putin’s regime will fall down could be very soon,” Mr. Sidelnikov said during a break in the proceedings. “And we must prepare for that period and organize laws for the people, to build a new parliament, to build new democratic institutions.”
Mr. Sidelnikov said he’d grown tired of other dissident organizations, including the Vilnius-based Free Russia Forum, which has been a leading voice for exiles opposed to Mr. Putin.
“I went out of this forum because there was only discussion,” he said. “We need to do something because discussions for me, I’m very tired of it. Every time we just talk and do nothing. Now here we are trying to make a parliament.”
The meeting in Warsaw – over a round table surrounded by white-blue-white flags used by the Russian opposition – was the group’s second congress. They plan to hold another session in May to finalize their plans.
The organizers took pains to point out that all the delegates had extensive experience in government and political institutions. Most of them have served in various elected positions; a handful joined online from Russia where they are still sitting councillors. Many kept their cameras off and microphones on mute for security reasons.
Some delegates travelled to the meeting from Russia, including Galina Filchenko, a long-time figure in the opposition movement.
Ms. Filchenko was a councillor from 2017 to 2022 in a regional government that includes central Moscow. Last September she was among 18 municipal politicians from the capital and St. Petersburg who signed an open letter calling on Mr. Putin to resign.
“We, the municipal deputies of Russia, believe that the actions of its president Vladimir Putin are detrimental to Russia’s and its citizens’ future,” the letter said.
It was a remarkable and dangerous public rebuke. In an interview during the congress, Ms. Filchenko said almost everyone who signed the letter had to leave the country “because of the danger to be prosecuted.” She stayed as long as she could but felt compelled to go earlier this year after she was banned from running for office.
Getting out of Russia wasn’t easy. It took her two attempts to cross into Poland from Belarus and she arrived in Warsaw only a few days before the meeting. She plans to remain in Europe for a while, but hopes to return to her family in Russia. When asked how certain she was that Mr. Putin will fall, she said firmly: “Absolutely. There is no doubt.”
It’s far from clear whether the proposals put forward by the People’s Deputies will get much traction. The congress’s work has been largely ignored by other opposition groups, including the backers of high-profile campaigner Alexei Navalny, who has been jailed in Russia.
Even among the 76 delegates there was disagreement about the way forward. Heated discussions broke out over issues such as how to grant citizenship and whether the country should have a president. Some talked about whether Mr. Putin should be killed.
The group’s ties to a military unit called the Free Russia legion have also been controversial and it’s not clear what role it would have in the new political framework.
The legion is made up of Russian volunteers who are fighting alongside the Ukrainian army. The exact number of fighters isn’t known but some estimates have put the figure at around 4,000.
A legion soldier who uses the call name Caesar is a member of the People’s Deputies executive, and he addressed the Warsaw meeting with a call to arms. “Unfortunately, the forms of non-violent struggle against the regime have completely exhausted themselves,” he told the group. “For four months we steadfastly defended Bakhmut and its environs. And what did the Russian opposition do during this time? Nothing.”
Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian MP who helped found the People’s Deputies, made no apologies for the organization’s ties to the legion.
During a break last week, Mr. Ponomarev said he believed a leadership change in Moscow will only come after a military defeat in Ukraine. “That means that whoever would come to the power is the one which has military capacity. We’re the only people who have that,” he added. Other opposition groups “just talk, sitting in some place outside Russia. But they have no real levers.”
Mr. Ponomarev left Russia in 2014 after casting the only vote in parliament against the annexation of Crimea. He lives in Kyiv and has also made headlines by saying he is connected to an underground movement in Russia called the National Republican Army.
He insisted that the People’s Deputies is open to anyone who wants to join, and he has encouraged other organizations to get involved with the deliberations.
“We want to truly reset the country,” he said. “We think that the Russian Federation is politically bankrupt. It discredited itself. It started aggression. It transformed itself into a dictatorship. So we need to create a new culture.”