Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gary Kasparov Takes on President Putin

Kasparov seemed to thrive on the claustrophobic intensity of kitchen politics. “The intellectual brainstorming always takes place here,” he said. “We did it like this when I was playing chess and when I was beginning in politics, in the nineties. The kitchen tradition is part of our culture.”

Gary Kasparov: picture credit The New Yorker

Veteran Kremlin watcher David Remnick has a 12-page article in The New Yorker about Russia's chess champion Gary Kasparov, who will probably run for President in Russia's March 2008 elections. Kasparov is a leader of a politically diverse anti-Putin coalition called Drugaya Rossiya--the Other Russia. On FOX News Kasparov noted that President Putin favors instability in the Middle East because that ensures Russia of having high oil prices.

Remnick observes:

Kasparov is forty-four. He was the world chess champion for fifteen years. Until his retirement, two years ago, his dominance was unprecedented. Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer—none came close. Chess has outsized meaning in Russia, and Kasparov at home was a cross between the greatest of athletes and a revered intellectual; with his status came celebrity, foreign investment accounts, summers on the Adriatic, an apartment along the Hudson River, friendships among Western politicians and businessmen, and the attentions of beautiful women. Now he has volunteered for grim and, very likely, futile duty. As the most conspicuous leader of Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia), an umbrella group of liberals, neo-Bolsheviks, and just about anyone else wishing to speak ill of Vladimir Putin, he is in nominal charge of opposition politics in a country that, in actuality, has no real politics except for that which takes place in the narrow and inscrutable space between the ears of its President.

...Kasparov is well aware of the perils of brazen independence. Since Putin took office, in 2000, more than a dozen Russian journalists have been murdered, as have several opposition politicians. The cases remain “unresolved.” When Kasparov is in Russia, he retains a security contingent that costs him tens of thousands of dollars a month. His wife, Daria Tarasova, and their baby often stay in an apartment in New Jersey. Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general who was Putin’s superior in St. Petersburg twenty years ago and now lives in Maryland, told me, “You can expect anything with this regime, and Kasparov has been very vocal and very personal in his criticism of Putin. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to him. And where will the evidence be? Remember that Trotsky’s assassin, Señor Ramon Mercader, was sent to get him in Mexico by the K.G.B. and was secretly made a Hero of the Soviet Union. No one knew the truth for decades.”

When I asked Kasparov if he feared for his life, he nodded gravely and said, “I do. The only thing I can try to do is reduce my risk. I can’t avoid the risk altogether. They watch everything I do in Moscow, or when I travel to places like Murmansk or Voronezh or Vladimir. I don’t eat or drink at places I’m not familiar with. I avoid flying with Aeroflot”—the Russian national airline. “It doesn’t help in the end if they really decide to go after you. But, if they did, it would be really messy. And not just because of the bodyguards. There would be a huge risk for the Kremlin if anything happens to me, God forbid, because the blood would be on Putin’s hands. It’s not that they have an allergy to blood, but it creates a bad image, or makes it worse than it already is.”

...Putin has been lucky. Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum production and leads the world in the production of natural gas. Without Russian gas, much of Europe freezes in its bed. Oil prices have nearly tripled since 2000. Real incomes and G.D.P. continue to grow. Unlike during the Yeltsin years, pensions and state salaries have, in general, been paid and have increased. A crushing multibillion-dollar foreign debt has been paid off. As recently as five years ago, knowing analysts would dismiss the shimmering signs of wealth in Moscow—the wildfire construction projects; the new hotels, luxury stores, and restaurants; the streets clogged with Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys—and describe them as phenomena limited solely to a tiny, criminalized upper crust. Now nearly every big urban center, from Kaliningrad, in the west, to Vladivostok, in the far east, has seen considerable growth and the first signs of a middle class. Kasparov, though, points to the widening gap between rich and poor, persistent poverty in the provinces, and the absence of human rights as “the key reasons this regime will inevitably collapse.”

...Putin sees himself as the new tsar, who, after suffering the humiliation of a lost empire, has restored strength and confidence to Russia. With the price of oil at eighty-two dollars a barrel, there is a sense of global reordering. “People feel that Putin can speak up to the United States,” Tanya Lokshina, a human-rights expert, said. “He can give us an independent politics and we can even blackmail a lot of countries with our oil and gas.”

