The chess legend on life as a political dissident, Putin’s paranoia and why Russia is ready for change
Garry Kasparov was the greatest chess player the world has ever known. The Azerbaijan-born grandmaster, known as “The Beast of Baku” for his aggressive style of play, dominated the game for 20 years, earning headlines for his memorable battles against both human and computer opponents.
Kasparov retired from the game in 2005 to concentrate on writing and politics. A fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he formed the United Civil Front, an organization devoted to promoting democracy and electoral freedom in Russia. He is also a principal organizer of The Other Russia, a coalition that unites opponents of the Putin regime – a regime of which he says, “The system is not corrupt – corruption is the system.”
His transition from Soviet grandmaster to Russian dissident has seen him arrested for protesting in the streets of Moscow, detained for trying to get his message out in the press and criticized as a naive attention seeker. While his profile remains high outside Russia, inside his home country – where over a dozen journalists have allegedly been killed in the last two years for criticizing the government – he contends with threats to his personal safety, political apathy and a state-controlled media that he claims stifles any dissent against the Kremlin. Kasparov made his first political appearance in Canada on Tuesday, giving a speech to the Empire Club of Canada at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. He criticized Putin, implored Western leaders to stop providing the Russian president with “democratic credentials” and explained why he feels Russia is ready for change. After delivering his remarks, Kasparov sat down with Macleans.ca for an interview.
Macleans.ca: You’ve spoken extensively about the concessions you’ve had to make as a political dissident in your country. What’s the most difficult adjustment you’ve had to make?
Garry Kasparov: I have no life. It’s terrible, it affects my family. Daria [Kasparov’s wife] is from St. Petersburg and if she goes there for a few days, I have to send bodyguards. In Russia we’re always under this stress. We know that bodyguards won’t save you from state assault, but there’s so many provocations, we have to be vigilant all the time. That’s why we decided that [having Daria] give birth in Moscow might not be a good idea. I can’t put a bodyguard in the hospital.
When I stopped playing chess I said, “Maybe I will be flying less.” I was dead wrong. I’m flying three times more now. And you know in chess it was, I flew somewhere and I stayed there for two weeks. It was a long tournament. Now it’s boom-boom-boom. In some ways, I wish for the quiet years to return.
I hope that this summer, we’ll actually spend time together. We’ll go back to Croatia – that’s where I had all my training sessions when I played chess, for many, many years – and we’ll have some sort of family reunion. But it’s really difficult.
M: You’ve written a book called How Life Imitates Chess. Are there parallels between the style of chess game you played and the style of politics you practice?
GK: Any chess style reflects character. Some people are mistaken thinking that in chess we have rules, so that experience relates only to 64 squares. In fact, you have to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, read your position and not rush into the attack if you are on the weak side.
And you always try to create an environment where your strengths are playing a dominant role, while your opponent’s strengths are being pushed away. If you are on the battlefield and you have cavalry, you obviously want to fight in the valley. If you fight against cavalry, try to look for the hills. It very much has a universal application; I was quite good in chess at identifying those parameters of the battlefield lying ahead of me.
M: And you’re bringing that experience to your political role as organizer of The Other Russia?
GK: I recognized from day one that we were in a very weak position. The opposition was in disarray and we needed just to survive. Survival is the best strategy.
If you analyze our performance over the last two years, I think we are doing quite well because we survived. A.) That’s important – it’s difficult to survive under this pressure. B.) We are noticeable. Not that we are now on the winning side – we’re still much weaker than the Kremlin – but we are there, they can’t ignore us anymore. That’s tremendous progress.
The trend is quite positive because although they still have a big advantage, the advantage is less significant than two years ago, even a year ago. Now people are talking about possible outcomes of March 2008, of it not being elementary, or an orderly power transition.
M: You feel that the country is on the verge of a tipping point democratically, that The Other Russia is on the verge of some success?
GK: The Other Russia cannot win itself, because The Other Russia is a very broad and very fragile coalition which, facing a strong opponent, might collapse.
