With only four months remaining until the presidential elections in Russia, in many other nations, this period would typically mark the peak of the political campaign. However, the relocation of Russian activists and journalists beyond the borders of their homeland, coupled with the definitive extinguishing of political life within the country, is once again sparking discussions about the opposition's capability to take action from abroad. The Insider has delved into global experiences and unearthed numerous examples from various regions worldwide, illustrating instances where opposition movements, operating from foreign soil, achieved remarkably impressive successes.
What can opposition do in exile?
At various points in the past, the Russian opposition found itself in exile, during which it harbored little conviction about playing a pivotal role in the revolution. In Switzerland, in January 1917, just a month before the decisive battles, Lenin articulated a somewhat skeptical perspective, stating, «We, the older generation, may not witness the conclusive battles of this impending revolution.» Meanwhile, his comrade Trotsky favored Vienna, where he spent his time at the Central café immersed in chess matches. There exists a historical anecdote involving Austrian politician Count Heinrich Clam-Martinic, who, when asked about the prospect of revolution in Russia, wittily responded, «Who will orchestrate this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein from the Central café?»
However surprising the events of 1917 might have been, it must be acknowledged that Russian revolutionaries in exile had not been idle. They published and disseminated propaganda, organized cells within the country, worked on programs, and when the opportune moment arrived, they were ready for it. Global experience shows that this is more of a rule than an exception: revolutions often occur in countries where censorship prohibits political activities, and leaders have to act from abroad.
Engaging in communication with supporters and conducting propaganda from abroad poses significant challenges, yet the opponents of Pinochet in Chile navigated this difficulty with notable effectiveness. The Solidarity Movement, dedicated to combating dictatorship, orchestrated a multi-year campaign that encompassed reaching out to Chileans through calls and letters from overseas. These efforts were aimed at enlightening them about the atrocities committed by the new regime. The junta members asserted that substantial sums, amounting to millions of dollars monthly, were allocated to the destruction of these letters. Moreover, they insisted that recipients promptly turn over such correspondence to the authorities.
In addition to dispatching letters and making calls, representatives of the Movement mobilized financial support for resistance efforts within the country and actively lobbied in the U.S. and other nations. In the United States, they found allies within the anti-war movement, dedicated to ending the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. Through the collaborative endeavors of the Chilean opposition, they successfully persuaded the U.S. to exert pressure on the Chilean government, urging a relaxation of censorship and repression leading up to the 1988 referendum on extending Pinochet's powers. The U.S. also earmarked funds to bolster the opposition within Chile, ensuring effective oversight of the voting process. Consequently, 56% of Chileans cast their votes against Pinochet's rule, marking the conclusion of the dictatorship.
Juan Perón, the Argentine president ousted by the military in 1955, maintained communication with his supporters and union leaders, influencing the country's politics even though his party was banned, and he found himself in exile—first in Venezuela and later in Spain. In 1958, his supporters in the army attempted a coup but were exposed and executed.
Throughout his exile, Perón regularly advised his supporters on how to vote, significantly impacting election outcomes. When faced with the threat of a military uprising in 1973, the junta was forced to hold presidential elections. The candidate endorsed by Perón, Hector Jose Campora, won, but he resigned after a month, paving the way for new elections to allow Perón to be elected.
The African National Congress (ANC), fighting against apartheid in South Africa, initially lost supporters after its ban and Nelson Mandela's arrest in the early 1960s. Initially operating from distant Tanzania and Zambia, by the mid-70s, as the Portuguese colonial empire collapsed and left-leaning governments took power in its former colonies Angola and Mozambique, they allowed the ANC to establish training bases closer to South Africa's borders. Additionally, the ANC could build schools, hospitals, farms, and factories on their territory, where exiles from South Africa worked.
This coincided with the intensification of apartheid within South Africa: the conflict between whites and non-whites escalated, prompting more of the latter to leave the country and join the ANC. From the 1970s, the ANC resumed terrorist activities in South Africa, and in response, South Africa conducted raids on ANC bases in Mozambique, causing the country to slide into chaos and increasing international isolation. Concurrently, the ANC continued its international public campaign, drawing attention to the apartheid system in South Africa and the imprisonment of its leader. Ultimately, this led to the fall of the apartheid regime and the ANC's ascension to power with Mandela at the helm.
The Arab Spring refers to a series of uprisings that swept through much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. Diasporas played an active role in these uprisings. Firstly, they influenced public opinion in their host countries by publishing photos of protests and evidence of regime crimes, engaging with local authorities to garner support for the protesters. For instance, the Libyan British Business Council played a significant role in gaining recognition for the legitimacy of the Transitional National Council of Libya from Britain and other European countries. Secondly, they provided various forms of aid back home, from financial assistance to medicines and satellite phones. Some even returned to participate in the protests personally. Alongside their financial contributions, they brought knowledge acquired during their time in the West, which proved crucial during the post-revolutionary reconstruction. However, in the long run, the revolutions in Arab countries did not lead to significant successes in building democracy and the rule of law.
The objective of political opposition in exile may not only be a change of power but also an end to war. Remembering this is particularly relevant in Russia, given the Bolsheviks' popularity due to their consistent and staunch anti-war stance during World War I. This position resonated widely in war-weary Russia, where the army was literally disintegrating on the front lines, helping the Bolsheviks seize control of the soldiers' and workers' soviets established after the February Revolution—a viable alternative power center compared to the waning popularity of the State Duma and the Provisional Government. However, the Russian example is not the only one. Consider the experience of American draft dodgers and Vietnam War deserters. More than a hundred thousand Americans left the country during that time, with many continuing to engage in anti-war activities in host countries. They published anti-war newspapers that later circulated in the U.S., including on military bases. In Paris, American deserters joined French anti-war groups and published the newspaper ACT. In Canada, American refugees formed the American Deserters Committee (ADC) with offices in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. It provided hostels for new arrivals and published the ADC Times newspaper. The participation of Vietnam War veterans in the movement against the «senseless» war legitimized it in the eyes of American patriots. The voices of soldiers and officers who fought for their country had a significant impact on changing public opinion and ultimately ending the war.