...Kasparov and many other figures in the opposition believe that Putin might become the head of the International Olympic Committee—and thus occupy himself for four years before regaining the Presidency in 2012. “The I.O.C. is not the most transparent organization in the world,” he said. “He can definitely buy his way on.” Kasparov, like many others in the opposition, is convinced that Putin became a billionaire in office, perhaps the richest man in the country, and has entrusted Russian confederates to shelter his money in foreign banks. There is no proof of Putin’s staggering wealth, but, in Kasparov’s eyes, to question the proposition is to be hopelessly naïve.

...In today’s Russia, demokratia as it emerged in the nineties has been derisively called dermokratia: “shit-ocracy.” The notion of liberalism, too—a belief in the necessity of civil society, civil liberties, an open economy—has been degraded. Of all the pro-democracy activists and politicians of the late eighties and the nineties, the only one remembered fondly—if not very often—is the physicist and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. And that may be because he died in December, 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet empire. The liberal parties that began in the nineties, such as Yabloko (Apple) and the Union of Right Forces, remain tainted by their connections to the Yeltsin era and no longer have seats in the Duma. “The state lets the opposition exist so long as there is no coalition,” Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister, told me.

“You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the Communists, just like in Yeltsin’s times,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recently told Der Spiegel. “If you take an unbiased look at the situation, there was a rapid decline of living standards in the nineteen-nineties, which affected three-quarters of Russian families, and all under the ‘democratic banner.’ Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore.” Solzhenitsyn, who lives just outside Moscow, is eighty-eight, and in failing health. Although much of his work as a novelist and historian comprises a prolonged critique of Soviet power and the secret police, he speaks approvingly of Putin, who was a lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B. “Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people,” he said. “And he started to do what was possible—a slow and gradual restoration.”

Kasparov argues that Putin’s popularity is the phony popularity of dictators. “The support for Putin is a kind of passive resistance to change,” he said. “You cannot talk about polls and popularity when all of the media are under state control. I don’t want to give anyone any bad ideas, but with such a propaganda apparatus, backed up by an all-powerful security force, seventy-per-cent approval should be a minimum!”

Two great traditions have survived in Russia: the power of the secret police and the use of allegory as a means of truthtelling. In Putin’s Russia, the latter is one of the few effective means of describing the former.

Recently, Vladimir Sorokin, a writer in his fifties with a flair for surreal brutality, published a dystopian novel called “Day of the Oprichnik.” The oprichniki were the secret police of the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible’s K.G.B. In Sorokin’s depiction of an authoritarian Russia set in the year 2028, the ruler controls all destinies and information. The state’s well-being depends on oil and gas and the individual’s survival on unquestioning fealty to a bloody-minded despot and his circle of oprichniki. The state itself is profoundly conservative, traditional.

The allegory is easy to follow. Putin and many of his top officials in the Kremlin, ministers and advisers, come from the ranks of the K.G.B., many from his home city of St. Petersburg. Yeltsin made tentative attempts to reform the security services, but they failed. “The system of political police has been preserved,” Yeltsin admitted, “and it could be resurrected.” During the nineties, the oligarchs staffed their organizations with well-trained, well-informed ex-K.G.B. advisers, but Putin has reversed the hierarchy. The siloviki—the security men—are now more prevalent in the Kremlin than Harvard men were in the Kennedy White House. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on political élites, estimates that siloviki occupy more than sixty per cent of “high” and “upper middle” positions in the state. They run numerous Kremlin departments, bureaucracies, banking operations, and state corporations.

...“There is no such thing as a former Chekist,” he says, referring to the original name of the Soviet secret police.

Under Putin’s K.G.B. old-boy network, one of his colleagues in East Germany, Sergei Chemezov, has been installed as the head of Rosoboronexport, a state arms corporation. The two deputy heads of the Presidential Administration, Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, are ex-spies from St. Petersburg, and they have placed former colleagues in leadership positions everywhere from the Ministry of Justice to the largest industries. Sechin himself is the chairman of the biggest state-operated oil company, Rosneft, and Ivanov chairs the board of directors for Aeroflot and Almaz-Antei, a producer of air-defense systems.

Some of the gaudiest events in recent Russian history—the murders, the arrests of disobedient business executives, the muscling of uncoöperative foreign companies—are thought by many to be tied to the K.G.B.’s successor agency, the F.S.B. (Federal Security Service), although the over-all structure of the regime, its mode of corruption, its strategic way of controlling society and the economy and dealing with the outside world, is many times more sophisticated than the bumbling of the late Soviet era. Putin is not a dictator—not in the Stalinist sense. He knows that to play in the global economy he must bring his resources to the marketplace and behave with a modicum of decorum. When anyone gets in his way, he can employ the F.S.B., but in a highly selective manner. In the modern world, the political use of the tax police or a single, well-publicized incident of mysterious brutality is far more effective than mass repression and the Gulag.

