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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.'

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But Kasparov argues that the Kremlin is wracked with dissension over Putin's insistence on stepping down next March, and that battles over the succession have created an opening for democratic action.

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"If we can keep together and create a center of unity of different opposition groups at a time when the Kremlin is disintegrating ... the system may evolve, and quite dramatically," he says. "There will definitely be political turmoil in Russia by the end of this year."

Last week, Sergei Mironov, upper house speaker and chief of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia Party, urged parliament to consider changing the Constitution to allow Putin to run for a third consecutive term. A Kremlin spokesman responded that Putin's position on leaving "remains unchanged."

Kasparov says the next conference of The Other Russia, in July, will put forward a unified opposition candidate to run in presidential elections next March. Though he won't offer names, he suggests that it's unlikely to be himself, since that might jeopardize his role as "fixer" and "mediator" between the coalition's diverse groups.

To support his contention that Russia has become a police state, Kasparov points to harassment of Other Russia activists. He is not the only one to report similar treatment at the hands of police bearing lists of names, addresses, and workplaces of targeted political dissidents.

Boris Kagarlitsky, an organizer of a social forum during the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg last July, says "about 300 of our invited participants were pulled off trains and buses or prevented from leaving their home towns. Some had their documents destroyed by police."

Visits from Russia's security services

Kasparov says the Kremlin's National Anti-terrorism Committee, a secret services task force, is being used to repress opposition. "Under Russian law today, anybody can be labeled an 'extremist,' " he says. "For this regime, extremism equals terrorism. Whenever we announce a demonstration, our activists begin to receive visits from the FSB [security service]. We think we are facing a well-organized secret-services operation against us."

Last week, the Kremlin urged all political parties to adopt a new Charter on Countering Extremism, agreeing not to join in marches that "promote ethnic, religious, or social tension," and to cut ties with groups that attract minors into "extremist" activities. The English-language Moscow Times reported that only the Communist Party has so far refused to sign on.

Some experts say, whatever his political fortunes, Kasparov is doing a useful service for Russian democracy. "As a person who is not afraid to confront the authorities, does not shrink under pressure, he is very effective," says Andrei Ryabov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "As a pioneer, blazing the path to political change in Russia, he could be very important."