But The Other Russia created the notion of the opposition, a real opposition. What we had before in Russia, whether it was liberal or left-wing or nationalist, tried to play by the Kremlin rules. Even in Yeltsin’s years there was some sort of consensus. “We in the Kremlin let you run your campaigns, you get part of the parliament.” There was plenty of political freedom, freedom of the press, but there was one big exception: You cannot participate in deciding the issue of supreme power, the presidency. The presidency was something that would be decided behind closed doors.
Now, The Other Russia unites all different groups based on our recognition of the shortcomings of such a position. We know that we cannot be the same group in a normal democratic environment, because we have liberals and left-wingers and nationalists, but we know that there are certain political musts that unite us. And when it’s accomplished, then obviously we will go on our own business.
M: The coalition that The Other Russia encompasses is so broad and its members have so many competing interests that it must be difficult to manage…
GK: Yes, absolutely. But as in Chile at the end of the ’80s, there’s a dominant goal: to build a normal democratic process. So what Putin actually accomplished – accomplished against his will – he convinced different political groups, different schools of thought in Russia, that liberal democracy is the only successful foundation for a modern state.
Through the ’90s, we still had debates with die-hard Communists or nationalists that, “Oh, democracy, maybe it’s wrong for Russia.” Now, nobody argues about it. The political division in Russia today is not between right and left or democrats and Communists. It’s about those who believe that this regime is threatening the integrity and in fact survival of our country and those who are trying to belittle the regime. You can find liberals and Communists and nationalists on both sides of the spectrum.
The Other Russia states that what we need is to make sure that we have free and fair elections, no censorship and we have to reform the political system that created this all-powerful presidency. That’s the core of our program. And we know that if it’s done, then we could fight each other in free and fair elections.
We believe that the Kremlin will inevitably split, because the issue of a successor will create not only frictions but open fights within the Kremlin’s rank and file.
M: You don’t think Putin is strong enough to have his handpicked successor succeed him without that kind of fight?
GK: Putin has two options: one he stays, one he goes. Staying is still an option. I’m sure he can force change in the constitution and there are a lot of groups in Russia that would like him to stay – but in general, he potentially puts in jeopardy the multibillion dollar fortunes of the Russian bureaucracy [located] outside of Russia, because Putin turning into another [Belarussian dictator Alexander] Lukashenko, that might not be an attractive partner for [Western] leaders.
Now, if we look at Putin’s replacement, we are dealing with a paradox. For Putin to receive personal guarantees, he needs a weak successor. For his system to survive, he needs a strong successor. But a strong successor might also be quite dangerous.
When Putin succeeded Yeltsin there was unity among the rank and file of Russian bureaucracy. They knew that things were getting better. Oil prices were going up. Russian people were tired of Yeltsin’s years, they expected something from Putin, there was a big war in Chechnya… Everything worked in favour of the new president.
In 2008, things will be very different. Infrastructure is falling apart. The Russian people are disillusioned. They didn’t see any benefits from these high oil prices. Oil is not going to jump up, it may only go down. There’s no new influx of money. The general system that was created under Yeltsin and Putin is worn out.If there is a handpicked successor, a strong successor, he’s facing immediate crisis. Now tell me, what will be his first step, based on Russian tradition? Who will be his scapegoat? Yeltsin is dead. Just having a successor is no guarantee of full immunity.
Putin spent all his eight years building a system of checks and balances. It’s working now. But if you take away the core of the system, the balances are no longer there. So [when Putin leaves] you have to adjust the system. The only way to adjust the system is for the winner to eliminate the competition within the inner circle. So for any group the appointment of a potential successor might be a deadly threat.
We are eight and a half months before the elections. There is no single [Kremlin] candidate who has announced his candidacy. I think Putin doesn’t have an answer.
M: You’re expecting fractures within the Kremlin, but weren’t you also optimistic that in March 2008 there would be only one presidential candidate opposing the Kremlin candidate? And that’s not happening…
GK: Well, I think it will happen.