...Under Yeltsin, a small group of businessmen used their connections to the Kremlin to buy up state enterprises—oil companies, aluminum plants, transport systems—and made their fortunes. Putin instituted new rules: these oligarchs could keep their properties so long as they did not create political power bases outside the Kremlin. The Kremlin would not hesitate to nationalize the enterprise or put its ministers on the board of directors. “Gazprom is not a company,” Milov said. “It has a new wrapping, people in good suits and ties, but it is a classic Soviet enterprise. All you have now is an upper echelon that takes all the money.” Putin’s former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, is, simultaneously, the first Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian government and the chairman of the board of Gazprom.

The March Presidential elections will be notable for which corporate groups have patrons at the top. “In the past seven years, Putin has skillfully balanced these clans, not allowing any single one of them to take too powerful a lead,” Yuri Dzhibladze, a human-rights activist, said. “He is the supreme arbiter. When he destroyed and split up Yukos”—Khodorkovsky’s oil company—“he distributed it all around. He is the check and he is the balance. When he leaves the Presidency, the problem will be that these groups do not get along.”

Putin has promised to propose one or more successors, but, rather than make himself an instant lame duck, he has avoided direct endorsements, using mystery as a political tool. On September 12th, Putin dissolved the government and appointed a relatively obscure bureaucrat, Viktor Zubkov, as Prime Minister. Zubkov promptly declared that if he succeeded “in doing something in the post of premier” he might run for President. Putin called Zubkov, who is sixty-six, a “brilliant administrator and true professional” but made no endorsement.

In the meantime, every political expert in Moscow, real and self-proclaimed, has a theory. Another strong candidate, some speculate, is the other first Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, a former defense minister. Ivanov spent two decades in the secret services, first alongside Putin in the Leningrad K.G.B.’s foreign-intelligence division, then in posts in Africa and Europe, and, finally, as a general at Moscow headquarters. He speaks English and Swedish, but he is not considered to be particularly enamored of the West. Medvedev, the other Deputy Prime Minister, is also a possible contender. And then comes a litany of potential candidates, including the railway minister, Vladimir Yakunin, who is thought to have worked for the K.G.B. when he was a diplomat at the United Nations, and various parliamentary loyalists, ministers, and regional governors. The essence of the election, however, is not the individual but the means. The winner will be a man of the inner circle—a Presidential, not a popular, choice.

“Here is how it will go: Putin will decide the successor and he will be elected without much struggle,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young (and very lonely) liberal in the Duma, said. “All the opposition will be put on as a show for stupid foreigners like you to demonstrate what a great democracy we are. And all the resources of the media will be employed to put on this show.”

...Not long ago, Kasparov gave a speech at the Four Seasons restaurant to members and guests of the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank. Among the guests were the broadcaster and former Nixon aide Monica Crowley and the ur-neocon Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, who had just signed on as a foreign-policy adviser to Rudolph Giuliani.

Kasparov gave a version of the same speech that he had lately given in Washington and Toronto. There were a few notes of reassurance—“Putin’s regime is not a geopolitical monster”—but there was no shortage of stark warning. “The Cold War was based on ideas, like them or not,” Kasparov said. “Putin’s only idea can be concentrated into the motto ‘Let’s steal together.’ ”

When one of the guests asked what could be done to help the Russian opposition, Kasparov was careful not to inspire any old Cold War fantasies, saying, “We are not looking for support from the outside. What we want from the leaders of the free world is for them to say to Mr. Putin, ‘You cannot act like Lukashenko’ ”—the erratic President of Belarus—“ ‘or Mugabe or Hugo Chávez and still be treated as a democratic leader.’ ”

...Putin’s strategist, a smooth former business executive in his early forties named Vladislav Surkov, is interested solely in the power and independence of the Russian state, and relies on Russian nationalist philosophers like Yevgeny Trubetskoy and Ivan Ilyin. In 2005, Surkov gave a secret speech to a business group called “How Russia Should Fight International Conspiracies,” in which he proposed an ideology of “sovereign democracy.” The term was meant to insist that democracy comes in many forms, and that “Russian democracy” will develop in its own way and at its own pace. Russia, Surkov says in his speeches, must see through Western hypocrisy: “They tell us about democracy while all the time they are thinking about our hydrocarbons.”

