February 2, 2023

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Russian anti-war activists seek common goals (when they don’t quarrel)

BERLIN — Abubakar Yangulbaev, a young Chechen human rights defender, attempted to describe the recalcitrant, faltering nature of the Russian opposition working in exile, pointing to an early 19th-century Russian fable entitled “Swan, Pike, and crawfish”.

The three incompatible animals, all harnessed to the same wagon, are constantly pulling in different directions so it never moves, Mr Yangulbaev said.

“We all have different goals – the only thing we have in common is fighting Putin’s regime and ending the war in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “We stand with Ukraine, that’s the main point, but when it comes to Russia internally, we don’t stand together at all.”

To address this issue, almost 300 mostly young Russian activists from across the diaspora as well as from Russia – feminists, politicians, advocates for gay rights, representatives of the indigenous people and many others – gathered in Berlin over the weekend to work on the elaboration of a joint thing to start agenda.

There was consensus that Russia must confront the long chain of violent repression linking the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the country under President Vladimir V Putin, participants said, even as activists acknowledge how difficult change will be .

“You cannot build a state on violence; it was the common ground for everything in the Soviet Union and Russia,” said Inna Berezkina of the Moscow School of Political Education, one of the organizers. “It will be up to those who didn’t start this war to break the rut of society, and that takes a lot of strength. You have to understand the depth of society’s decline, understand how much we, our parents, our grandparents and many generations before them are involved in it.”

Russian opposition figures abroad have historically been a contentious bunch, and the current crop is no different. For example, they could never agree on a leader for the movement, and conferences erupted in arguments over whether the current conflict should be called “Putin’s War” or “Russia’s War” or whether it’s 1917 again.

Alexei Navalny, who ran as a candidate in Russia’s elections, is probably the only politician with the credentials and charisma to claim the mantle of a legitimate opposition figure, but he is in prison for the foreseeable future. His lieutenants decided to avoid collaborating with other exile groups as it would require too much time and energy better spent against Putin.

Ask other activists, especially younger ones, about Russians who are poised as potential opposition leaders, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch imprisoned by Putin, or Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, and the answer will likely be universal: they have been since The attempt by a small group, including numerous regional politicians from decades ago, to form a “government in exile” in November was also met with scorn because there was no popular mandate.

The lack of a unifying figure is clearly felt, as is any agreement as to how far their goals are to be taken. “We don’t have a unified opposition, we don’t have leaders, we don’t understand what to do,” said Polina Yelina, 35, an internet technology specialist who fled the country to raise her two college-age sons before the save conscription.

After attending two conferences organized several months apart by the Free Russia Forum in Lithuania, Ms. Yelina said she felt that one was an exact replica of the other, with little creativity or diversity of ideas.

Everyone recognizes the difficulty of bringing about change, given that Russia under Mr Putin has banned even the most mundane opposition activities and forced much of civil society into exile rather than reside in a penal colony. More and more activists were officially labeled “foreign agents,” a reincarnated Stalinist label implying that they are traitors.

“Hopefully sooner or later the guns will fall silent and then Russia will leave Ukraine, but then what happens?” said Tobias Lindner, a senior official at Germany’s Foreign Ministry who helped facilitate the meeting in Berlin, in a speech. “At the moment it seems to be up in the air in which direction Russia will develop.”

He called the activists the “democratic hope for a future Russia”.

In every major historical transition, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation, the country has never reckoned with its past, said Mr Yangulbaev, 30, the Chechen activist whose mother was jailed by the republic’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov Leader.

Mr. Yangulbaev gave the example of the banned Russian human rights organization Memorial, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The group had compiled a list of 3,000 possible war crimes during the two wars fought to prevent Chechnya from breaking away from Russia. Few of the perpetrators were imprisoned, according to Memorial.

He also noted that some opposition groups just want to save Russia, others want to dismantle it, and still others have a very progressive agenda.

“If we can’t solve our internal problems, we will always have external problems, there will be more Ukrainians,” he said. “Russia will continue to do the same, even if it loses.”

Representatives of indigenous groups also wanted to point out that disproportionate numbers of soldiers are being mobilized – and dying – from their generally impoverished regions. “It’s not our war, that’s the main idea,” said Lana Kondakova, a representative of the Free Yakutia Foundation, since Yakutia is one of the largest regions of Siberia, rich in diamonds and other resources.

“What matters to us now is whether the Russian Federation will keep its current form or whether it will be transformed into a different type of state,” added Aldar Erendhzhenov, a member of Free Kalmykia, another indigenous rights group.

Some of those trying to bring about change are working inside Russia, despite facing up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the war. A regional lawmaker, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said he was happy to take a breather from his stay in Russia just to be able to use the word “war” to describe the conflict without to be prosecuted.

“I really don’t want to feel alone fighting Putin’s regime and his military appetites,” he said.

Lawmakers noted that one of the failings of those lobbying for change from the outside is forgetting that issues like economic sanctions or the lack of geopolitical support for Russia are too abstract for ordinary Russians. And the relentlessly negative views of the country presented by the opposition media do not align with their views on Russia or the war.

Perhaps the most daunting task facing the opposition, whether united or not, is trying to influence change from the outside. “My colleagues and I ask ourselves this question every day: what can we do out there to change the mood in Russia?” said Natalia Baranova, 29, who is associated with both an organization called Greenhouse for Social Technology and the feminist anti- War Resistance, a protest group formed when the war began last February.

The group has managed to support small domestic protests, including distributing leaflets against the war, and created a petition against the mobilization signed by a few thousand mothers of conscripts.

A common idea is that both Ukraine and Russia will need some sort of Marshall Plan, the post-WWII American effort to transform Germany from its Nazi past into a vibrant democracy. But that was under occupation, activists noted, while any attempt to rebuild Russia and shine a bright light on decades of oppression must be made by the Russians themselves.

The whole country needs to rid itself of its “imperial state of mind,” said Ms. Berezkina, a conference organizer. “If this quantum leap doesn’t come about, maybe even the end of the war and Ukraine’s victory won’t save the situation.”

Aline Lobzina contributed to the reporting.