M: But many candidates have declared – Grigory Yablinsky of the Yabloko Party declared his candidacy the other day. You think don’t think that all of these people are going to actually be on the ballot?
GK: The funny thing also is – and again, it proves that politics in Russia is no longer divided by left and right – all these three ideological groups, the right wing Union of Right Forces, the social democrats, Yabloko, and the Communists, they all are having the same probleM: the largest organization in each party is openly sympathizing or siding with The Other Russia. The Communists have problems with their Moscow branch, Union of Right Forces with their Moscow branch, Yabloko with their St. Petersburg branch. They’re trying to curb these protests, so that’s why they’re trying to present themselves as candidates, to buy more favours from the Kremlin and maybe to get a chance to have enough clout at the parliamentary elections.
I think that we have a good chance. It’s complicated, because we have an ex-prime minister, we have an ex-head of the Central Bank, and we may have a few more [potential candidates]. My strong preference today would be [former Central Bank chief] Viktor Geraschenko who has, in my view, very good credentials among different groups. We need somebody who can be accepted by the left, nationalists and liberals, and from the perspective of my organization he would be the best choice.
M: And you won’t be a candidate?
GK: Look, I cannot win today, by my estimation. I would do well, I think I would create a lot of problems for Kremlin, but I believe we have to try to win. And if I enter the battle, it means I will have to start breaking up some relations. And I’m the only one who communicates to all of them, you know, as the old Soviet champion – so I talk to nationalists, to Communists, to liberals, to social democrats. The moment I’m the candidate, the uniqueness of my position is jeopardized, and I think that would be deadly for the coalition.
M: What kind of a man is Vladimir Putin? He’s your opponent…
GK: He’s not my opponent. I’m opposing the system. But Putin…he and his people, if you look at their biography, they’re failures. They’re the failures of the Soviet Union.
Look at his career. I mean, Putin at age 35, 36 was moved back to St. Petersburg from a very low position in East Germany and in St. Petersburg. He was what? Recruiting students as a KGB spy. That’s the end of the career.
When [former St. Petersburg mayor and Putin mentor Anatoly] Sobchak lost the elections in 1996 in St. Petersburg, Putin was unemployed. Four years before he was appointed president he was unemployed.
And the people that are surrounding him, they all were failures. Only thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union where new opportunities emerged, they actually made their careers. Look at Zyuganov, look at [Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky. They all owed their success to the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were nobodies.
They never fought for power as Gorbachev did, as Yeltsin did. They just came to power. For them it was not even a gift, you know, it’s a grimace of fortune. They discovered themselves in the middle of enormous wealth and everything was working like King Midas. They touched things – gold. And they’re getting scared that one day, it’s over. They’re getting paranoid. The whole system is paranoid because there’s so much wealth and they don’t know if it will go on forever and they’ve been thrown into the middle of this all-powerful, unchecked system and given total impunity. They’re freaking, because March 2008 is there.
M: That paranoia is so characteristic of Putin’s regime, and some have questioned whether the siege mentality that he cultivates is a political strategy. “The West is against Russia, they want to put Russia in their place, everybody’s against Russia…” Do you think he actually believes that?
GK: I think that it’s a little more complicated, but the answer is yes. They believe in this conspiracy against them because they believe in the absolute power of money. Money buys everything. Now if money doesn’t buy something, it means conspiracy is involved. I think that’s the core of their mentality.
When Putin made this big offer to Angela Merkel last October, about having this separate deal, you know, this Stalin-Hitler pact but on gas – “We are producers, you are distributors, let’s forget about the rest” – Merkel turned it down. And for Putin, that was a really big shock. By the way, after this failure, the Kremlin propaganda stopped the promotion of Putin’s favourite terms: gas and oil empire, energy empire. Because he suddenly recognized that he’s selling, but the buyers, they have something to say as well and they are united against him. So this failure actually contributed to his paranoia.
