Trust a grandmaster of chess – no, the grandmaster – to compare modern Russian politics with one of the most arcane mathematical discoveries of the 20th century. “Every system will contain a problem that cannot be solved within the system itself,” said Garry Kasparov yesterday in a speech to the Empire Club of Toronto. It was a reference to the “incompleteness theorem” of Kurt Goedel, famous for his philosophy of mathematics in Vienna and later in Princeton. Kasparov is the highest rated of any chess player in history. He retired in 2005 and now rallies opposition forces in Russia as chairman of the United Civil Front. Kasparov meant Russia cannot solve its problems internally, that it needs outside help and pressure, and that meetings such as the recent G8 summit in Germany – at which countries including Canada sat down with Russia as a moral equal – do “great damage to the cause of real democracy in Russia.”
“Things are getting worse now. … (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has learned that if he does things in small steps, the West will say little and do nothing,” Kasparov said. “We ask that the leaders of the free world stop providing Putin with democratic legitimacy. The law (on political free speech) in its current form is no different from Soviet times,” he said, and acknowledged that, of course, he considers himself a target. Kasparov was arrested and interrogated in April by the FSB, Russia’s security service, after using a radio interview to encourage attendance at a political rally. “Aristotle himself could not have found a better definition of oligarchy than what we have in the Kremlin,” he said yesterday. Kasparov warned his largely Bay St. audience to be wary of who profits from their Russian investments.
The Wall Street Journal has more:
As President Vladimir Putin gathered with European leaders for a summit in the southern Russia city of Samara last month, Garry Kasparov prepared to lead a march of his opposition group nearby.
The former world chess champion got no farther than the check-in counter at a Moscow airport. Two blue-uniformed security agents confiscated his passport, saying they suspected his ticket to Samara was a fake.
Detained, he shifted strategy. Pacing between the duty-free shop and an Irish pub, he used his cellphone to call reporters. Reports of his plight trickled down to Samara. At the summit-meeting news conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chastised Mr. Putin for restricting demonstrators. Visibly agitated, Mr. Putin dismissed Mr. Kasparov and his allies as “marginals.”
Russian state television largely blacks out Mr. Kasparov’s movement harshly criticizing the Putin government. Yet thanks in part to his deft handling of the Kremlin’s violent crackdowns on rallies, the onetime chess champion has improbably reinvented himself as Mr. Putin’s pre-eminent opposition. He’s done so by exploiting a crack in Mr. Putin’s controlled political system.
The Kremlin channels dissent into parties that limit their criticism to lower-level officials, and hounds any party that tries to run without Kremlin approval. There remains a reservoir of angry but muffled voices. Mr. Kasparov, as a celebrity who refuses to shut up, has managed to unify them to some degree.
“Kasparov was the first to understand that it’s impossible to work within the political system — it only helps the Kremlin,” says Viktor Shenderovich, a satirist and writer who has joined his anti-Putin coalition. “That’s why they call him an extremist.”
Whether Mr. Kasparov can parlay Russians’ unhappiness over government crackdowns on dissent into a political career is another matter. Mr. Kasparov, who was once honored by a think tank tied to the top of the U.S. security establishment, plays into dark Kremlin warnings about supposed American plans to mount a Ukraine-style democratic revolution in Russia.
His crazy-quilt coalition underlines how hard it will be for critics to mount a serious challenge when Russia picks a new president next year. Mr. Kasparov is one of four leaders of the opposition coalition, called The Other Russia. Some members complain he is pushing too fast toward a collision with the authorities. And fractures are forming over whom to run for president.
The coalition includes nationalists, Communists, human-rights activists, free-market liberals and anarchist bibliophiles — groups whose main thing in common is that the regime shunts them aside. They pose little apparent threat to a president who has 70% approval ratings, after eight years of economic recovery and relative political stability. But Mr. Putin isn’t eligible to run again in 2008.
