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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Kasparov Speaks on the Piter Protests

Last Saturday, the New York Times carried a major piece on opposition candidate Garry Kasparov (pictured, the leading vote-getter in LR's presidential straw poll several weeks ago) penned by its Russia correspondent Steven Lee Myers. This piece is more encouraging that prior Kasparov outings in the press because (a) the interview took place in Moscow rather than in the West and (b) it comes directly on the heels of Kasparov's involvement in a major public protest that drew substantial response from the authorities. Leave us not forget that every time this Russian patriot sets foot in Russia, he risks his life for his country.

GARRY KASPAROV, the former world chess champion, took a pen and notebook and diagramed the protesters’ march through St. Petersburg on March 3. Like a general reliving a battle or a player analyzing a winning combination, he sketched Uprising Square and showed where the police had gathered in strength, blocking the street leading to the governor’s office.

A tactical mistake! “This is typical for this government,” he explained. “They protect themselves.”

As a result, only a few police officers guarded St. Petersburg’s main commercial street, Nevsky Prospekt. And that was where Mr. Kasparov and thousands of others — as many as 5,000 by some estimates — poured through a barricade and marched into the city’s historic center, defying the government’s ban on the event and the country’s recent history of political apathy.

The whole thing lasted only two hours, ending with brief clashes with the police and more than 130 arrests, including those of several opposition leaders, though not Mr. Kasparov. Still, it was one of the largest protests against President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

And to Mr. Kasparov, it was a first crack in the authoritarian political system Mr. Putin has created, one that he has committed himself to dismantling as presidential elections approach next March.

“We never saw such a protest,” he said. “Everybody recognizes it is a new page.”

Mr. Kasparov, 43, is not Mr. Putin’s only critic, but he may be the most prominent. And he has brought to oppositional politics the same energy and aggression that characterized his chess, attacking Mr. Putin and the Kremlin — or the regime, as he repeatedly calls it — with language rarely spoken so bluntly in Russia.

“This regime is getting out of touch with the real world,” he said. “It’s a deadly combination of money, power and blood — and impunity.”

Such attacks have drawn the scrutiny of the authorities, though so far nothing worse; someone who sounded angry that Mr. Kasparov had given up chess for politics attacked him with a chessboard in 2005. (“I am lucky,” he said at the time, “that the popular sport in the Soviet Union was chess and not baseball.”)

He now travels with bodyguards. He hired them out of concern for hooligans, he said, not because other Kremlin critics have been killed, like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in Moscow last October.

“If the state goes after you,” he said, “there’s no stopping them.”

THIS is not the place Mr. Kasparov expected to be when he resigned from the world of professional chess two years ago, quitting while still the highest-ranked player, if no longer the world champion. He is a famous man and a wealthy one, the author of numerous books on chess and its lessons for life, who is now leading acts of civil disobedience in an uphill battle to protest Mr. Putin’s policies.

“I am absolutely objective,” he said. “I think we can lose badly, because the regime is still very powerful, but the only beauty of our situation is that we don’t have much choice.”

Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the United Civil Front, an organization he formed in 2005 to promote activism in a country where it has steadily disappeared, though for reasons that are fiercely debated.

He is also the guiding strategist behind the Other Russia, a collection of groups from across the political spectrum united by their marginalization by authorities loyal to Mr. Putin.

The Other Russia has held conferences, including one on the eve of last year’s meeting of the Group of 8 countries, and staged rallies like the one in St. Petersburg.

“It was not a protest against a concrete measure,” he said. “It was not, ‘give us more money, salaries’ or ‘stop raising prices.’ It was a protest against the regime.”

Mr. Kasparov has always been something of an outsider. He is half Jewish and half Armenian, born in Baku, the capital of mostly Muslim Azerbaijan. He moved to Moscow in 1990 when tensions between Armenians and Azeris intensified.

By then he was already world champion, a title he won in 1985 as a brash upstart against Anatoly Karpov, the champion considered a favorite of the Soviet establishment. Mr. Kasparov became a strong advocate of glasnost and perestroika, Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policies of opening up the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

When a coup against Mr. Gorbachev failed in August 1991, Mr. Kasparov threw his support behind Boris N. Yeltsin and the other new democrats. For a time, he was a leader of the Democratic Party of Russia. He broke from Mr. Yeltsin to support a challenger, Aleksandr I. Lebed, in the 1996 elections.

One criticism against him has been political fickleness: that he has drifted from project to project, even as he continued to compete, mostly abroad.

A constant, however, has been his opposition to Mr. Putin. After an initial grace period, he began to fulminate against the new president, reaching a broad international audience as a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. One column, published in January 2001, barely a year after Mr. Putin became president, was titled, “I Was Wrong About Putin.”

“Unfortunately, my forecast, based on an assumption that a young pragmatic leader would strengthen democracy inside Russia, fight corruption and level the curves of Mr. Yeltsin’s foreign policy, was wishful thinking,” he wrote.

He has not let up since. He rails against Mr. Putin’s foreign policy, accusing him of intimidating former Soviet republics that should be close allies, while fostering ties with Iran, North Korea and China. He accuses Mr. Putin of having neutered the news media, stifled political opponents and independent businesspeople, and undercut the essential institution of democracy: free and fair elections.

HIS biggest challenge may be being ignored. The state’s control of television ensures that his views never reach the public en masse. News reports of the St. Petersburg march on national channels described the protesters generally, not Mr. Kasparov specifically, as “all manner of radicals, from fascists to lefties.”

His willingness to include all Kremlin critics in the Other Russia, including radical ones like the National Bolsheviks, has left him vulnerable to guilt by association. In December, counterterrorist police officers raided the United Civil Front’s office, seizing books and printed materials advertising a protest march a few days later.

A question that hovers over him is whether he will run against the person who emerges as Mr. Putin’s chosen successor. He demurs, but does not deny the possibility. He said there were other potential candidates, including the former prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, adding that the more pressing issue was building and maintaining a united opposition.

Mr. Kasparov is arguing for political freedoms at a time when Mr. Putin’s approval rating hovers around a stratospheric 80 percent. The economy, fueled by high energy prices, is growing. A retail binge is under way, especially in Moscow and even outside of it.

But he contends that Mr. Putin’s control of all levers of power has obscured the fundamental weaknesses in the system: the corruption, the vast gap between rich and poor, the declining standards of health care, education and living conditions.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Kasparov said, referring to his campaign ahead of the 2008 election, “it will depend on whether people care. You can’t invent public protest. It either exists or it doesn’t exist.”

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