In yet another display of how badly Vladimir Putin has botched his public relations and failed to conceal his neo-Soviet powerplay, America’s vaunted 60 Minutes devoted a whole segment last Sunday to highlighting Garry Kasparov’s valiant struggle against Putin’s tyranny. It was genuinely thrilling to watch this broadcast, as it hit all the key points exposing Putin’s dictatorship and allowed Kasparov to land haymaker after haymaker, depicting him as the hero that, with all his human faults, he truly is. If even American TV can get Russia right, then it’s clear Putin’s efforts to pull of his ridiculous masquerade have failed utterly. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME! The New Yorker also has a major feature on Kasparov in the most recent issue, written by the editor-in-chief and featured as the lead story on its website, complete with a captivating photograph of Mr. K. Here’s the brilliant report from 60 Minutes:
For 20 years Garry Kasparov was the greatest chess player in the world. He won his first world championship at the age of 22 and was ranked number one almost continuously until he retired from international competition two years ago, a Russian hero and a very wealthy man. He could have done anything he wanted. Instead, he chose to make the riskiest move of his career: he entered the treacherous world of Russian politics, and has become one of President Vladimir Putin’s harshest critics, accusing him of abolishing democratic reforms, and turning over the country’s vast natural resources to a small political elite. It is the match of his life. As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the odds are long, and the dangers considerable, but Kasparov believes the soul of a nation is at stake.
Throughout his career, Kasparov intimidated opponents with his intensity, creativity, and daring. He could look at a chessboard and see 15 moves ahead. At a Toronto exhibition in June, he took on 20 opponents and beat all of them in an hour-and-a-half. But his latest undertaking — leading protests against a powerful and popular government — is a much more difficult challenge. This time it is Kasparov who is considered the amateur, playing against grandmasters in the Kremlin. Asked what the difference is between chess and politics, Kasparov tells Kroft, “Chess has rules. And everybody has to follow the rules. And in Russian politics there are no rules at all. Except one rule: the Kremlin, our opponents, changing rules at their convenience anytime they want.”
And the man who changed them is President Vladimir Putin.
When Putin was elected seven years ago, regional governors were selected by the people; now they are appointed by Putin’s office. Big media outlets once receptive to a wide range of political views have fallen under state control, and opposition groups like Kasparov’s “United Civil Front” say they have been shut out of the national debate and cut off from the electoral process. “We’re facing a very dangerous regime that is threatening not only the future of my country but the stability of the whole world,” Kasparov says.
What is he opposing?
“Every element of this regime. No elections. Censorship. The destruction of all democratic institutions,” Kasparov says. Kasparov doesn’t believe that today’s Russia is a democracy. He calls it a “police state.” When he has been able to organize protests, Kasparov has been met with thousands upon thousands of riot police and special troops brought in from the countryside to ensure order and discourage participation, sometimes with truncheons. Kasparov has been detained, fined, and investigated. He assumes his political headquarters in Moscow is bugged and that he is under constant surveillance. In December, the authorities raided his office looking for evidence Kasparov had violated a vaguely-worded extremism law, which makes it a crime to make false statements about government officials. It was enacted to fight terrorism, but now Kasparov says it is being used to stifle dissent. But it hasn’t stopped him from speaking out.
“I would probably say that Putin doesn’t run the country, he runs a corporation. Call it KGB Incorporated,” Kasparov says. “He is working on behalf of the ruling elite that wants to benefit from looting the country.” Asked if he is an “extremist,” Kasparov tells Kroft, “I’m afraid that by current Russian law, yes. Because that’s what Russian law implies.”
“Technically speaking,” Kasparov says he could go to prison just for criticizing the government or staging a rally. And he says the penalties could be up to six years in prison.
It would not be the first time government critics have been silenced. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once one of the richest men in Russia, until he displayed some political ambition. Now he’s in a Siberian prison. The investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building. And former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with polonium.There’s no evidence linking Putin to the deaths, but there is no denying that bad things tend to happen to people who challenge authority.