His speech in Munich [in February, wherein he accused the United States of attempting to create a “uni-polar world”], was after this failure. Now he was looking for conspiracy, he was threatening, he was raising stakes. He talks about the Cold War, but it’s nonsense. The Cold War was based on ideas. You can accept or reject Soviet ideas, but they were ideas and these ideas swayed hundreds of millions of people around the world. Putin’s only idea is, “Let’s steal together.”
M: So how would you like Western leaders to deal with Vladimir Putin? What would you like to see them do?
GK: Nothing. No, we don’t need any action. We know it’s unrealistic to expect any action, because the best the West could do if they wanted to – if they’re serious about preventing Russia from selling nuclear technology to Iran or missiles to Hezbollah and Hamas via Syria – is to hit them where they’re weak, where they’ll feel it most: money.
The entire game played by Putin, it’s about money. It’s about profits. So the number one item on their agenda is supporting the high oil prices. That’s why tension in the Middle East is good. So selling weapons to Syria and nuclear technology to Iran is good because it makes money and it raises the tensions.
So unless the West is ready to confront them, nothing is going to happen. But that’s more the Western problem.
Our immediate problem is: Stop treating Putin as a democrat, because that’s what hurts us inside the country. That’s what Kremlin propaganda shows every day on television. “Why are they talking about Putin? Why are they criticizing his democratic record? He is part of this group! Look, Schroeder calls him a crystal-clear democrat, Bush is hugging him. They are all receiving him as equal. You don’t like what’s happening in Russia? But that’s democracy!”
So they are compromising the notion of democracy. So please, send a message to Mr. Putin: You cannot act as Lukashenko and Mugabe or Chavez and be treated as a democratic leader.
M: Is it more in the West’s interests to engage with the Putin regime as opposed to isolating it? Might not an isolated Russia be more of a threat to Western interests?
GK: Let’s not mix Russia and Putin. Nobody talks about isolating Russia. You’re talking about not treating Putin as a democrat, giving him this face value. Doing business with China doesn’t include appraising Chinese leaders as great democrats. Doing business with Russia should not include extra dividends for Putin’s democratic credentials. The West has been promoting the policy of engagement for seven years. And while they’ve been doing it, Putin has been steadily destroying democratic institutions in Russia.There’s a mistaken assumption that by criticizing Putin, the West might help Putin’s domestic popularity because he will be seen as someone who’s opposing the West. Not true. The bureaucrats know their money and their future is in Europe, in North America. That’s why any change in tune might create a little coup there. You know, in 1981, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. Don’t tell me that in 1981 the Soviet Union was less of a menace than Russia is today.
M: You mentioned in your speech here today that you’d learned some members of the local business community were absent today because their attendance would be controversial and might jeopardize their business interests…
GK: I know that my activities and my speeches to foreign audiences are making many businessmen, not only in Canada, very upset. They’re doing business with Russia and they’re not happy to hear open criticism of Vladimir Putin because it puts them in a complicated situation. They can’t ignore that they’re doing business with a police state and sometimes they’re very shadowy deals that might be questioned if attention is brought.
I even had some problems getting a Canadian visa. First time in my life. Four weeks, they couldn’t issue a visa in Moscow. I don’t know why. It’s definitely a question mark. I received my visa at the last second in Mexico City. If not for Canadian embassy in Mexico, I wouldn’t be here. It’s not only a Canadian problem, though it’s my first appearance of this magnitude in Canada, so that probably caused some concerns.
M: What’s your message to the people who skipped this event today?
GK: Look – investing in KGB Inc., it’s a dangerous business. You make a lot of money now, but March 2008, there will be a new government in Russia. Whether it’s a democratic government or a new mafia boss, many deals will be reopened. And you know, you are placing your bets on very shaky ground. You expect huge benefits, but it comes with huge risk.
So take your chance, but don’t pretend that you are on the right side of the picture.
Macleans (Canada) June 25, 2007
By JORDAN TIMM