On June 17, United Civil Front leader and Solidarity co-leader Garry Kasparov testified before the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs about the grave state of Russia’s political, judicial, and economic systems. Touching on issues ranging from rampant corruption that has exploded on an exponential scale to the perpetration of terrorist acts in occupied Georgian territory, not to mention the overall lack of freedom of speech or free elections and an endless list of other civil rights violations in the country, Kasparov called on congressional leaders to take a stand and stop treating Vladimir Putin and other corrupt Russian officials as members of an actual democracy in economic and diplomatic affairs.
A full transcript of the speech is printed below. The listed appendices were submitted to the committee along with Kasparov’s testimony.
My thanks to the Committee and to Chairman Ros-Lehtinen for permitting me to testify here today. My name is Garry Kasparov. I was born in the Soviet Union in 1963 and currently live in Moscow. Until my retirement in 2005, I represented first the USSR and then Russia as the world chess champion. After I left the sport, I joined the pro-democracy movement in my country, motivated by the disturbing course change away from freedom that Russia was undergoing under President Vladimir Putin. I could not accept that my own children would grow up in a totalitarian state as I had. And to those who have suggested that I should leave Russia for my family’s convenience and safety, I say that it is my country, one I proudly represented around the world for decades, and so let the KGB leave, not me.
My current roles are chairman of the United Civil Front, a pro-democracy group, and co-chair of the Russian Solidarity Movement, an umbrella organization for those people and parties opposed to the one man, one party rule of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. One of my first activities was the organization of the Other Russia Conference Moscow in 2006, the first serious attempts to unite the opposition to Putin’s crackdown on democratic institutions and individual rights. The Conference also attracted a wide range of supporters abroad, here including Senator John McCain, Secretary Madeleine Albright, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and your former chairman, my friend Tom Lantos, whose passion for human rights never failed to inspire.
More recently, I traveled across almost all of Russia to talk to and listen to my countrymen, which is the only way for most Russians to hear from a critic of the Putin regime, since we are banned from the mass media. My colleagues and I are dedicated to bringing individual freedom and the rule of law to Russia, and we know very well by now that this cannot happen as long as Putin is in power. We protest in the streets, we provide legal defense for those who are punished for standing up to the regime, and we try to let Russians know that they are not helpless and that they are not alone.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, we on the other side of the Wall felt far more hope than you can imagine. Yes, there was fear and confusion as well, but thanks to the courage of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others who followed them, hundreds of millions of people had the opportunity to grasp the freedom that the western world takes for granted. It was a great moment in world history and those leaders who did not forget about us will in turn never be forgotten by us.
For those who do not follow events in Russia, that is often where the story ends. Communism was proved bankrupt, the Cold War ended, and Russia joined the free world. Unfortunately, that last item on the agenda was never quite completed. Russia under Boris Yeltsin quickly acquired many of the mechanisms of democracy and freedom, but the values and traditions that support them never had a chance to put down roots. Economic chaos, rampant corruption, and widespread violence left many Russians with the impression that these were the fruits of democracy. When former KGB lieutenant-colonel Vladimir Putin took control of the country in 2000, he and his cronies were very quick to exploit that impression, just as the Communists had done in the previous election against Yeltsin.
By the way, I refer to Russia’s state security apparatus as the KGB for the expediency of this more widely recognized acronym. Its name has been changed many times over the decades, but calling it the FSB, its current name, does not change its nature. I admit that I had some hopes that the rampant corruption of the last Yeltsin years would be reined in by this unknown but efficient KGB man Putin. I could have never imagined that in just a few years, a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, forefather of the KGB, that had been torn down by jubilant crowds over a decade earlier, would soon find its way back to the plaza, both figuratively and literally.
The new regime quickly began the process of dismantling the fragile new institutions of honest elections and a free media. Rivals and dissenters were purged from the political and business realms, power was tightly centralized in the executive, and the flow of federal money from the wealthy center to the rest of the country was reversed, creating what most resembles a feudal oligarchy. The Putin regime also contains elements of Mussolini’s corporate fascism, with giant private monopolies working together with the state. It’s really a combination of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. The expenses are nationalized while profits are privatized.
One of the most common, and most ignorant, commentaries we of the opposition hear about the situation in Russia today is that we should be grateful, because things are better now than they were in the USSR. This is damning with very faint praise! Why go back to the 1970s to make comparisons? What about 1991? Or 1998? We had many problems then, yes, but we also had far more liberty and the potential to stay on a course to join the free world. Putin took that from us. We are also often told that Russians want a strong hand, a Tsar, and do not really want democracy. I reject completely this notion of a mysterious genetic tendency. Consider China and Taiwan, East and West Germany, and the two Koreas.
Putin’s economic miracle is another common myth. If you look at the numbers, the real economy was ready to boom in 2000 even with oil prices in the teens. Russia was recovering from the 1998 default and market reforms were taking effect despite the high corruption level. And yet now, even with oil back near $100, the outlook is still poor. The country is falling apart as the oligarchs steal the money faster than it can be pumped out of the ground. We are quickly becoming a resource-dependent petro-dictatorship. Putin and his gang are not Communists, or nationalists, or anything else. There is no ideology, only power and money.