The coalition has better luck getting attention outside Russia than in. Mr. Kasparov met with President Bush early this month at a democracy conference in Prague. Within Russia, organizers must rely on word of mouth and the Internet to spread news of their political rallies.
Married three times, the 44-year-old has lately shuttled between Moscow and New York. His spokesman says Mr. Kasparov’s wife, for security reasons, has been living in New York since October, when she gave birth to their daughter. In Moscow, Mr. Kasparov lives on a back street with his mother, who schedules his appointments and coaches him in interviews.
Long before entering politics, Mr. Kasparov tangled with Soviet sports authorities as an upstart chess player. Born in Soviet Azerbaijan to an Armenian mother and a Jewish father, he never found a comfortable place in the Communist establishment. Born Garry Weinstein, he took his mother’s Armenian-sounding last name, Kasparyan, after his father died. Later he changed it to the more Russian form, Kasparov.
Prodded by his mother, Mr. Kasparov rose to become a chess grandmaster at 17. By 21, after trouncing opponents at home and abroad, he was the challenger to Anatoly Karpov, then the world champion and a revered figure in the Soviet Union.
They were a contrast. One chess writer, Gabriel Schoenfeld, likened Mr. Kasparov to dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, calling his game “defiantly romantic” and full of bold forays and risk-taking. The writer said Mr. Karpov, 12 years older, played an apparatchik-like game of positional warfare.
Mr. Kasparov lost the first few games of their 1984 match but then dug in and began to stalemate Mr. Karpov, who became exhausted after months of playing. The World Chess Federation’s chief canceled the match. At a new one the next year, Mr. Kasparov won and became the youngest world champion at the age of 22.
Previously silent on politics, he began to lash out at the Soviet system, which he called rotten beyond redemption. His critique made him a darling of anti-Communists in the U.S. The Center for Security Policy, a think tank advocating world peace through U.S. strength, gave Mr. Kasparov its Keeper of the Flame Award in 1991 and put him on its advisory board, many members of which were former Pentagon officials.
Mr. Kasparov says he accepted the award but nobody ever told him he was a member of the board and he never attended any meetings. He says he had his name removed from the think tank’s Web site when political foes began to raise the issue.
Mr. Kasparov’s anti-Communist views put him in sync with what came to be called neo-conservatism in the U.S. He became a contributing editor to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, he bemoaned Washington’s failure to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. NATO intervention against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo — denounced in Russia as U.S. aggression — won his praise. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Kasparov wrote that the U.S. should pursue its enemies around the Middle East: Besides Baghdad, “we must also have plans for Tehran and Damascus, not to mention Riyadh.”
In Russia, Mr. Kasparov initially welcomed Mr. Putin’s ascent to power in 2000, predicting he would bring to power a new generation of pragmatic politicians. But a year later, saying he had been mistaken, Mr. Kasparov decried the new president’s revival of the Soviet national anthem, invasion of Chechnya and crackdown on a TV network that criticized the Chechen war.
Throughout, he continued his chess — writing books, giving speeches and winning tournaments that made him rich. He retired from chess in 2005, having “done all I wanted to do” in the game. He says politics in Russia, where the Kremlin had all but silenced critics, was more of a challenge.
For two years, Mr. Kasparov wandered the political wilderness, touring the provinces to deliver speeches few heard. In southern Russia, he was spattered by pro-Kremlin youths throwing ketchup-covered eggs. In Moscow, a young man hit him on the head with a chess board.
The most prominent opposition figure at the time was Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister fired by Mr. Putin in 2004. Mr. Kasyanov was stymied in his efforts to work within the system, his speeches muffled by hecklers and unexplained microphone blackouts.
Mr. Kasparov took a gamble and reached out to more-radical critics. He struck an alliance early last year with an avant-garde writer, Eduard Limonov, head of something called the National Bolshevik Party. Known for occupying federal buildings and throwing food at officials, it has a flag combining Soviet and Nazi symbols.
