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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kasparov on the Elections

Garry Kasparov, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

For years the governments of the U.S. and Europe have tried to accept Vladimir Putin's Russia as an equal. Western diplomats now acknowledge that there are differences between Russia and the West, but say these differences are minor, and -- in the words of one European Union official -- within an "acceptable range."

For me and for a dozen of my associates this week, that "acceptable range" was 120 square feet. That's the size of the jail cell I occupied for five days as punishment for "disobeying the orders of a police officer" at an opposition rally in Moscow last Saturday. That's the charge a Moscow district court added after the fact, a charge not mentioned in the handwritten testimony of the arresting officers.

This was the least conspicuous of the many curious aspects of my arrest and trial. After our rally of several thousand people, we attempted to meet up with another group led by well-known human rights leader Lev Ponomarev. From there we intended to deliver a petition of protest to the office of the Central Election Committee.

The police had blocked the underground pedestrian passageways, so we had to cross the broad street instead and were soon blocked by more police. When they moved in close, I spoke with commanding officer Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Kozlov, whom I had met previously. He warned us to turn back, saying we would not be allowed to approach the CEC offices. I offered to send a small delegation of 20 people to present the petition. He again told us to turn back, which we did.

Of course it is inaccurate to say that the police commander was the one in command. KGB officers in plain clothes were clearly in charge even at the police station, and the arrest itself was as choreographed as the trial to come. When the special security forces known as OMON pushed in past everyone else to arrest me, we could all hear "make sure you get Kasparov" on their walkie-talkies.

From the moment of our detention, we were not allowed to see our lawyers, even when charged at the police station. Three hours into the trial, the judge said it would be adjourned to the following day. But the judge then left the bench and returned to say that we had misheard her, and that my trial would go forward. No doubt another example of what we call "telephone justice."

As in the street and at the police station, the KGB and the OMON forces were in control. The defense was not allowed to call any witnesses or to present any materials, such as the videos and photos journalists had taken of the march and the arrests.

After the show trial was over, I was taken to the police jail at Petrovka 38 in Moscow, and here the procedural violations continued. Not with regard to my treatment, which was respectful and as hospitable as a small box with metal furnishings and a hole in the floor for a toilet can be. I wasn't allowed a phone call and all visitors were refused access. Even my lawyer Olga Mikhailova and Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov were forbidden to visit me, despite having the legal right to do so. My world chess champion predecessor, Anatoly Karpov, for years my great rival, generously attempted to pay me a visit but was also turned away.

My other concern was food, since it was out of the question to consume anything provided by the staff. (Nor do I fly Aeroflot. "Paranoia" long ago became an obsolete concept among those in opposition to the Putin regime.) On Sunday, thanks to growing external pressure, they allowed me to receive food packages from home.

In a fitting conclusion, even my release was handled illegally. Instead of letting me out at the jail into the crowd of media and supporters, many of whom had themselves been arrested and harassed while picketing, I was secretly taken to the police station where I was first charged. From there I was taken in a colonel's automobile all the way to my home. This may sound like good service, but it was obvious the authorities wanted to avoid the festive scene that would have occurred outside the jail.

When I was arrested last April and fined $40, some poked fun at the trivial amount. And five days in a Moscow jail is not the worst fate that can be imagined. Some commentators even suspected I wanted to provoke my own arrest for publicity, a chess player's far-sighted strategy.

First off, the penalty is not the point; the principle is. Are we to have the rule of law in Russia or not? Second, I have no intention of becoming a martyr, or in leading an opposition movement from prison. I had no illusions and now I can confirm it is not a pleasant place to be. And this is not chess, with its cold-blooded calculations. This is about honor and morality. I cannot ask people to protest in the streets if I am not there with them. At the rally on Saturday, I said our slogan must be "We must overcome our fear," and I am obliged to stand by these words.

It is also essential to point out that these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg. Such things are taking place all over Russia on a daily basis. Opposition activists -- or just those who happen to be in the way of the administration -- are harassed and arrested on false charges of drug possession, extremism, or the latest trend, for owning illegal software.

There is little doubt tomorrow's parliamentary elections will be as fixed as my trial. The presidential elections on March 2 will be a different sort of performance, more improvised, since even now Mr. Putin and his gang are not sure how to resolve their dilemma. The loss of power could mean the loss of fortune and freedom. Outright dictatorship would endanger their lucrative ties with the West.

The campaign rhetoric of Mr. Putin and his supporters is genuinely frightening. Here we have an allegedly popular president who dominates the media, the parliament and the judiciary. He and his closest allies are in total control of the nation's wealth. And yet his recent speeches are hysterical rants about "enemies within" and "foreign antagonists" trying to weaken Russia -- language characteristic of totalitarian states.

So far this campaign has been largely ineffective, at least in my case. During my five days in jail I had the chance to speak to many of the ordinary consumers of Kremlin propaganda. They were generally sympathetic, and showed no signs of believing the many lies the Kremlin and the youth groups it sponsors have spread about the opposition. For them I was still the Soviet chess champion and the idea that I was an "American agent" sounded as ludicrous as it is.

So why is Mr. Putin so scared if things are going so well? He is a rational and pragmatic person, not prone to melodrama. He knows the numbers, so why the heavy and heavy-handed campaigning if he knows he and United Russia are going to win? The answer is that he is very aware of how brittle his power structure has become. Instead of sounding like a Tsar, high above the crowd, he's beginning to sound like just another nervous autocrat. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The most anxious man in a prison is the governor."

So demagoguery it is and demagoguery it will be. A violent pro-Putin youth group, Nashi, has already released a poster celebrating Mr. Putin's "crushing victory" on December 2. It also warns against the "enemies of the people of Russia," myself included, attempting to disqualify the results. These terms jibe nicely with Mr. Putin's own rhetoric of threats and fear. The ground is being prepared for greater oppression.

The Other Russia will continue our activities because, simply, some things are worth fighting for and will not come without being fought for. All of the "minor differences" between Mr. Putin's Russia and the nations of the free world add up to one very large difference: that between democracy and tyranny.

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