Can the Master Hold Putin in Check?

“It’s getting more and more difficult in Russia to openly criticise the government,” Garry Kasparov told me during his visit to Vienna on Apr. 27. According to the former world chess champion, who is now one of the most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin’s regime, any public dissent could be considered a criminal offence based on a new, stricter version of the law on extremism.

“Extremism is now whatever they say it is,” he insisted. And even if opponents of Putin take that risk into account, he added, it’s difficult for adversaries of President Vladimir Putin to get their voices heard inside Russia – such is the Kremlin’s control over mass media in the country.

For a man as self-confident as Garry Kasparov, however, these factors are hindrances, rather than deterrents. It’s immediately apparent that Kasparov considers himself a man to  reckon with. And, considering his achievements, why not? Born in Baku, capital of the then Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, this is a man who, at the age of 22, became the youngest world chess champion ever and went on to dominate the game for over two decades.

Since his retirement, in March 2005, he has dedicated his time and considerable energy to politics, opposing Putin as a leading member of the liberal United Civil Front; and he has evidently carried some of the characteristics that shaped his chess career over to his new vocation. Kasparov was known not only as a brilliant tactician, he was renowned as an ultra-aggressive player too.

That pugnacious nature was clearly on show in Vienna. Indeed, he barely deigned me with eye-contact as he fired off eloquent denunciations of Putin’s regime. The man oozes an icy self-assurance that is more impressive than likeable, but, given the present political climate in Russia, perhaps a hard, sanguine verbal-battering-ram like Kasparov is exactly what the opposition movement needs.

Certainly he was pulling no punches on his visit to central Europe. His controversial comments on a possible Moscow-link to the recent murders of the high-profile Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, and London-based dissident Alexander Litvinenko made international headlines.

He didn’t believe it was Putin who ordered it, he told me, when our conversation turned to those killings, but that those who did must have belonged to his inner circle.

“I have no doubt that murders and crimes of such a magnitude as the killing of Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko could only have been conducted with the direct involvement of those who are either in the KGB, or in the Kremlin, or both,” Kasparov said.

It is this sort of unflinching directness that has catapulted Kasparov into the political limelight in the past two years; and while others rail against Putin from comfortable exile in London, it is important to note that the former Grand Master is challenging the regime from within.

Indeed, Gerhard Mangott, an analyst on Russian politics based at the University of Innsbruck, says the darkly handsome and charismatic Kasparov has filled a valuable gap in the Russian liberal scene.  The movement has been highly fragmented for years, Mangott says, split into various political clubs, groupings and parties that have spent a fruitless decade bickering amongst themselves.

In Kasparov, they’ve found a breath of fresh air, untainted by the factional infighting that has alienated so many potential supporters. Now a new, eclectic anti-government coalition has sprung up calling itself “Other Russia,” and Kasparov is playing a leading role.

He has proved valuable as a man of action. In March this year he was briefly detained by police as he tried to lead a small group of demonstrators through lines of hundreds of police who ringed the site of a planned rally, at Moscow’s landmark Pushkin Square.

Russian politics has probably never seen anything quite like Garry Kasparov, who seems to fly in the face of traditional Russian political wisdom. Even his exotic ethnicity – he’s half-Jewish, half-Armenian – has traditionally been seen a barrier to political success in Russia, and the coalition he heads is equally hybrid, but his growing number of supporters don’t seem to care.

“To the left, I’m still the Soviet champion,” he boasted to the London Times. “To the nationalists, I’m the intellectual pride of Mother Russia.”

Other Russia is certainly bewilderingly broad. It’s made up on the one hand of extreme left-wingers of the National Bolshevik Party and on the other, of conservative democrats, while Kasparov’s own articles in The Wall Street Journal have indicated that his personal natural political home is right of centre.

“Kasparov is trying to make use of that odd mix to appeal to various segments of Russian society.”

Oddly enough, Kasparov seems to have had more of an impact on Putin than he has had on the population at large. A mere 5,000 joined his biggest protest march, a figure described by analysts as negligible by Russian standards. And yet the authorities felt it necessary to crush those demonstrations and arrested Kasparov.

“It’s astonishing,” says Mangott. “It all points down to the fact that Putin is a control freak.”

So where do the ambitions of Garry Kasparov end?  He remained evasive when I ask him about candidature for President in the 2008 elections or beyond. Indeed, he even refused to describe himself as the leader of the Other Russia coalition, preferring the more modest job-description of ‘moderator.” And he was even more cautious when I mentioned an interview in which his fellow dissident, exiled business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, had told the Guardian newspaper, “We need to use force to change this regime.”

In Vienna, Kasparov was clearly keen to distance himself from calls for violence, but he remained adamant that Russia desperately needs a change of direction.

“We know that revolution in Russia is always a very dangerous and tragic experience,” Kasparov said. “We still hope that there are ways for a peaceful transition from the corrupt, inefficient police regime into a stable democratic society, but unfortunately we are dealing with a government that is not willing to compromise or follow the rules of common sense.”

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