The alliance alarmed veterans of the liberal opposition. “Kasparov is a very brave man, but a naive man, and what he is doing now is very dangerous,” says Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, a party long in opposition to the Kremlin.
The Other Russia held its first demonstration at a Moscow square in December. Police arrested hundreds who tried to reach the site from outside Moscow. Organizers had to cancel plans to march down a thoroughfare to the Kremlin after thousands of police in riot gear cornered the 2,000 protesters with metal barriers, trucks and water cannons. In other cities, authorities denied Mr. Kasparov’s group permits and beat protesters.
At a Moscow rally in April, police beat and arrested dozens of demonstrators. They pulled Mr. Kasparov from a cafe, but he escaped arrest when his bodyguards wrestled him free.
The violence, covered in the Western media and shown in Russia as well, cemented Mr. Kasparov’s status as the most visible leader of the opposition. Polls showed widespread disapproval by Russians of the violent suppression of rallies. Recent crackdowns have been less brutal, as authorities have turned to detaining and intimidating organizers before the marches, instead of beating participants after they hit the streets.
In the runup to this December’s parliamentary voting and next March’s presidential vote, fractures are opening in the coalition. One strain involves whom to back for president. Mr. Kasyanov, the fired former prime minister, has declared he will run. But at least for now Mr. Kasparov is backing Viktor Gerashchenko, a former chairman of the central bank.
Some Kasparov allies fear Mr. Gerashchenko, 69, has neither the charisma nor energy to challenge Mr. Putin’s still-unnamed choice as successor. In the West, Mr. Gerashchenko was blamed for a 1994 ruble crash. But Mr. Kasparov believes the former Soviet official can help lure the votes of Communists.
Mr. Kasparov says he won’t declare himself as a candidate, because doing so would spoil his role as mediator of the delicate coalition. “They need someone to bring people together,” he says. “And I am a well-known man who cannot be easily shut up.”
The coalition has drawn in elements of other political parties. A former top Putin economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, has joined, as has a left-wing economist, Mikhail Delyagin. The St. Petersburg branch of the Yabloko opposition party has joined coalition demonstrations, rejecting orders of their leader, Mr. Yavlinsky.
Mr. Kasparov’s most active ally lately appears to be with Mr. Limonov, whose followers have been a hard-bitten core for the street demonstrations. Earlier this year, Mr. Limonov’s party was banned under a new anti-extremism law. More than three dozen members are in jail on various charges.
Before the planned demonstration at the Samara summit conference last month, Messrs. Limonov and Kasparov planned to take the same flight to Samara. Mr. Limonov arrived at the Moscow airport at the same time as Mr. Kasparov, dressed in black and with a handful of burly party members with buzz cuts. As he and Mr. Kasparov stepped to the ticket counter, a major from Russia’s security service took their passports and said there was a problem with their tickets. He told them to sit in an upstairs waiting lounge.
As the hours ticked by, it became clear the officers were going to keep them waiting until all flights to Samara had left. Mr. Kasparov argued with the guards, then started talking to reporters on his cellphone. “The Europeans must stop being buddies with Putin,” he told one reporter. “They must recognize that he is head of an authoritarian state.”
Mr. Limonov paced, pulled at his goatee and scowled. “I used to yell and get angry, but I have been in politics for 13 years now and I got sick of it,” he said. “I like traveling with Garry because he does all the yelling, and explains to the stupid foreign reporters the same things over and over.”
After the last flight to Samara left, the security officers let the two go. Mr. Kasparov held another impromptu news conference, then rode home with his bodyguards.
His mother had a late lunch waiting, a traditional Armenian meal of dolma, soup and vegetables. Mr. Kasparov ate little as he took more calls from reporters. His mother interrupted him for an urgent interview on a local radio station. “Garry, come over here,” she said, holding up the phone in a corner of the living room. “You’re on in 40 seconds.”
Mr. Kasparov walked over and took the phone. “Now don’t speak too fast, and speak simply,” his mother said. The interview started, and she said, “Slow down, Garry, don’t get excited.”
Mr Kasparov is a phenomenon. In 1985 he became the world’s youngest ever chess champion at the age of 22. He went on to dominate the chess world, beating all comers, and remaining the world’s number one chess player for 20 years. Mr Kasparov, in other words, is not to be underestimated. But in his newly-chosen calling he faces very different opponents, who rarely play by the rules. I met Mr Kasparov standing at a bus stop outside St Petersburg airport . Sporting a denim jacket and blue baseball cap he looked nothing like the average Russian politician.
They usually wear shiny suits and hide behind the dark tinted windows of large German limousines. The one thing Mr Kasparov does have these days is bodyguards, large men with thick necks and dark glasses. Russian politics is a dirty game. Mr Kasparov was on his way to lead a political rally in Russia’s second city. He is trying to unify the disparate groups that make up Russia’s fractured and marginalised political opposition. Since Vladimir Putin came to power here seven years ago, political opposition to the Kremlin has all but disappeared.
The Russian parliament is dominated by two pro-Kremlin parties, United Russia and A Just Russia. Much of the mainstream media has come back under Kremlin control and the voices of dissent have been gradually silenced. Mr Kasparov believes real political opposition to Mr Putin can now come only from outside parliament, and that means taking to the streets. In St Petersburg the weather was good, and the diminutive grey-haired chess player was in a feisty mood. “Any police state is nervous about street protests,” he says. “They know that lots of people are unhappy. Today it could be 5,000, tomorrow 50,000. The regime feels it is unstable. It feels the growing protest.”
A crowd began to gather by mid-afternoon in the heart of St Petersburg. But it was not like any political protest I have ever been on before. Anyone wanting to join the march first had to show their identity papers to the police, and pass through a metal detector and body search. An hour later, the crowd had swollen to 1,000 people but they were still far outnumbered by the ranks of police. On a march in Moscow two months earlier thousands of police in full riot gear had stormed in to the crowd, cracking heads and dragging away protesters. For the Kremlin it was a public relations disaster, and they seem to have learned a lesson.
With Mr Kasparov in the lead the march headed off. Liberals and environmentalists marched side-by-side with right wing xenophobes – a very odd collection. The march ended with a whimper, a half-hearted rally on a patch of grass in front of an old church.
The ‘New Russians’
A crowd of onlookers gathered in the park across the street, making sarcastic remarks. “Who are these losers?” one man commented, “what are they complaining about?” After the march, I headed across town to meet a young Russian family at St Petersburg’s massive new Ikea store. Jenya, 24, and her husband are what are generally referred to here as “New Russians” – people who have benefited from Mr Putin’s rule. Jenya and her husband both speak English. She is studying for a PhD in law and her husband is an engineer at the new Toyota car plant. They are liberal, western-looking. But they simply cannot understand why anybody would take to the streets to oppose Mr Putin.
Little to fear
“I don’t understand these protest activities,” she told me. “I’m not saying Putin is the best, but would the alternative be better? Our lives are getting better every year. I hope they will continue to get better. I wish Putin could stay on for another term,” she said. And that is the simple truth. Mr Putin may be increasingly disliked outside Russia. But at home he enjoys popularity ratings US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair only dream about. Yes, he has stifled public debate; yes, he has rolled back democracy; yes, his secret police are once again the most powerful organ of the Russian state. But, for most Russians, Mr Putin is a saviour, the man who brought them stability and prosperity after the dark days of the 1990s. Mr Putin has been lucky. Without sky-high oil prices it might be a very different story. But, for now, the former secret policeman seems to have little to fear from the former chess champion.
LR: The people of Germany didn’t do much to stop the rise of the extermination camps either, also claiming that they had no reason to since Hitler was making things “better” for a majority of Germans following their humiliation and suffering in World War II. Is Russia headed down exactly the same selfish, childish, self-destructive path? You better believe it, dear reader, you better believe it.