But we have elections, yes, we do have elections. We go through the motions of voting and put on a show of campaigning and counting, all as if it really mattered – even though we all know it is all only for show. Putin is so secure in his power he did even bother changing the constitution to take another term. He simply put his shadow, Medvedev, in his chair temporarily, and continued business as usual. America and the rest of the free world prefer to go along with the charade, to allow Russia a place in the G-8 as if Russia were a real democracy. To those who say that Putin is popular, and that fake elections and suppression of dissent are irrelevant, I ask them, “how do you know?” Would you trust opinion polls in a police state? If he is so popular, why jail opposition activists, why blacklist so many rivals and so many topics from the media?
As for Medvedev, he is bait for a trap. For more than three years now, first as Putin’s hand-picked “candidate” and now as president, he has been making statements that give credulous Russians and willingly duped foreign officials false hope that he will lead a liberalization movement against Putin. But how can a man be in conflict with his shadow? For all his talk, Medvedev has done nothing to ease the oppression while doing much to make it worse. Laws have been passed that broadly define opposition members as extremists, even terrorists, and the list of political prisoners continues to grow longer. In theory, Dmitri Medvedev can create the Medvedev Era with one stroke of his pen, by signing an order to relieve Vladimir Putin from his post as prime minister. But as the popular joke in Russia goes, “There are two parties in Russia today. The Putin party and the Medvedev party. The problem is Medvedev doesn’t know which one he belongs to.”
A cynic may ask, “why does it matter to us if Russians do not have freedom of speech? We have enough problems now, why take a stand?” For decades, America led the fight to contain the spread of Communism. Not only because it threatened American interests, but because every president understood that being America meant standing up for American ideals worldwide. The USSR was not just a threat, it was, in Reagan’s typically blunt term, the evil empire, to be resisted on moral grounds. Its people were victims to be aided, not enemies to be destroyed.
When the wall fell, the free world celebrated and in so doing, let down its guard. Just as all the professional analysts were surprised by the collapse of the USSR, it seems today few are willing to admit Russia has slipped back into darkness. This is a terrible mistake, as the spread of the corruption of Putin’s corporate state is a serious threat to freedom worldwide. It only imitates capitalism, while in reality it is a state-run machine for looting national resources in Russia and the shareholders of companies abroad. Corruption, not oil or gas, has become Russia’s biggest export. The western appeasement crowd that keeps calling for engagement that will eventually transform Russia cannot see that it is the West, not Russia, that is being transformed by this contact.
Drawn by the lure of big profits, western presidents, prime ministers, and corporations have lined up to sacrifice their professed ideals in order to do business completely on the Kremlin’s terms. Transparency International ranks Russia as 154th of the 178 nations on their corruption index. On their list of the world’s twenty-two largest exporting nations, Russia scores by far the worst in evaluating its corporations’ readiness to pay bribes while doing business abroad. After over a decade of Putin and increasing economic engagement with the rest of the world, Russia’s rankings have gotten worse, not better. The neighboring nations most closely allied with Putin’s government have also dropped steadily in the corruption rankings. The problem inside Russia has become epidemic. According to estimates made by the leading Russian expert in corruption, Georgyi Satarov, the overall amount of bribes in the Russian economy skyrocketed from $33 billion to more than $400 billion per year during Putin’s rule.
Putin is also not above the old-fashioned use of force, as he demonstrated by invading neighboring Georgia and annexing its sovereign territory. Which, by the way, is still occupied by military force and where Putin continues to make threats.
Kremlin provocations inside Georgia continue via a series of terrorist bombings that have been strongly linked to Russian intelligence officers operating from the annexed territory of Abkhazia. An official list of these state-sponsored terror attacks issued by the Georgian government is attached to my submitted testimony. The Kremlin has had no qualms blackmailing its neighbors and Europe over natural gas, at one point cutting supplies and causing shortages to half of the European Union during winter. Always looking for new sources of cash, the Kremlin continues to supply military and nuclear technology to belligerent states like Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. It is often said that the US needs Russia’s help in various regions, but it has been clear many times that the Kremlin’s only interest is self interest. Putin is delighted to help the United States stay stuck in Afghanistan and to stir up conflict in the region, as any incident drives up the price of oil, the money from which keeps the oligarchs in power.
Assuming there is the will to take action, what then is the way? Jackson-Vanik is an antique piece of legislation, but it is a potent symbol of the value America places on human rights and repealing it without replacing it with sends a terrible message. In this regard, the Senate Bill S1039 is superior to the House effort. The common refrain is that there is no leverage with the Kremlin, no power hard or soft that can loosen Putin’s grip on the levers of power or influence him to lifting some of the pressure on our rights. The principle refutation of this line exists because Russia today is not the Soviet Union. Putin’s closest allies, those who keep him in power, are not faceless gray Politburo members who aspire to nothing more than a nice house or car. Putin’s oligarchs own global companies, buy real estate in London, Biarritz, New York City. The money they have pilfered from Russia’s treasury goes to buy art, yachts, and American and British sports teams. In short, they wish to enjoy the spoils and this makes them vulnerable. Putin needs the West’s support because that is where they all keep their money.
