Brief Lives December 2005

Challenge Match

How the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov hopes to unseat President Vladimir Putin

Politics in Russia has historically been a game of winner take all. Victors amass booty and virtual immunity from censure or even prosecution. The vanquished, if they are lucky, escape abroad or putter away their remaining years in dacha gardens. On the surface the contemporary situation is not much different: President Vladimir Putin, in power since 2000, has packed the State Duma and the Federation Council (Russia's bicameral legislature) with his supporters, and the national media are largely subservient to his wishes. During the first four years of his rule Putin's approval ratings never dropped below 70 percent, and in 2004 he won re-election with 71 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, the Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, received only 14 percent and has drifted back into the muddy fields of his demographically doomed party. Now Moscow is awash in rumors that in 2008 Putin may seek election to a third term—a move currently prohibited by the constitution, but easily arranged.

All is not well for Putin, however. His approval ratings have swung wildly over the past twelve months, at times dropping by twenty points or more. Despite five years of draconian measures designed to suppress challenges to his authority, Putin looks increasingly vulnerable, especially since his botched attempt to rescue the schoolchildren taken hostage in Beslan in September of 2004 (which sparked angry protests in the North Caucasus, to say nothing of horror and dismay among his supporters elsewhere in the country) and his bungled economic reforms of last winter (which led to the first violent demonstrations of his tenure). If ever the opposition in Russia has had a chance, it is now; and the man most eager to seize the moment is a highly recognizable and admired public figure in Russia, better known internationally for most of the past twenty years as the world's chess champion: Garry Kimovich Kasparov.

Russia is roughly as enamored of chess as the United States is of pro tennis. When Kasparov left the game to enter politics, in March of this year, the move sparked puzzlement among fans and skepticism from political commentators, who stressed his inexperience and lack of status in the no-holds-barred arena of Russian politics. But the pundits' declarations notwithstanding, Kasparov is no novice in politics. He quit the Communist Party in 1990, when it became clear that the days of the Soviet system were numbered. He then went on to help found the Democratic Party of Russia and the pro-Western bloc Russia's Choice, now defunct but once the standard-bearers of liberalism. And in 1996 he campaigned actively for Boris Yeltsin's re-election. These are passable bona fides for any Russian liberal.

Not surprisingly, Kasparov has given up on pursuing change through the system as restructured by Putin, and has instead embarked on a campaign to effect, in his own words, nothing less than the "dismantlement of the regime"—an undertaking that will surely demand as much determination, brashness, and brio as he displayed during his career in chess. He is a revolutionary, goaded into action by the Kremlin's authoritarianism and the impotence of the liberal opposition, and he has concluded that Russia's fate will be decided through something resembling the mass protests that recently toppled corrupt governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. His aim is to unseat Putin through a sort of eclectic command center known as Committee 2008: Free Choice—a group made up of thirty-two members of various ideological persuasions, and affiliated with a broader outgrowth, the United Civic Front, which consists of about 2,000 liberals, Communists, members of extreme nationalist parties, and even defectors from the pro-Putin behemoth United Russia, scattered across twenty-one regions. What unites them all is the threat presented by the government's authoritarianism, and a determination to stop Putin from seeking a third term.

Early one clement morning in August, Kasparov took me along for a series of speaking engagements that Committee 2008 had arranged for him in Vladimir, a small city 120 miles northeast of the capital. He stepped out of the entryway of his apartment building, in central Moscow, trim and vigorous, his salt-and-pepper hair thick under a baseball cap, his swarthy complexion suggesting Jewish and Armenian descent—a strike against him on the pavement of a city where skinheads and other extremists frequently assault those who look "non-Russian." Kasparov's public-relations officer, a luminous young blonde named Marina Litvinovich, introduced us, and we climbed aboard a pearl-gray minibus. Several other members of his entourage hopped in as well. Bodyguards would trail us in a silver-hued SUV.

Our driver navigated among begrimed Ladas, Volgas, and Moskviches in a lurching cavalcade studded with clean new Mercedes and the occasional glistening black Volvo (perhaps belonging to a Duma deputy or other state official) forcing traffic aside with sirens and flickering high beams. Muscovites, many dressed to the nines, slipped between vehicles to cross the jammed streets. Soon we passed the Ring Road—Moscow's Beltway—and trundled into the countryside, where steel-and-glass buildings gave way to gritty cement hovels with hand-painted wooden signs. At the roadside scarved old ladies sold mud-covered produce or stood waiting for buses.

"Leaving Moscow is like entering another dimension," Kasparov said, his eyes on the montage of rural decay sliding by. "As things are now, Russian politics is conducted within the Ring Road. Even liberal politicians don't travel much. They fear the people." Kasparov has no choice but to hit the road to deliver his message: state-friendly television gives scant airtime to opposition figures. But there is more to his travels than that, he said. "For me leaving the capital is like attending university. We'll visit some twenty regions by year's end, and I'm correcting our actions based on what I learn. I want to shift the center of political gravity from Moscow to the regions, to bring big politics down to the molecular level, to show people how it affects them, and how we can change policy to change our lives."

His peripatetics so far have proved neither smooth nor safe. In a throwback to hammer-and-sickle days, when the state found ingenious ways to harass lone but dogged dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the authorities now seem determined to discourage Kasparov. High-ranking police officers regularly await him at venues. Interior Ministry troops roughed him up at a rally this past May. When he visited the North Caucasus, in June, the trip devolved into quasi-farce: three airports denied his chartered plane landing rights; auditoriums at which he was scheduled to speak inexplicably closed or lost their electricity; hotels at which he was booked turned suddenly "full"; rowdy teenagers hurled ketchup-covered eggs at him; and the police denied him access to Chechen refugee camps. Kasparov's worldwide fame probably dissuades his opponents from more-aggressive tactics; two other Putin challengers have fared worse. One of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and chief of the oil company Yukos, sits in jail, ostensibly for tax evasion and fraud, but probably because he planned to finance the opposition. The other, the former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, voiced an interest in the presidency and soon found himself facing accusations of fraud and abuse of office, plus a tax audit.

As we neared Vladimir, I asked Kasparov what motivated him to leave chess for politics, risky as it is, and when a majority of Russians appear so apolitical.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of four books, including Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Bus, Truck, Boat, and Camel.

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