Each morning at the Other Russia’s July conference at the Holiday Inn, the delegates were greeted by one of Surkov’s creations. Members of a pro-Putin youth group, Molodaya Gvardia—the Young Guard, a name reminiscent of Soviet times—staged demonstrations mocking Kasparov and his comrades. The Young Guard is the youth branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, two years ago, Putin’s Kremlin, led by Surkov, orchestrated the creation of a series of youth organizations modelled on the Soviet-era Komsomol. The largest of them, with ten thousand active members and capable of delivering a hundred thousand to its events, is called Nashi, or Ours. Nashi, like the Komsomol, organizes volunteer work and urges young people to quit smoking and drinking. But it also has a core of activists whose specialty is to harass the opposition. One of the questions on Nashi’s entrance exam for its summer camp was to describe Garry Kasparov. The “correct” answer was that he is an American citizen who has taken an oath of loyalty to undermine Russia in the name of the State Department. “Nashi was created, first and foremost, for disturbing our activities,” Kasparov said.

The demonstration in front of the Holiday Inn was made up of no more than fifty people, who wore red T-shirts and baseball caps and chanted, “Kasparov, Iyuda!” (“Kasparov is Judas!”). They threw fake American currency—thirty-dollar bills—and shouted slogans about “political prostitutes.” A small brass band played ironical funeral tunes.

At the Other Russia’s major rallies earlier this year, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the kids from Nashi and the Young Guard were joined by thousands of anti-terrorism and anti-riot troops. Hours after the rally in Moscow, television news covered the event only as a way to imply that it had been bankrolled by the U.S. State Department.

...The first session of the Other Russia conference was a routine recitation of reports about the state of Russia and the state of the Other Russia. The second day’s gathering was held in a much larger hall and, along with delegates from many provincial cities, there also seemed to be several young men brazenly filming the audience, as if to accumulate a dossier. Alexei Kondaurov, a former general in the F.S.B. and now a member of the Duma, said, “I look around at this audience and I think there are people, um, observing us. Unofficially. After all, it’s my job to know this.”

It was a diverse conference, with environmentalists, liberals, human-rights activists, and, most of all, neo-Bolsheviks. In the parlance of today’s Russia, a liberal (like Kasparov) tends to emphasize legal rights, democratic procedure, a transparent market economy, and civil society. The neo-Bolsheviks, whose principal leader is the novelist and opposition figure Eduard Limonov, emphasize social rights and guarantees: pensions, salaries, eliminating the gap between the wealthy and the poor. The leftists outnumbered the liberal democrats, who were discredited by the failures of the nineties. “If there were free and fair elections, we would have our own version of Hamas being elected in Palestine,” Ilya Ponomaryov, a left-wing economist and a member of the opposition, said. “I think that what we would get in really open elections is either left-wing forces or nationalists.”

Kasparov has chosen to join forces with the leftists—even leftists like Limonov, who, in the past, has made common cause with neo-Fascists and anti-Semites—in the name of creating genuine elections and democratic procedures. “It was Garry Kasparov who introduced the notion of a consensus and a united front, even though our ideological differences are very serious,” Andrei Dmitriyev, a National Bolshevik Party leader from St. Petersburg, said.

Limonov is, at best, a problematic partner for Kasparov. In the seventies, he immigrated to the United States and modelled himself on Charles Bukowski—as dissolute in his prose as in his daily life. In his autobiographical novel, “It’s Me, Eddie,” contempt and self-pity are the prevailing emotions. He describes himself bumming off the American welfare system, taking women up to his residential hotel, disdaining his new countrymen (“because you lead dull lives, sell yourselves into the slavery of work, because of your vulgar plaid pants”), and drinking. Solzhenitsyn called him “a little insect who writes pornography.” In middle age, Limonov refashioned himself as a man of action and went to Bosnia, where he befriended the accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Returning to Russia in 1994, he founded the National Bolshevik Party. It was hard to know how seriously to take him. He recommended the Gulag for Russian liberals. He bought guns. He started an N.B.P. newspaper called Limonka, a pun on his name and the slang for “hand grenade.” Finally, in 2001, he was arrested for buying arms illegally and was imprisoned for more than two years. Limonov has softened his rhetoric since his release and, in Kasparov’s presence, he presents himself as a benign social democrat.

...Kasparov thinks that the liberals who keep their distance from Limonov are repeating a mistake of the early nineties. “You have to work with the people who live here,” he said. “We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections, real elections.”[full text]


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