Russian chess: Kasparov vs. Putin

It looks like checkmate for opposition leader Garry Kasparov. But he doesn't see it that way.

Chess champion Garry Kasparov wonders why journalists were surprised when Vladimir Putin said this week he may move from the Russian presidency to the premiership. Mr. Putin's dominance will continue, the champion-turned-opposition leader says on his website. If that's the case, why is Mr. Kasparov bothering to run for president?

Kasparov, who announced his candidacy Sept. 30, admits his chance of winning the March 2 election is zero. The hurdles are too high, and the Putin machine too strong. So is the Russian economy, at least from the perspective of a political challenger.

The virtual Putin autocracy (Russia hardly qualifies as a democracy anymore) draws its overwhelming popular support from a well-oiled economy. Last year, it grew 6.6 percent.

Since the former KGB agent won the presidential election in 2000 (a time when the media had a free hand but the economy was in a free fall), inflation, unemployment, and poverty have dropped significantly, while real incomes have increased, along with the state's petro-driven budget surplus. Whomever Putin handpicks as his successor is just fine with most Russians, polls show.

Given this, Kasparov and his opposition movement, called Other Russia, can only be in it for the long haul. That requires courage, persistence, and strategic thinking.

Kasparov likens his political fight to his struggle against the Soviet chess federation. In 1985 in Moscow, tournament organizers shut down this upstart's marathon 48-game challenge of the older Anatoly Karpov for the world championship, claiming both sides were exhausted. Kasparov won in the rematch, becoming the world's youngest chess champion, a title he held for 15 years.

Now he's not running to win. "The goal of the Other Russia is not winning elections, but to have an election," he told AP Television News. "We're trying to force the regime to accept our rights to participate in free and fair elections..."

Like suppressed opposition the world over, the aim has to be taking a stand itself, pushing for democratic values and human rights, creating a public moral space where others can gather, and reminding people that an alternative leadership exists.

But even these goals will not come easily. Democratic voices are being drowned out in Russia. A big name such as Kasparov implies a big presence, but he is marginal in Russian politics, and so are other opposition voices. New election rules mean further demise of opposition parties in parliamentary elections in December. (Other Russia is not a party but an ideological mix of Putin opponents.)

Russian TV shuts out Kasparov (except as a subject of ridicule). Nashi, the pro-Putin youth group, disrupts Other Russia meetings, and Other Russia protesters have been arrested. Kasparov spends a small fortune on bodyguards. His celebrity is a protection but not a guarantee. It also gives him a leg up compared with other opposition leaders, as does the fact that he has no link to a corrupt political past.

Kasparov could have settled down to a comfortable life in Moscow, or on the Hudson River, where he has an apartment. Instead, he is thinking many moves ahead to the day Russia can have a viable opposition that keeps any Kremlin leader in check.

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