By Melanie Kirkpatrick
NEW YORK — As the longtime world chess champion, Garry Kasparov was a famously aggressive player. His latest game is politics, and his style is equally aggressive. “Our goal is to dismantle the regime,” he says, speaking of the political coalition he leads to bring down Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Kasparov’s Putin antipathy is well known to readers of this newspaper, of which he is a contributing editor. “I Was Wrong About Putin,” was the headline on his Jan. 9, 2001, op-ed article for this page. One year into Mr. Putin’s presidency, Mr. Kasparov sounded an early warning about a man whose “KGB roots have informed a style of governance that is neither reformist nor particularly democratic.” Since then, Mr. Kasparov has scarcely let up, retiring from chess in March 2005 in part to devote himself to politics.
Mr. Kasparov’s new occupation is not without its perils — a thought that occurred to me as we arranged to meet earlier this month at his newly refurbished apartment in an art deco building on a smart street in Midtown Manhattan. It’s a neighborhood replete with sushi bars — of the sort that bring to mind, ghoulishly, the late Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium 210.
The doorman announces me, and Mr. Kasparov greets me at the door. We are old interlocutors — I was present at his first meeting with the editorial board in March 1990 and was his editor at the Journal for years. So we kiss — twice, once on each cheek, not three times, as is the custom in Moscow. After his wife serves tea — in bone-china English cups, not Ã la Russe, in glasses — I ask Mr. Kasparov about the risks: “Look,” he says, “there are certain moments in your life when you should forget calculations and do what you believe is your moral duty. I knew that the choice would be dangerous. That’s why our baby was born here. I’m prepared to take all the risk, but if I can avoid some, I do.” The Kasparovs have a three-month-old daughter.
“The Other Russia” is the name of the unlikely left-right coalition conceived by Mr. Kasparov in 2005 and founded last year. It is composed of groups that would normally be at political odds — democrats like Mr. Kasparov, nationalists, socialists, even Bolsheviks. Mr. Kasparov predicts that the Communist Party will join up before the end of the year. “There’s still a lot of distrust,” he says, with more than a modicum of understatement. “It’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. The big advantage of the Other Russia, and I think it’s our biggest accomplishment, is that we’ve established the principle of compromise, which was not yet seen in Russian politics. It was always confrontation. It was a mentality of a civil war. We eliminated it.”
A declaration at the time of the Other Russia’s organizing conference last summer reads, “We are gathering together because we are united in our disagreement with the current political course of the Kremlin and united in our alarm for the present and future of our country.” The group’s sole objective is to find a candidate to run — and win — in the March 2008 presidential elections. Or as Mr. Kasparov puts it with characteristic bluntness: “When a liberal democracy is re-established, everybody goes his or her way.”
The Russian Constitution forbids Mr. Putin from running for a third term — though that doesn’t quell widespread speculation that the president will ignore the rule of law and do so anyway. He “has the administrative resources” to do so, Mr. Kasparov agrees, but it would be at the price of his legitimacy — both in the West and at home. “I don’t think Putin wants to take such a chance.”
Mr. Kasparov believes Mr. Putin’s “mentality is just to run away — with all the Russian billionaires. This is the richest ruling elite in the world. They are way ahead of the Saudi princes. They are mega-rich. When you’re so rich, you have to make sure that your funds are safe.” But “if Putin goes, then who will be in charge? That’s a big problem. Then it’s instability. An authoritarian regime cannot have a successor while the big name [Mr. Putin] is still alive, much less well, young and strong.”
As the new year unfolds, Mr. Kasparov predicts “a political crisis” in Mr. Putin’s government, along with “less stability, more uncertainty.” That’s the opening for the Other Russia. “We should keep our group together, close to the wall, to get into the hall when it’s broken. But not too close to be buried under the debris.” And then? “If the Other Russia wins, who cares? The victory of the Other Russia candidate destroys the legacy of any institution built under Putin. You have to start from scratch. You have to call new [parliamentary] elections. You have to introduce new laws. You have to undergo judicial reform. You have to destroy censorship.” In short, you have to start over, back to where Russia was before Mr. Putin took over, building democracy, block by block.
