Building Up the Democratic Potential of the New Russian Emigrants
The countries where they are concentrated include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Israel, Turkey, Serbia, the Gulf states, and the Central Asian states. Most Western countries have not been major destinations. The EU has adopted a restrictive visa policy toward those leaving Russia while the United States is also difficult to enter.
These recent Russian emigrants tend to be young, politically active, well-off, and flexible and dynamic. They include large numbers of IT specialists as well as journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals associated with Russian nongovernmental organizations or the liberal media that were closed after the invasion. Other significant categories are academics, teachers, cultural actors, and entrepreneurs.
The majority of the recent emigrants was more politically active in Russia than their predecessors and more clearly driven by current political circumstances or even political persecution. They also show a higher level of trust toward each other. For many, the reasons for leaving Russia include opposition to the war and a rejection of the regime.
In recent years, different initiatives by exiled political figures have provided some “voice from above” for oppositional forces outside Russia. Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine many of them have tried to consolidate their efforts, and there have been new initiatives to help the emigrants. But any building of an “official” representation for oppositional Russians abroad should not hurt the efforts to develop a common vision and values across the emigrant landscape.
The emigrants have created initiatives and carried out activities that can be crucial for developing a broad democratic movement. Groups founded to meet urgent emigration needs are transforming into heterogeneous mutual aid communities of people who meet regularly for a wide range of activities. Organizations have been created and run by people with a high awareness of the need for civic participation. Some are beginning to consolidate the emigrant communities with an agenda aimed at democratic transformation.
Media and journalism initiatives are an important part of the bottom-up developments among the 2022 Russian emigrants. Media projects founded by journalists from cities in different regions of Russia aim to reach out to audiences there as much as in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several projects aim at establishing horizontal links in society in Russia by covering the life of ordinary people there.
Whether the recent Russian emigrants can coalesce into a force for democracy will depend in part on support for their potential. Western governmental and nongovernmental actors should primarily aim at consolidating and strengthening the democratic convictions of a critical mass of emigrants. Four areas are promising for short-to-medium-term support that will contribute to pursuing this long-term goal.
Entry and Stay
The West still does not have policies to handle a large influx of Russian emigrants in terms of entry or stay. What is more, restrictive visa policies hamper the goal of strengthening the emigrant communities and their democratic potential. In particular, the need to ensure that individual emigrants do not pose a security threat and are committed to democracy makes the situation more difficult.
The EU, a critical actor in this regard, still does not have a unified policy, a situation complicated by the fact that migration is a shared competence between the EU and the member states. Mechanisms for dealing with the Russians who have entered the EU are deficient or lacking. There have been almost no concrete steps at the EU level to address issues such as a residence or work permit for the emigrants.
IT and Media
Supporting IT specialists and journalists from the recent emigration would serve pro-democratic goals. Both groups can reach out with information to audiences of millions outside and inside Russia.
The large number of IT specialists among the recent emigrants holds great potential. Grants and investments for their projects or startups could consolidate different groups of emigrants, build organizational capacity and digital security for emigrant groups and activists, and connect those who have left Russia with people in the country securely and on a larger scale than currently. Activities based on digital technologies could also compensate for the restricted mobility of emigrants through the development of digital communities among them.
Support for grassroot journalist projects and media organizations from the recent emigration will increase the reach of independent reporting to people inside Russia as well as weaken the regime’s propaganda at home and abroad. It can consolidate the community of emigrant journalists and improve their skills. However, the survival of promising grassroot journalist projects and media organizations is endangered by the insecure financial and partly legal situation of their staff in host countries. More prominent outlets emerging from the emigration should not be the only recipients of support because they target and reach larger nationwide audiences; it is equally important to sustain grassroot or region-focused journalistic projects.
Democratic Civic Culture
The recent Russian emigrants should be supported in enhancing the horizontal connections they have started establishing and to consolidate themselves in communities united by a common goal. This would strengthen their democratic civic culture. Out of this could evolve the basis for a broad democratic political movement of Russians abroad. Among the recent emigrants are many socially and politically active public intellectuals who can take pro-democracy and anti-war messages to Russians inside and outside the country. Sprouts of the process of rethinking Russia’s past and present in order to envisage a democratic future can be seen in the speeches and writings of such figures as well as those of the exiled opposition and of emigrant journalists.
There cannot be a vision of Russia’s democratic future without Russians becoming aware that their country is an imperialist aggressor and that their goal must be to overcome its imperialist legacy. The participation of as many Russians as possible in the huge task of building the awareness for this change of worldview is a prerequisite for sustainable change in the direction of democracy. In this context, support for a political and societal rebirth of Russia should include strengthening the position of the recent emigrants, using their skills and democratic potential, and building the broadest possible pro-democracy community outside the country. Even if these Russians may not be able to return soon to Russia to work there for its democratic transformation, they can work effectively from abroad to bring this goal closer.
The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Oxana Schmies is an independent analyst specializing in Russian politics and society. She holds a PhD in modern history from the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany. She has worked in large academic research projects at German universities like Humboldt University of Berlin, and has worked with the Center for Liberal Modernity, the Martens Center, the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies, and the Center for European Policy Analysis.