‘Three months ago, this wasn’t possible’: exiled Russians dare to dream of Putin’s fall

<span>Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP</span>
Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP

Is Russia about to experience a period of dramatic political change? If so, can exiled democratic forces unite into a coherent bloc, and is there any way for them to force themselves on to the political scene?

Nearly 300 exiled Russian opposition politicians and activists gathered to discuss these questions in the European parliament earlier this week, the congress coming as news broke of the Nova Kakhovka dam destruction, the latest grim episode in Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The Brussels forum, convened by four MEPs, was the first such gathering to be given official status by a European parliamentary body, as some in Europe start thinking about how the contours of a post-Putin Russia would look.

“This is the first time that someone is speaking about the possibility of post-Putinism. Three months ago, this wasn’t possible. EU countries thought that Putin would be president for years and years if not decades and decades … Now, the perception has changed,” said Bernard Guetta, a French MEP who was one of the forum’s organisers.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the richest man in Russia before he was jailed for a decade in 2003, said that simply changing Putin for another person from his system would not make any difference.

“This regime should be destroyed,” he said during the opening session. “There is no other road to a peaceful normal future for Russia and for Europe and the whole world.”

Related: Exiled Russian calls on those still in country to ‘sabotage’ Putin’s war

The Russian opposition has been saying this for years, and it can often sound like wishful thinking. But with the Russian army on the back foot, drone strikes and military incursions hitting inside Russia and infighting between the elites spilling into the public domain, some in Europe are also beginning to wonder if Putin is as secure in the Kremlin as they had thought.

What a post-Putin Russia would look like is a matter of debate, however. Andrius Kubilius, the Lithuanian MEP and former prime minister who was the conference’s main organiser, said it was still a minority view among European politicians that real democratic change could come to Russia, but he felt it was an important argument to make for the sake of both Russia and Ukraine.

“If big European capitals won’t believe in a possibility of a democratic Russia, which I admit is not so easy to believe at this point, you think either … the same regime will stay in power for ever … or Russia will collapse into total disaster,” said Kubilius.

If western politicians believed a complete Ukrainian military victory would mean the collapse of Russia into an even worse dictatorship or civil war, they “then become scared of Ukrainian victory,” he said.

Some participants of the conference had left Russia more than a decade ago, while others had left after Putin launched his all-out invasion last February. They travelled to Brussels from Berlin, Vilnius, Paris, Tbilisi and many other cities that have become hubs for Russian exiles.

Many participants suggested the collapse of the Putin regime was a matter of when, not if, adding that while the initial post-Putin era might involve a power grab by those in the inner circle, things could soon change quickly.

“Any post-Putin ruler would be significantly weaker in terms of legitimacy and public authority … the regime will try to hold on to power but will not last for long,” said Vladimir Milov, a longstanding opposition politician who was deputy energy minister early in Putin’s rule. “That’s when we need to apply pressure for people to speak up,” he added.

The only Ukrainian at the forum was Oleksiy Arestovych, who resigned in January. He was a former senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Arestovych dismissed the view – common in Ukraine – that the Russian opposition should be ignored as it shares the imperial mindset of the Kremlin, as “political shortsightedness”. He said it was important to think about how to change the regime in Russia, rather than simply hope for Russia’s disintegration.

“There is no such thing as other people’s freedom. While Russia isn’t free, we are not fully free either because at a minimum it means … attempts to carry out a new war are always possible. So even from the point of Ukraine’s security we have to talk about the liberation of Russia,” he said.

For all the fighting talk at the forum, the Russian opposition remains divided over how best to cooperate. Representatives from the foundation of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, the best known opposition leader, were a notable absence from the Brussels conference. They have boycotted many similar events, believing them to be pointless talking shops.

Also absent was Ilya Ponomarev, a former MP who was the only Russian parliamentarian to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequently fled to Kyiv, where he has taken Ukrainian citizenship. He now claims to have links to partisan movements inside Russia and the armed units who have carried out cross-border incursions into Russia from Ukraine in recent weeks.

“The organisers do not want even a flavour of armed resistance,” Ponomarev said in a telephone interview. On Thursday, he began his own forum in Warsaw, dedicated to creating legislation for a post-Putin transition period.

On the sidelines of the Brussels forum, many admitted privately that some of the discussions about how to act in a hypothetical future Russia sounded like premature wishful thinking. But some also noted how quickly things might change in the country, and the importance of being ready.

“We have this habit of 20 years of stability and we can hardly wrap our heads around the fact that the system can be weak and eroding … but the erosion is visible,” said political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann.

“Those within the country will have the advantage … But those who move fast enough can also play a role. And of course everyone will have a chance to lose their heads as well.”