The next step for the Other Russia, Mr. Kasparov says, is to come up with a platform and work out the rules for selecting a presidential candidate, tasks that are on the agenda for a conference planned for April. The candidate will likely be chosen in another conference in September or October, Mr. Kasparov explains. At the moment Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, “looks most prominent.”
And what about Garry Kasparov? Is he a candidate? It’s the only time in 15 years of conversations with Mr. Kasparov that I’ve known him to be less than confident in a reply. “So far . . .,” he says — note the “so far” — “so far, I don’t think my personal participation helps the coalition because so far” — another one! — “I keep the position of moderator. . . . I keep balance of different forces. If I step into the game, that might jeopardize the whole coalition.”
In the course of our discussion, Mr. Kasparov refers often to the lack of a free press in Russia. So how, then, will the Other Russia get its message across? “The role of Internet is growing,” he says. “Mobile telephones are not unique anymore, not even in rural villages.” But — and the master chess player may have too much confidence in the analytic abilities of ordinary Russians here — “more important is growing malcontent. People are getting really unhappy. And if they’re unhappy, they’ll listen.”
Mr. Kasparov is far more worried about money, which is short; but “I think in 2007 we will see a major influx of our financial support from within Russia because people can see that the ground is shaky.” The Other Russia won’t touch “politically exposed money,” he says — and emphatically denies that exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky is a donor. But in the end, he says, “You know, you can’t buy political support. Either you are the right man at the right place at the right time or no money helps you.” More political naÃ¯vetÃ©?
Our hour nearly at an end, conversation drifts back to the early ’90s and the discussions we used to have about Russia and its future. Is there something the U.S. might have done differently back then, I ask, that would have helped keep Russia on the path to democracy?
Mr. Kasparov gives a wry smile. “I think the best thing [the U.S.] could have done was to get Saddam [Hussein] 15 years earlier,” he says. “By going after Saddam in 1991, I think we could have saved Yugoslavia from a civil war and could have sent a message, a very powerful message, to many dictators. . . . In 1991, the United States was much stronger and everybody else was much weaker.”
The decision to let Saddam stay in power happened under the watch of President George H.W. Bush, whom Mr. Kasparov isn’t shy about criticizing. But he’s far more scathing about President Bill Clinton. “During the Clinton years, the United States did virtually nothing in the international arena. . . . There were a lot of activities, but when you look at the core events, I think the influence was irrelevant. . . . Leadership. There was no leadership. . . . There was a big window of opportunity to show leadership, in 1992-93. In those years the whole world was in an ambiguous state after the Cold War. It was a new world, and it required leadership. The way Winston Churchill and [Harry] Truman showed it in World War II. . . . Missing this chance and playing sporadically — you know, boom, boom, you play one move here, one move there. The United States was asleep.”
What advice does he have for George W. Bush about helping Russian democracy today? “Stay neutral,” comes the swift reply. The “worst thing” that happened to the democracy movement, he says, was the inclusion of Russia in the Group of 7 democracies, now the G-8, a designation he can’t bring himself to utter. Now, Washington should take that position that “there must be an election under the Russian constitution. Putin must go, and elections should be held. Period. That’s enough. There’s no double standard. Obey the Constitution. That’s it.”
In addition to his work with the Other Russia, Mr. Kasparov continues to write books about chess — he’s up to Volume Six in a series about his great predecessors — and he has a mass-market book coming out this year called “How Life Imitates Chess,” about the decision-making process in chess, business, politics and history. But at least for now, politics has taken the place of chess as the big game in his life: “I just don’t see any other choice for me,” he says. “As I used to say for 25 years, I am defending the colors of my country. I’m still doing the same, just not at the chessboard. At a much larger board.”
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal.
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