His trademark curly hair is going gray, but the boyish grin is still in place.
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."
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.
"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."