They are vulnerable to limitations on banking, acquisitions and travel, leading to what I call the “Do not Fly, Do not Buy List.” Even the suggestion that their investments abroad might be investigated would cause shockwaves in the Kremlin power structure. So many of their assets come from shady deals and looted properties that if the West ceases to rubber-stamp their money-laundering operations they will cease to treat Putin as the all-powerful guarantor of their wealth. As the famous Washington saying goes, follow the money and you will get results.
This treatment of denying visas and investigating investments must not be reserved for Putin’s wealthy supporters. The entire Kremlin power structure, especially the judiciary, is made up of loyalists with no regard for the rule of law. Those who violate their oaths and betray the laws they should be upholding should not be granted immunity by the civilized world. The police and prosecutors who fabricate evidence, the judges who rubber-stamp the convictions, the officials who rig the elections, they can and must be held accountable. They are following orders from above, yes, but just because they will not pay for their crimes in Russia does not mean they should be treated as decent citizens when they leave the protection of the KGB police state. Senate Bill S1039 is a step in the right direction to achieve this. Unlike the House bill, which is directed only at those involved in the Magnitsky case, the Senate bill has a broad mandate to sanction those who violate democratic and human rights in Russia. Putin’s supporters and followers will know immediately that the free ride is over and that, at any time, they may be held responsible for their actions.
The creation of a new police state in Russia is not an anonymous, blameless crime. I have included with my submitted testimony lists we have compiled of the officials involved in numerous grave violations of Russian law and Russia’s international commitments. There are many precedents for taking action against such individuals. The members and leaders of the Cosa Nostra, the Italian mafia, were above the law in their native Sicily. But many were refused entry to the United States due to their criminal connections. Those who whitewash the murders of journalists and opposition members and those who carry out the repression of Putin’s Russia should be treated with equal scorn by the civilized world. These are not warlords or soldiers, they are bureaucrats who side with power because they want the easy life. If their lives become less easy, you will be surprised at how quickly things can turn.
The final argument is that Russia is too strong, that its oil and gas reserves make the Kremlin too powerful and influential to resist. This is similar to the theory that the US cannot stand up to China on Tibet or anything else because China holds so much American debt. But the Chinese are not fools. They know that the day after America defaults, the Chinese economy would explode to the moon. It’s economic mutually assured destruction, and the same principle is in effect with Russian resources. Russia cannot cease selling oil and gas to the West, despite the occasional threat. The pipelines are in place, the contracts are written, and the entire Kremlin oligarchy depends on the high profit margins to stay in power. Without the cash surplus that comes with $100 per barrel oil, the hollow state of the Russian economy would quickly be revealed.
Lastly, I would like to call attention the large sums of American money that go to Russian NGOs, roughly $70 million in the last year according to USAID’s website. The details about exactly where and to whom this money goes are still impossible to find. Because of the way business is done in Putin’s Russia, however, it is safe to assume that much, or even most, of the money goes to government officials and other middlemen. It has been remarkably difficult to uncover any information about these payments.
Publicly disclosing all these payments will also refute the Putin regime’s persistent argument that we of the democratic opposition are funded by the CIA or other so-called foreign provocateurs. Do not forget that the US is routinely portrayed as threat, not an ally, by the state-controlled media inside Russia.
I look forward to the day when a strong, independent, and economically and culturally vibrant Russia takes its place among the leading nations of the world as an equal partner. This can only happen when our people are free to choose their leaders and free to achieve their dreams. Our problems are for us to solve; we do not beg for help. What we ask is that America and the other leading nations of the free world live up to their own traditions and rhetoric. End the hypocrisy of treating Putin’s regime like a democratic ally. Stop treating the oligarchs who plunder our nation like legitimate businessmen. Stop allowing the agents of a police state to travel without restrictions or shame.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, in Baku, Azerbaijan, we were told America was the enemy. But most of us understood that there must be something good there if the government was so keen on keeping it from us. Generations of American leaders faced down nuclear annihilation to fight for the rights of those behind the Iron Curtain. Surely the threat of Putin’s Russia is nothing in comparison. From the Marshall Plan to Jackson-Vanik, the United States has listened, spoken, and acted. There is no longer a wall that needs to be torn down, but courage is still necessary to protect our most sacred values. I thank you again for inviting me here today and I wish you all the courage to act.
Appendix I: Individuals Responsible for Violating the Russian Federation’s International Commitments With Regard to the Rule of Law and Diplomatic Relations
Appendix II: Public Officials of the Russian Federation Involved in the Unlawful Prosecution of OAO NK YUKOS, its Executives, Employees and Persons linked to the Company
Appendix III: Acts of Terrorism and Sabotage Organized by Russian Special Services in Georgia in 2009‐2011