What can opposition do in exile?
When exile and the struggle against the regime drags on and on, the connection with the homeland gradually weakens, and those who have left integrate into new societies, losing interest in the struggle back home. One of the main challenges for opposition abroad becomes maintaining its activities and preserving oppositional organizations. One way for them to replenish and renew their ranks is through recruiting students from their home country abroad or the influx of new exiles. This was precisely how Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled from Iran in 1964, gained supporters. During his stay in Turkey, Iraq, and later in France, he managed to establish contacts with student organizations in Europe and the USA, as he continued his teaching activities. Not all students supported the idea of establishing an Islamic state in Iran, but they saw in Khomeini a leader in the struggle against the Shah, and thus, they helped him connect with Western press, NGOs, and governments, drawing attention to human rights violations by the regime. Returning students assisted in spreading Khomeini's ideas in Iran, contributing significantly to the victory of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Their subsequent disillusionment awaited them, but that's a completely different story.
The exiled opposition can provide material and legal support to its supporters abroad. For instance, the Tibetan government in exile issues passports («green books») to Tibetans residing outside China-controlled Tibet. These documents are partially recognized in India, where a significant portion (85 out of 128 thousand people) of the diaspora resides. These documents can serve as a basis for obtaining refugee status in some countries, such as Canada. In exchange for possessing this document, held by 90% of Tibetan diaspora members, the government collects an annual «voluntary tax.» Only holders of the «green book» can vote in elections held in Indian settlements where Tibetans live, receive benefits, and work in the Tibetan government in exile, located in the Indian town of Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Since the majority of Tibetan refugees, around a thousand people annually arriving from China to India, predominantly settle among their compatriots, their government can regularly conduct elections in such communities if their size exceeds 160 individuals. Officially, the Tibetan government in exile aims not for Tibet's independence (a desire of a significant part of the diaspora) but for preserving culture and religion. This objective is closely tied to India's requirements, which seeks to avoid conflict with China. Nonetheless, the Tibetan government supported partisans within Tibet for an extended period. Furthermore, it provides scholarships to Tibetans, manages its schools and hospitals in India, and engages in interactions with host countries.
The Belarusian diaspora also conducts active political activities abroad. The office of the elected president Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya assists Belarusians who found themselves in exile after the 2020 protests, providing humanitarian, psychological, and legal aid. Some of these efforts are directed towards activities in the West, ranging from political lobbying to organizing conferences and developing a strategy for Belarus's transition to democracy. However, it is inaccurate to say that the diaspora merely focuses on its own affairs. It leads the dissemination of samizdat in Belarus, organizes hacking attacks (Belarusian Cyber Partisans regularly conduct cyberattacks on and hacks government websites), and even participates in military operations. As part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they join in the military operations of the Kalinowski Regiment, consisting of Belarusian volunteers who believe that defeating the Putin army is the first step to liberate Belarus.
Certainly, not every instance of emigration proves successful. The Russian diaspora, departing the homeland following the ascent of the Bolsheviks to power, never witnessed the long-awaited liberation of the country. Russia is not unique in this regard; another compelling example is the Chinese democratic movement abroad, emerging in the 1980s as China commenced its global opening and dispatched students to foreign shores. This movement reached its zenith in the early 1990s, spurred by the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which prompted a wave of students and intellectuals to flee the country.
Initially, political emigrants successfully garnered sustained attention from the United Nations regarding human rights violations within their home country through public campaigns. This advocacy nudged the nation toward modest political adjustments in exchange for maintaining a favorable trade environment, a necessity for China at that time. However, with the rise of the Chinese economy, trading partners increasingly turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. Notably, even Taiwan, China's primary ideological adversary, ceased funding the Chinese opposition. The enthusiasm of new Chinese migrants for supporting overseas opposition also waned as many of them built careers closely tied to China.
The primary weakness of the Chinese overseas opposition lay in its fragmentation and heterogeneity, hindering effective coordination of its efforts. Coincidentally, Russian White emigrants faced similar challenges, dividing into republicans and monarchists, with the latter further split among supporters of two different branches of the Romanov dynasty. However, determining whether this division is the cause of weakness or if weakness and the absence of a shared mission lead to factionalization remains a nuanced question.
The contemporary Chinese opposition abroad is gradually regaining strength. On one hand, this is fueled by escalating tensions between China and the U.S. On the other hand, it is a result of cooperation with other Chinese opposition movements: Tibetans, Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, as well as the banned religious movement Falun Gong. Since 2005, they have been holding an annual joint conference dedicated to China's policies and its relations with minorities and neighbors. Cooperation has enabled these groups to amplify each other's voices through joint protests and the sharing of resources and established connections.
Furthermore, the efforts of Chinese political emigrants over the past 30 years to build their own institutions are starting to bear fruit. They have established NGOs engaged in lobbying, organizations assisting persecuted Chinese immigrants in settling in new places, entities combating Chinese media propaganda, online educational platforms providing education in jurisprudence, human rights, international relations, fundraising, political science, and more. Additionally, there is the Institute for Democratic Transition in China, developing projects for democratic reforms in the country and ways to influence their implementation.
It's reasonable to recognize that, at present, these endeavors exert minimal influence on China. Nonetheless, the lessons from the Russian Revolution remind us not to lose hope prematurely; occasionally, it's merely a matter of being able to wait for the right moment.