A democratic movement in exile: lessons from Belarus

In a recent article for RAAM, Kristina Petrasova argued that the Russian opposition is a powerful movement that deserves a seat at the table. However, the movement is also criticised for its internal disputes. Addressing issues of representation, recognition and internal cohesion, Victoria Leukavetsresearch fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, compares the Russian case to the Belarusian one. What can the Russian opposition learn from the Belarusian democratic movement?

53739635196 7aab48a573 cSviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a diaspora rally in Stockholm, 21 May 2024. She carries a folder with the picture of her husband, political prisoner Sergei Tikhanovsky. Photo: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's Office

By Victoria Leukavets

The Russian opposition has often been criticised for being fragmented and unable to unite against the Putin regime. The war in Ukraine has contributed to the deepening of existing rifts, and has increased squabbles among dissidents about who should lead the resistance against the Kremlin.

In a recent article published on this platform, Kristina Petrasova raised a question about what can be considered meaningful in the fight against the Putin regime. She argued that ‘Putin is also a Western problem’ and that the struggle against him ‘should be seen as a shared responsibility of the Russian political opposition and the West.’

This article aims to analyse these claims as well as address a number of additional questions: How can we measure the success of the Russian opposition in exile? What can the Russian opposition learn from the Belarusian democratic movement, and are there any prospects of cooperation between the two?

Intensified repression

After the onset of the war in Ukraine, the Russian government intensified the internal repression against the political opposition. Several opposition figures, including activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, Oleg Orlov, and Alexandra Skochilenko have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences on politically motivated charges. The sudden death of Alexei Navalny in a penal colony demonstrates the Kremlin’s readiness to silence all opposing voices in Russia. The risk of being put into jail on bogus charges and a lack of a free and fair judicial system has forced many opposition activists to flee the country and continue their activities from abroad.

Yulia Navalanaya at a meeting with the French President Emanuel Macron, June 1st, 2024. Photo: Telegram 

There are currently several centres of gravity representing Russia’s political opposition in exile. One of them is Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which operates out of Lithuania and is led by Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya as well as his staff members Maria Pevchikh and Ivan Zhdanov. Another prominent opponent of Putin is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once one of Russia’s richest businessmen. He has founded several initiatives, including the Open Russia movement and the Anti-War Committee of Russia. A third major opposition figure is Garry Kasparov, a democracy activist and former world chess champion who organises the Free Russia Forum, a conference of the Russian opposition, held twice a year in Lithuania. In addition, there are many other prominent activists, journalists and experts who radically oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine and continue their fight against the Putin’s regime from abroad.

However, these various opposition figures and groups often do not cooperate with each other, and remain divided on how to achieve democratic changes in Russia. Their splits have become particularly visible during several conferences aiming to discuss avenues of cooperation between various representatives of the Russian opposition and to develop a strategy for fighting Putin’s regime.

The existing internal tensions do not mean, however, that the Russian opposition’s fight is completely meaningless. Having a fragmented opposition which tries to put at least some pressure on the ruling regime is much better than having no active opposition at all. Although some methods and campaigns of the Russian opposition, such as boycotting the March 2024 elections, do not bring immediate results and might appear to some as fruitless, they can still have a cumulative effect in the future. In addition, the fact that the Kremlin keeps exerting so much effort to weaken the already fragmented opposition suggests that it perceives the opposition’s activity as a danger to its survival. Thus, it is important for the opposition to continue exerting constant pressure on the Kremlin. However small, these actions have the potential to bring results, especially when combined with the efforts of the Western governments to weaken the Putin regime.

Having a fragmented opposition is better than having no active opposition at all

The Russian opposition and the West can and should act as allies in their struggle against Putin. The war in Ukraine has contributed to uniting Western governments in their approach towards the Kremlin, and it also highlights the importance of democratic changes in Russia. The Russian opposition should take on a leading role and responsibility in developing effective mechanisms to reach and influence the population inside Russia, prepare a strategy for the release of political prisoners, and elaborate a comprehensive plan for the reforms necessary for Russia to transition into a democracy.

