In a sign of a damaging lack of unity among the Russian opposition, members of the team of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, dissident ex-chess-champion Garry Kasparov and, most importantly, imprisoned resistance icon Alexei Navalny, decided to leave Jablona.
“Russian elites are often selfish,” said Stefan Meister, program director at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “They don’t get along with each other. A unifying leader is nowhere to be seen.”
It would be naïve to trust the opposition, he said.
He said, “Even if change comes, it will come from within the system and not from the opposition.”
A system that may at some point decide that Putin is no longer the right person. Or maybe not.
Scattered in Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Berlin and London, the opposition is clearly divided. But within Russia it is crippled.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Russian system is more repressive today than at any time in the post-Soviet era.
Thousands of Putin’s critics are behind bars. The Internet is under strict control of Roskomnadzor, the state watchdog that regulates all content.
Foreign organizations are called “foreign agents” if they are not banned outright. Authorities crack down on critics in the media, harass peaceful protesters and run a disinformation campaign against independent groups.
Hitting the wrong “like” button on social media, retweeting a critical comment or making a negative comment about the military can land a person behind bars – often for years.
In fact, several potential opposition leaders have already been locked down – Navalny being the most powerful. He is currently serving time in Penal Colony No. 2 in the east of Moscow.
In March 2022, Navalny, 46, was given a nine-year prison sentence after being found guilty of fraud. New charges were added last fall, accusing Navalny of promoting extremism and calling for terrorism. All told, this could land him around 30 years in prison.
Close Navalny aides like his lawyer Lyubov Sobol and former campaign manager Leonid Volkov are trying to keep up the fight from abroad, producing a stream of YouTube videos, posting pictures and tweeting tons of messages.
“Before the war, the prevailing thinking was: If you’re outside Russia you can’t be an opposition leader,” said security expert Soldatov. “Today, I believe this is wrong.”
With the internet and social media, there are ways to make yourself heard – even in a closed country like Russia. Not only for Navalny, this realization must have come too late.
The same applies to Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin. Kara-Murza, 41, is the deputy chairman of Open Russia, a non-governmental organization founded by Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch, that promotes civil society and democracy in Russia.
While Khodorkovsky served a 10-year prison sentence and now lives in the United Kingdom, Kara-Murza languishes in a Moscow prison and faces 20 years or more for treason and other charges.
In April 2022, Kara-Murza was charged with spreading false information about the Russian military, which carries a prison sentence of three to 10 years. The basis of the indictment was a speech given by Kara-Mursa in the Arizona State Legislature shortly after the war began, in which she spoke about Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Later last year, new charges were filed against Kara-Mursa – this time for collaborating with an “undesirable organization” while attending the Sakharov Center’s 2021 conference in Moscow.
Ilya Yashin is the latest prominent figure to be sentenced to a long prison term. Yashin, 39, was a close associate of former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015.
Last December, a Moscow court found Yashin guilty of “spreading false information” about the armed forces when he spoke about the killings in Bucha, Ukraine. Punishment: Eight years and six months.
Prior to his arrest in June 2022, Yashin was considered one of the few remaining opposition politicians who could reach a large audience. However, he has long been a thorn in the government’s side, especially after playing a key role in the so-called Bolotnaya protests of 2011–13. At the time, many Russians took to the streets to criticize the alleged rigging of the elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Andrei Kolesnikov is one of the few opposition activists still in Russia who does not hold back from voicing his opinion about Russia under Putin. For several years, the 57-year-old journalist worked for the well-known daily Izvestia.
His outlook is sad.
“In Russia, the opposition has been completely destroyed,” he told NBC News via email. “What is not understood in the West is that Russia has a strict authoritarian military-police regime with totalitarian elements. What is left of the remaining opposition leaders in Russia, they are all now in jail.