“There have been people in this country, prominent people, who have lost their lives. Does that concern you?” Kroft asks. “It does,” Kasparov admits. “You know I’m [a] normal human being. I have my private life. And my loved ones concern about my safety. I try to reduce the risk.” Asked if he thinks he’s still protected somewhat by his fame and the fact he’s still considered a national hero, Kasparov tells Kroft, “It does help to a certain degree. But it is not an ultimate protection. No one is safe in Putin’s Russia.” Kasparov goes nowhere in Russia without bodyguards — two on a normal day in Moscow, more if he’s traveling outside the capital or to a protest march like one in St. Petersburg, which 60 Minutes attended.
Like most of these events, it was widely covered by the Western media, and all but ignored by the Russian press.
Despite a strong police presence, more than 1,000 people turned out to voice their displeasure with the government. And Kasparov enjoyed being in the middle of it. He told Kroft he always played his best chess in the most difficult situations. “We’ve been together a couple of days, and this is the happiest I’ve seen you,” Kroft remarked, while the two walked in St. Petersburg. “Because I can see that people respond and they are overcoming their fear,” Kasparov explains. “That’s how we can win.” In chess, when you are in danger of being checkmated, you have to do what you can to survive, and Kasparov has established an alliance called “The Other Russia,” a broad coalition of widely divergent political parties, that have little in common other than their opposition to Putin’s regime.
The tactic has produced some of the largest political protests since Putin came to power, and raised eyebrows about some of his allies, like the National Bolshevik Party, which envisions a socialist Russian empire stretching across most of Europe, and reminds some people of the Nazis. The National Bolshevik Party’s flag, already banned, is reminiscent of the Nazi flag – except that the swastika is replaced by a hammer and sickle. “If you’re fighting for democracy, how can you march with fascists?” Kroft asks. “They’re not fascists,” Kasparov says. “You say they’re not fascists. That’s not what we’re told,” Kroft remarks. “Yeah, but fascist is a word. I’m also called fascist by some of the Kremlin factions,” Kasparov replies. Asked if he agrees with what the National Bolsheviks stand for, Kasparov tells Kroft, “They stand for number of things that I may disagree. But we agree on one thing: the restoration of free and fair elections, no censorship and diminishing of presidential powers. What’s wrong about that?”
“Kasparov was a great chess player. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t think he’s a very good politician,” says Vladimir Posner, once one of the Soviet Union’s leading spokesmen. Today, Posner hosts Russia’s most popular political talk show. Asked if the average Russian knows who Kasparov is, Posner tells Kroft, “Yes, everyone knows that he was a great chess player but today they know him as a fringe, as they would say, political figure. And he could not be elected dog catcher, really not.” According to public opinion polls, Putin’s approval rating is nearly 80 percent. He’s viewed as being young, energetic, and well-spoken. And with Russia’s huge energy reserves, and soaring oil and gas prices, the economy is booming.
Across from Lenin’s tomb on Red Square, you’ll find some of the most fashionable boutiques in the world. But most of all, Putin is seen as having restored Russia to its role as a world power, and he has effectively managed to associate the word democracy with the economic chaos and drunken behavior of the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
What has Putin given to people?
“Stability for most people, a better living standard gradually,” Posner says. “A returned sense of pride. We’re back, guys. You thought we were gone forever. You thought we’d play no more role, that Russia was now a third class country. Well, you were wrong.”
Posner disagrees with Kasparov’s statement that Russia today is a police state. “The Soviet Union was a police state,” he says. “And he should know the difference. Had this been the Soviet Union, he would’ve been in jail long ago…or sent to a camp, the gulag,” Posner adds. “Today, he talks, you know he’s out there.” Posner acknowledges Kasparov has been detained and that his office have been raided, but he says, “Compared to Soviet times, that’s not persecution. That’s, ya know, little red riding hood kind of thing.” [LR: Stalin's Russia didn't become Stalin's Russia overnight. It happened slowly, gradually, in baby steps just like these. And the same is true of Hitler in Germany. The only real flaw in this report is that the reporter failed to raise this obvious issue with Posner, but you can't have everything.]
