Garry Kasparov's risky anti-Putin game plan
The chess master is backing peaceful – if often illegal – urban protests of what he calls Russia's 'police state.'
His trademark curly hair is going gray, but the boyish grin is still in place.Skip to next paragraph
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Garry Kasparov, who reigned over the chess world for almost two decades, still fills a room with his intense energy. But since retiring two years ago, the lifetime grandmaster has hurled himself into the less cerebral and far more turbulent domain of Russian politics.
As head of the liberal oppositionist United Civil Front, and chief eminence of an anti-Kremlin coalition called The Other Russia, Mr. Kasparov is championing a risky strategy of confronting what he calls President Vladimir Putin's "police state" through peaceful – if often illegal – urban protests.
The goal, he says, is to compel the Kremlin to give up plans for a tightly managed succession from Mr. Putin to a new leader in a year's time, and to open the process for a free and fair choice. "In a chess game, when your king is under attack, you have to defend," says Kasparov, enumerating what he sees as the dire threats to democracy in Russia. "We had to try something, so we tried creating The Other Russia. And it worked.
"Beneath this illusion of stability," he adds, "there is boiling protest and growing economic disparity. The only way out is to have real, competitive, and free elections."
Arrests, water cannons at protests
In St. Petersburg, in early March, an estimated 5,000 demonstrators chanting "freedom!" and "Russia without Putin!" broke through a cordon of riot police and surged toward Palace Square, where the Russian Revolution was staged 90 years ago. Dozens were arrested, but Kasparov insists it was Russia's biggest protest rally in years and "our first great victory." At a smaller gathering in the Volga city of Nizhni Novgorod in late March, thousands of police backed by helicopters and water-cannons blocked protesters from reaching the city's central square. The next protest is slated for Moscow on April 14.
"This regime is used to operating without opposition, and even the smallest protest makes the state panic," says Kasparov. "A strong regime doesn't use thousands of troops against a peaceful demo. Their reaction to us only shows weakness."
Kasparov has attracted controversy by welding together disparate – some say disreputable – forces from the left and right into The Other Russia, including the neo-communist Worker's Russia, the leftist National Bolshevik Party, led by novelist Eduard Limonov, the liberal People's Democratic Union of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, as well as Kasparov's own mostly youthful, prodemocracy followers. Kasparov says a key goal is to bring the still-powerful Communist Party – the last major opposition force still standing – into the coalition.
"This plan to unite all the discontented people may be a good idea, but I doubt it has any chance to succeed," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's a mystery to me why Kasparov gave up chess and went into politics. Now his reputation has been seriously damaged."