Although it is difficult to measure the success of political opposition in exile, there are four main criteria which can be regarded as fundamental in this process. The exiled political opposition can be considered successful if it 1) strives for and achieves internal cohesion and effective coordination; 2) gains recognition abroad and engages in successful advocacy in the international arena; 3) creates government-like structures which function based on democratic principles; 4) develops effective mechanisms for keeping a connection with the population in its home country.

Learning from Tsikhanouskaya

In this respect, the Belarusian opposition headed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya can serve as a positive example for the Russian opposition. After the 2020 protests in Belarus were brutally suppressed by the Lukashenka regime, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave the country together with many other opposition figures and activists. She migrated to Lithuania, where she established the Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (OST), which in turn initiated the creation of two other institutions – the United Transitional Cabinet (UTC), a temporary executive body, and the Coordination Council (CC), a parliament in exile.

In addition to Tsikhanouskaya’s work, there are other opposition groups, such as the National Anti-Crisis Management (NAM) in Warsaw, chaired by Pavel Latushka, and the Forum of Democratic Forces of Belarus (FDFB), established in May 2022 and led by one of Lukashenka’s challengers in the 2020 campaign, Valery Tsapkala and his wife Veranika Tsapkala. The radical nationalist strand of the Belarusian political opposition is represented by Zianon Pazniak, one of the founders of the Belarusian Popular Front and the leader of the Conservative Christian Party. Finally, there is the Kalinouski Regiment, a military formation created in March 2022 within the Armed Forces of Ukraine that consists of Belarusian volunteers defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

There is one central figure representing the whole Belarusian democratic movement

Thus, there is a plethora of Belarusian opposition groups in exile. However, their internal cohesion is much stronger compared to Russia’s opposition movement, because there is one central figure representing the whole Belarusian democratic movement. Over the last few years, Tsikhanouskaya has gained international recognition as a leader of democratic Belarus. Thanks to the efforts of her team, the US launched a Strategic Dialogue, the EU created a Consultative Group, and the Council of Europe established a Contact group with Democratic Belarus. In addition to that, there is a strong cooperation between the Belarusian Democratic Forces and various parliaments across the globe. In November 2023, OST launched an Alliance of parliamentary groups ‘For a Democratic Belarus’ which currently has 24 participating countries. Furthermore, the European Parliament has recently signed a Letter of Intent which sets a goal to boost cooperation with the Belarusian opposition. It serves as a good example of international recognition and underlines the legitimacy of the Belarusian democratic forces.

Thus, one of the ways to increase the efficiency of the Russian opposition is to create a unified platform for better coordination between various opposition groups. This mechanism would help the opposition to realise its agenda in a faster and more effective way, provide more transparency in its work, and increase the opportunities for lobbying Western governments to support the Russian anti-war movement.

Government-like structures

In addition to institutionalising the cooperation with the West, the Belarusian opposition in exile strengthens its legitimacy and effectiveness by creating government-like structures which develop policies, adopt strategic documents and function based on democratic principles. This is another fundamental difference to the Russian opposition.

The recent election held by the Belarusian parliament in exile, the Coordination Council, can be seen as an important test of democracy for the Belarusian political actors. These elections will pave the way for future democratic procedures and will provide an important platform for discussions and finding solutions to power transition in Belarus.

According to the adopted guidelines, the voters in these elections were able to cast their ballot online for one out of twelve registered lists. In total, over 6700 Belarusians participated in the elections, which can be considered a high number considering the harsh ongoing repression by the Lukashenka regime. This includes transnational repression, which occurs when authoritarian states reach across borders to silence dissent by those living in exile. Based on the results, 80 delegates have been chosen for the new convocation of the Coordination Council which started its work in mid-June. In her statement on the results of the election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya expressed hope that ‘a new Coordination Council will become a platform allowing us to align strategies and hold discussions and consultations between various representatives of democratic forces and civil society.’

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushka (left) at a meeting with Belarusian civil society activists in Warsaw, January 2024. Photo: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's Office

An analysis of the programmes prepared by the candidates participating in the Coordination Council elections shows that all of them in one way or another underline the importance of fighting Russia’s influence and strengthening Belarusian national identity. In addition, at least four of them, including ‘European Choice’ and ‘Latushka’s team and movement for freedom’ openly state that the future democratic Belarus should be integrated into the EU. This is in line with the crucial document ‘Declaration on the future membership of Belarus in the EU’ which was adopted by the Belarusian democratic forces in August 2023. The overwhelming majority of other programmes also underline the importance of strengthening cooperation with the EU and the West at large. Concrete proposals for cooperation focus on improving the visa policy for Belarusians, increasing people-to-people contacts through educational programmes for students, supporting Belarusian business in exile, and countering discrimination against Belarusians.

Based on the electoral results, ‘Latushka’s team and movement for freedom’, which submitted 45 candidates to the list, gained the biggest number of votes and 28 seats in the Coordination Council.  The second most popular formation is ‘Prakopieu – Yahorau Block’ which gained 13 out of the 80 seats in the Council.

No interest in cooperation

During interviews with the candidates, all of them expressed the need for strengthening ties with Ukraine and weakening the Putin regime. However, none of the Belarusian political actors openly supported the idea of cooperation with the Russian opposition in exile. This answer, which signals that the Belarusian opposition wants to distance itself from the Russian one, can be interpreted in different ways.

First, in view of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition is strongly promoting the narrative that Belarus is an independent country with its own culture and identity, different from the Russian one. The use of this discourse is crucial on various international platforms, and is directed at various Western policymakers who still keep putting Belarus and Russia in the same policy toolbox. Another important target audience of this narrative is the Belarusians themselves, who have long been subjected to the Kremlin’s aggressive russification policy aimed to weaken Belarusian identity.  

Western policymakers keep putting Belarus and Russia in the same policy toolbox

Another reason for the lack of willingness to cooperate with the Russian opposition stems from its ineffectiveness and lack of internal cohesion. Thus, the approach of the Belarusian democratic forces sends a clear message to the Russian opposition that it needs to take active steps to strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of the West and gain the trust of other political actors in exile.


Finally, the last criteria for evaluating the success of the exiled opposition constitutes its ability to maintain connections with and influence people in its home country. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the opposition’s activities in exile. The Belarusian Democratic Forces have always assigned a high importance to this strand of their work, and have been constantly developing and experimenting with various mechanisms to keep open channels of communication with the population inside Belarus.

Белорусские Киберпартизаны
Logo of the Belarusian cyber partisans. Photo: Wikipedia

For example, during the initial phase of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the OST actively developed and supported various anti-war initiatives, including the mothers’ anti-war movement as well as the activity of the railway and cyber partisans, until the Lukashenka regime started brutally suppressing each of these initiatives. One of the important parts of OST’s work inside Belarus focuses on supporting and freeing political prisoners. An additional strand of work deals with developing mechanisms for minimising the destructive effect of propaganda by providing unbiased information to the Belarusian public. Furthermore, according to the annual report of the Tsikhanouskaya’s team, the OST has been cultivating links with Belarusian citizens through other mechanisms. However, some of these activities cannot be made public for security reasons. 

Thus, even if the ties with Belarusians inside Belarus cannot be considered very strong or significant yet, the Belarusian opposition is constantly trying to develop and improve different mechanisms to influence the situation on the ground and strengthen its bridge-building role in Belarus.  

The experience of the Belarusian democratic forces can provide a useful roadmap for the Russian opposition

Thus, the experience of the Belarusian democratic forces can provide a useful roadmap for the Russian opposition. Without taking steps towards increasing its internal coherence, building mechanisms to keep connection with the population in Russia, and developing a clear vision and strategy for the future of their country, the Russian opposition risks remaining fragmented, isolated, weak and most importantly, unable to influence the political transformation inside Russia.