“I mean we’re sitting here in your apartment. You’re saying these things to us on television. There’s nobody…,” Kroft remarks to Kasparov. “American television,” Kasparov points out. “American television. But you’d say them on Russian television if you could?” Kroft asks. “If I could, yes,” Kasparov says. “But I cannot.” Posner admits he has not had Kasparov as a guest on his political talk show. Why not?
“Because Channel One will not allow it,” Posner explains. [LR: Is mighty Putin really that afraid of Garry? You bet. Because he knows Russia's "prosperity" isn't even skin deep and he lacks the power to control genuine public unrest.]
“Is this changed since Putin became president?” Kroft asks. “Definitely,” Posner replies. “So, you agree with Kasparov when he says that the democratic reforms that came into being initially have been rolled back…” Kroft asks. “They never really took root,” Posner tells Kroft. “And they were rolled back, yes. Yes, absolutely.”
But most Russians don’t seem to mind. Many of them would like to see Putin rule with an even-stronger hand. “Kasparov represents the attitudes of three or four percent of the electorate who are liberal and are very dissatisfied with Putin,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov, who is a top Russian political analyst who advises the Kremlin. How important is democracy to the Russian people? “If you conduct public opinion polls, and you ask the people what are the issues you are most worried about, you won’t get democracy among the top 30,” Nikonov explains. “You’ll get jobs.”
“The top 30?” Kroft asks.
“Yeah, you’ll get jobs. You’ll get corruption. You’ll get crime. You’ll get social welfare. But, there’ll be no democracy,” Nikonov says.
“We’ve talked to Russian commentators of varying political persuasions. Everyone here believes that Putin is incredibly popular. That people believe the economy has improved. That they like the stability. And that they aren’t that concerned with democracy,” Kroft tells Kasparov.
“Yes, within the center of Moscow, in the center of St. Petersburg and in some oil rich regions, yes. You could see this country, the country that you just described with growing middle class. Prosperity,” Kasparov says. “The problem is there’s another country of 120 million that lives on other side of the fence. And this country’s very different from one that we just described.”
“If things are so bad here, why is Putin’s popularity rating between 70 and 80 percent?” Kroft asks.
“I don’t know about this popularity rating. I think that if U.S. administration had the same kind of control of media I think Bush’s rating would be 75, 80 percent as well,” Kasparov says.
When he’s not in Russia, Kasparov travels the world making speeches and writing books. The latest, about how the principles of chess can be applied to life, will be published this month. Though he doesn’t compete in professional tournaments anymore, he told Kroft he sometimes plays late at night, just for fun on the Internet, using an alias. “For me, it’s an important part of mental relaxation,” Kasparov explains. “So, there are people out there that have, may have played chess with you online that had no idea they were…” Kroft asks. “Oh, I think quite a few. They can get an idea, because, obviously, they can recognize a steady hand,” Kasparov says. “It’s still a steady hand.”
Putin’s term ends in May and the Russian constitution bars him from seeking re-election. Most analysts believe that whoever Putin endorses will win the next election hands-down. Asked if he expects that election to be democratic, Nikonov tells Kroft, “Well, at this point, there is no need for the Kremlin to falsify the election. Putin is so popular that he can translate his popularity to his successor.”
“You’re not saying that he wouldn’t think of it. You’re saying he doesn’t need to,” Kroft remarks. “Well, at this point, yes, the Kremlin does not need to falsify the election,” Nikonov says. Kasparov hasn’t said whether he’ll run for elected office himself or throw his support behind another candidate. With parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March, the stakes will soon rise, and perhaps the perils.
“The more dangerous he seems to the powers that be, the more danger to him,” Posner says.
Why is Kasparov doing this, given that he’s already wealthy and famous? “Look, it’s my country,” Kasparov says. “I believe that I have to try to change it for better. And it’s following the motto of the Soviet dissidents that I learned [in] my childhood: ‘Do what you must and so be it.’ And I do what I must.”