WASHINGTON — Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players of all time, won the presidential nomination of Russia’s opposition coalition, the Other Russia, on Sept. 30. Days later, Kasparov launched a book tour in the United States and spoke on Capitol Hill on Oct. 10.
Participation in a Washington conference on the state of Russian democracy is a strange campaign move for a Russian presidential nominee often criticized for having overly close ties with the West. His appearance in Washington is also a sign of just how ostracized Russia’s top opposition candidate is back at home and highlights the precarious state of Russian opposition parties and outspoken Kremlin critics.
Thirteen journalists have been murdered in Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, and most of those cases remain unsolved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Civil liberties — freedom of the press and of opposition parties to organize and campaign — continue to be curtailed.
Kasparov’s ideas are not exactly popular among the Russian public, who continue to support President Putin. “For seven years Putin has been steadily destroying all democratic institutions,” Kasparov told an audience of sixty at a book signing in Bethesda, Md., on October 16. “Now Russia is a police state.”
During his tour of Washington, Kasparov repeatedly stated his certainty about the vulnerability of the Putin regime. At a Capitol Hill conference on Oct. 10, he said the Putin regime has neglected to invest in its political “infrastructure” and only has a couple of years before crumbling. At the Bethesda book signing the following week, he said it would take two weeks of censorship-free television for the Other Russia coalition to win the hearts and minds of the Russian people.
Kasparov also disputes the emergence of the Russian middle class, which is often cited as one of Putin’s greatest accomplishments. “Yes, you can call it a middle class, but the proportions of the population that is seeing some benefits from oil El Dorado and those who don’t is 15 to 85 percent.”
According to most recent polls and analyst assessments, most Russians accept the shortcomings of the Putin presidency as a price for political stability and prefer him to retain some power in one way or another after the presidential election in March 2008.
In a recent column for Britain’s Independent, commentator Mary Dejevsky echoed the views of many Russians when she argued that Russia would be less stable and a lot more dangerous without Putin.
“From the cabinet to the KGB, Putin associates are jockeying apprehensively for their futures. The sense of uncertainty, panic even, if Putin were suddenly out of the equation, can well be imagined,” Dejevsky wrote. “Russia would be fortunate to escape an open power struggle — with predictably adverse consequences for the wellbeing of the country and its people.”
Gordon Smith, the Director of the International Affairs program at the University of South Carolina, says a democratic change of power is still an alien concept for most Russians. “Under Putin there is a whole group of people will loose their power and influence when a new person comes along,” he says. “The elites are nervous about it; it’s only natural.”
The Other Russia is not registered as a political party and faces legal obstacles in nominating Kasparov as their presidential candidate. In a recent letter addressed to Other Russia’s leadership, Russia’s Central Electoral Commission’s chairman rejected the coalition’s candidates. The Other Russia’s Web site, funded by a U.S.-based non-profit organization called the Foundation for Democracy in Russia, cites the chairman as claiming only “lawfully entitled, and registered parties are allowed to put forth delegates.”
Eduard Limonov, the leader of Russia’s unregistered National Bolshevik Party, which is part of the Other Russia coalition, said the commission’s response was anticipated. “We knew about the rejection ahead of time, and we cast our challenge. We have put doubt into the whole registration system, which operates solely to benefit the parties in power.”
Kasparov is quick to acknowledge the limited role the Other Russia is playing in presidential politics. “We are not trying to win elections,” he concedes. “We are only trying to have elections.”
So why is the Other Russia running a campaign Smith describes as having “no chance” and Kasparov himself calls “risky”? “There are no hopeless situations,” Kasparov said in Bethesda, recalling his unlikely first win over Anatoly Karpov in 1985.
“It was a situation that required an entirely new strategy, one based more on survival than triumph,” he writes in his new book, “How Life Imitates Chess.” “I survived to fight another day, and the next time we met I was victorious.”
Video excerpts from Kasparov’s Oct. 16 appearance in Bethesda, Md.: