Brief Lives December 2005

Challenge Match

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

"I can't say I'm not afraid," he replied. "But the government is destroying our country. I feel a moral imperative to act—either to act or leave. And I'm not leaving. Putin knows if he leaves the Kremlin, he'll be heading not to a retirement pension but to Lefortovo [Prison]. People are asking why, with state revenues at record highs from oil prices, they're living worse and worse." Notwithstanding an 85 percent rise in oil prices over the past twelve months, the growth in Russia's GDP—20 percent of which derives from oil and gas—is expected to drop from 7.1 percent last year to 5.9 percent this year. After six years of much-touted economic growth, wages average only $200 to $300 a month in Moscow—and the average is half that, or less, in the provinces. Kasparov noted that under Putin, as under Yeltsin, politicians and bureaucrats batten on the kormushki (feeding troughs) their offices provide them, extracting bribes, "gifts," and other lucrative benefits from their sinecures. According to the Moscow think tank Indem, since 2001 the average bribe has jumped from $10,200 to $135,000—despite Putin's loudly publicized anti-corruption campaign. "All the bureaucrats must get their share," Kasparov told me. "They side with Putin as long as he gives them kormushki, but they will run out. When that happens, and it's a matter of time, they will have less reason to support him. One can't rule out violence; there are too many hyenas to feed."

Three hours after setting out, we pulled into Vladimir's suburbs, a wasteland of concrete apartment blocks standing in shabby dominion over ragged fields. Near the dusty glass doors of the Palace of Young Creators—a cement edifice that blends the bleakest of Soviet and Bauhaus styles—a chunky middle-aged police officer stood glaring at us, his arms crossed. Two younger policemen loitered near the doors, looking bored. They made way for a crowd of forty or fifty of Kasparov's fans, led by the palace's director, emerging to greet their idol.

Kasparov took a seat on the stage of an auditorium that was almost full. He spoke matter-of-factly, as he had to me. Answering the first question, he dispelled a common misperception about his entry into politics: "I have no plans to run for office myself. My aim is to ensure that we have free and fair elections in 2008, and that the president of Russia has the mandate of the Russian people. The government must know it can be replaced; only then will it be accountable to the people. Officials from the lowest to the highest must be elected." This was an oblique reference to Putin's decision last year to abolish gubernatorial elections and appoint governors himself, and to the rumors that he may soon do away with mayoral polls.

Questions on a variety of subjects followed in respectful volleys, but Kasparov stayed on message: Russians must embark on an open national discourse to determine their goals and how to attain them. Only then will development and prosperity ensue. "It's our country," he said, "and all of us must do what we can to help it." If this seems a statement of the obvious, one should remember that throughout history ordinary Russians have shunned politics as a rule, intervening only at cataclysmic junctures, and with mostly negative results.

After a fifteen-minute interview outside with Vladimir's TV 6, we bundled back aboard the minibus and took off for lunch and a press conference at the Staryi Gorod restaurant, in the town's center.

All the seats were occupied. In attendance around a quadrangular arrangement of tables, along with disheveled local reporters, were saggy-jowled civic leaders and bureaucrats; a camera crew from RTR, Russia's state-television channel 2; and five hulking members of a pro-Kremlin youth group called Nashi ("Us"—as opposed to "Them"). Nashi's founder, Vasily Yakemenko, has pledged to use his members, who number around 150,000 and come from thirty regions, to help Putin combat, in unspecified ways, corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs along with "liberals, fascists, pro-Western politicians, and ultranationalists." Yakemenko has designated Kasparov and Committee 2008 as enemies. Analysts and human-rights activists believe that the Kremlin may arrange to deploy Nashi against demonstrators in the event of widespread unrest in the run-up to elections. Kasparov agrees, calling them the "shock troops of the regime." Three sat directly facing him, and two were nearby on his left.

A middle-aged woman stood up and asked why Kasparov cites the dismantlement of the regime as his primary aim. Couldn't he offer a more positive goal?

Kasparov acknowledged that some of his supporters and colleagues had asked him to soften his message. "To that," Kasparov said, "I answered, Let's say the overthrow of the regime."

He smiled. Some in the crowd winced at his words; for understandable reasons, Russians as a rule distrust talk of revolution. But he didn't slow down. Reminding the audience that Putin had strangled the media and cut off channels of communication with the people, thereby consigning resistance to the streets, he hit his stride. "We must do everything so that money remains in the regions, where it is earned, to solve the regions' problems. Moscow is a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up the wealth of the regions and sending it abroad." Capital flight, around $2 billion in 2003, hit $7.9 billion in 2004 and is expected to reach $10 billion this year. "Why, five years after the sinking of the Kursk submarine [and the loss of the 118 sailors aboard it], do we still have no naval rescue service? Why is Russia selling nuclear technology to Iran when Iran sponsors Islamic terrorism—a grave threat to us? Why are we selling weapons to China and supporting the Chinese geopolitical agenda—the gravest threat to Russia, and a country with claims to our territory that it doesn't bother to hide? Our army has been reduced to nothing. Our cities are collapsing ..."

The Nashi youths stirred, crossing their arms and cocking their heads. Kasparov shifted gears and addressed them.

"I have one question for you," he said. "Why did President Putin award the highest medal of honor in Russia, the Order of Hero of Russia (the same order given to the defenders of Moscow against the German Nazis in World War II!), to Akhmad Kadyrov [the Chechen rebel leader, assassinated last year, whom Putin chose to administer Chechnya] and his son, Ramzan [his successor], bandits and murderers of our Russian soldiers? Tell me, why?"

The hall was silent. The Nashi members dropped their eyes to the floor.

"Why? I ask you again, why did the president cheapen our award by giving it to the murderers of our soldiers, of guys your own age? Answer me!"

"We'll ask him when we see him," one grumbled, eyes downcast.

As we left the restaurant after the press conference, I wondered aloud to Kasparov about the wisdom of riling the masses. "To demand free elections but to fear the people at the same time is absurd," he answered. "Implementing the will of the majority, whatever it is, will offer us the best chance of success"—even if that means letting Russia break up.

In a country so vast and bristling with nuclear weapons, this would be a strikingly risky move, not only for Russia but for the world. But as a chess player Kasparov knows that risk means opportunity—and he has almost always outwitted his opponents.

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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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