As Ukraine launched a fierce counterattack this week aimed at driving back Moscow’s invading forces, several hundred Russian democrats gathered in Lithuania to debate what role they can play in the battle against President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The dissidents who attended the Congress of Free Russia were in the awkward position of cheering on the Ukrainians, hoping for their own country’s battlefield defeat.
“Like Lenin,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a prominent opposition figure, adding a bitter laugh at how the democrats find themselves in a similar position to the Bolshevik leader who waited in exile for the right moment to launch his revolution, as Russia’s military collapsed during the First World War.
“Putin must be defeated. There is no other option to end this war,” said Mr. Gudkov, one of the last opposition MPs to sit in Russia’s parliament, which is now completely controlled by Kremlin loyalists. “It’s complicated for politicians, but I think I will have a chance to be elected in a new country. We will have elections only after Putin.”
To get there, Russia’s opposition forces will have to resolve their internal conflicts first: The country’s democrats sometimes seem to harbour as much distaste for each other as for the Kremlin.
The ballrooms of the Grand Vilnius Resort, set on a golf course on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital, were a universe away from the front lines in the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Donbas. And while the motto of the Congress of Free Russia was “Be Brave Like Ukraine,” this was a gathering of Russians who have fled their country out of fear of what Mr. Putin’s regime might do to them.
Hanging over the three-day gathering was the knowledge that – while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been hailed as a hero for refusing to flee Kyiv – many Russian dissidents who have stood their ground are either dead, or jailed by their government.
The unity Mr. Zelensky has brought to his country also remains elusive. On Wednesday, as the conference began in Vilnius under the white, blue and white anti-war flag adopted by the Free Russia political movement, another news conference was being held outside Kyiv under the same banner, by a group claiming to represent the armed Russian resistance to Mr. Putin.
The Free Russia (Legion), which appears to represent at least some Russian defectors to Ukraine, signed a “declaration of co-operation” with an entity billing itself the National Republican Army, or NRA – a previously unheard-of formation that claims to have carried out last month’s brazen assassination of Darya Dugina in Moscow. Ms. Dugina, the daughter of Alexander Dugin, a prominent Russian nationalist and supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, was killed on Aug. 20 by a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of her car.
The new group was fronted by Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian MP who was a regular attendee of previous Free Russia meetings. Delegates in Vilnius, however, said he now had nothing to do with their group. Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and veteran opponent of Mr. Putin who founded the Congress of Free Russia, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Ponomarev was “a clown” with “zero political support.”
Oleksiy Baranovskiy, a spokesperson for Mr. Ponomarev’s group, retorted in messages sent to The Globe that the opposition members gathered in Vilnius were “weaklings and cowards” who spoke loudly about opposing the Kremlin, but took no action to back it up.
“It’s easy to sit under NATO protection and be a skeptic. But we are at war here,” Mr. Baranovskiy said.
There is no evidence that the NRA played any role in Ms. Dugina’s assassination. Russia has accused Ukrainian intelligence services of carrying out the attack, also without substantive evidence.
Meanwhile, allies of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny also stayed away from the Congress of Free Russia, saying the meeting would do nothing to advance the goal of deposing Mr. Putin.
“I don’t know why they are doing these type of events. I don’t see how they are relevant to Russian politics,” said Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny’s chief of staff, who is also based in Vilnius. “Of course, we all want regime change in Russia. But we have our projects, and we do something to achieve this regime change. … We don’t believe that attending some conferences is helping this.”
Mr. Volkov also distanced himself from the newly formed armed group, saying it was difficult to discern who was really behind the organization and its sudden desire for public recognition.
“The so-called army is a hoax.”
The quarrelling reveals how dramatically the opposition has fallen apart since the heady days of 2012, when massive street protests in Moscow and other cities briefly threatened Mr. Putin’s hold on power. Since then, the movement’s ranks have been decimated by the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal politician, and the jailing of prominent protest leaders such as Mr. Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza.
The opposition’s remnants are largely in exile and squabbling over how to proceed. The Free Russia movement, which was founded in 2016, initially sought to keep the country’s democrats united and to build on the momentum of continuing protests against Mr. Putin’s rule.
But delegates in Vilnius told The Globe that there was now a deep divide between Mr. Volkov and Mr. Kasparov, with the former insisting that Mr. Navalny – who was clearly the country’s most popular opposition politician at the time of his arrest last year – should be treated as the movement’s leader even while he’s behind bars.
The 46-year-old Mr. Navalny survived a 2020 poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok, only to be arrested on his return to Russia after treatment abroad. He is facing seven more years in prison on a fraud conviction that is widely seen as trumped up by the Kremlin to punish the anti-corruption activist for his political activities.
Mr. Kasparov, 59, this week accused Mr. Navalny’s followers of “having the very odd mentality of a sect, a closed circuit that doesn’t want to take part in any events that feature other members of the opposition.”
While Mr. Ponomarev’s group favours armed action, Mr. Navalny’s followers say they are waiting for the right moment to mount a fresh internal challenge focused first on securing their leader’s release from prison. Delegates in Vilnius, meanwhile, favour building up ties with Western governments and working with them to increase the economic pressure on the Kremlin.
“Putin will stop when he runs out of money. So the question is, how do we make him run out of money?” Bill Browder, the American financier who has become one of Mr. Putin’s most prominent international critics, said in virtual remarks to the forum.
Other speakers included Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner in Russia, and Michael McFaul, ex-U.S. ambassador to Moscow, as well as representatives of the Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish governments. There were repeated calls for further sanctions against Moscow, as well as a global effort to lower oil and gas prices in order to reduce the Kremlin’s ability to raise new funds. Mr. McFaul suggested that all members of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party should be sanctioned by Western governments, as a way of encouraging them to quit the pro-Kremlin movement.
One of the most heated debates was over whether there should be a blanket ban on Russians travelling to the European Union, as several European leaders have recently suggested. Mr. Kasparov, who reportedly obtained Croatian citizenship several years ago, argued that Russians should only be allowed to enter the EU if they were leaving Russia permanently and were willing to sign a statement denouncing Mr. Putin’s government and the war in Ukraine.
The gathering’s physical distance from Moscow – some 900 kilometres from the Kremlin walls that the opposition rallied outside in 2012 – underlined how much ground the democrats have lost over the past decade as Mr. Putin has tightened his grip. It also underscored how difficult it will be for the exiles to affect what happens next in their country.
Yevgeniya Chirikova, another key leader of the 2012 protests, said she nonetheless remained optimistic. Rather than worrying about the divisions in the opposition, she said she was inspired by the new generation of activists she met this week while moderating two sessions on how civil society can resist a totalitarian regime.
Ms. Chirikova said the death on Tuesday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader who presided over the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, reminded her how fast a repressive state can dissolve.
“I remember being in school and being taught how great Grandfather Lenin was, and then a month later we were learning about the gulags and reading Solzhenitsyn. It happened once, it can happen again,” the 46-year-old environmental activist said. “We just don’t know when the window of opportunity will come.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Oleksiy Baranovskiy, a spokesperson for former Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev.
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