Brief Lives December 2005

Challenge Match

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

"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.

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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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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