The former chess master turned political activist and erstwhile candidate for the Russian presidency talks with FRONTLINE/World’s Victoria Gamburg about why he feels eight years of President Vladimir Putin have been ruinous for Russia. He also discusses being blacklisted by state media as one of a number of disparate opposition voices in Russia and what Putin’s likely influence will be following the March 2008 election. The interview took place on November 13, 2007, in Moscow. It has been edited for clarity.
Victoria Gamburg: I interviewed [leader of the liberal Yabloko Party] Grigory Yavlinsky the other day, and I’m interested to know in what ways you and Yavlinsky differ ideologically. If you share many of the same democratic principles, why don’t you join forces?
Garry Kasparov: Unfortunately Yavlinsky -- as with many other so-called traditional democrats, or people who belong to the official opposition -- never want to join forces with us because we always call for a wide coalition. I have come to the conclusion that for Yavlinsky and many other traditional groups, fighting Putin’s regime is definitely not a priority. But we are absolutely open to other allies.
Yavlinsky said that he has great respect for you as a chess master, but as a politician, he believes, though you are sincere, what you propose is naive. He even used the word “incompetent.” How would you respond to this accusation?
Yavlinsky is a loser -- a man who lost every political battle he entered. I don’t think he has any right to challenge my political credentials. I’m doing what I can. I have a very short experience compared to Yavlinsky in politics, but I am used to winning my battles. And so far, if you look at the record of the Other Russia, the coalition that I helped to create, the Kremlin chose us as the main enemy. The entire propaganda machine attacked the Other Russia, and all our actions have created real waves of protest.
What do you think is Russia’s number one problem?
Unfortunately, Russia has too many “number one” problems. But we believe the first step should be to create conditions where Russian people will be able to discuss issues freely and to vote for the political force that will offer the best programs for bringing our country out of its current crisis. If I had to choose, it’s about building up democratic conditions from scratch and creating a political system that will benefit all political groups -- from right to left.
Where would you put freedom of speech on the scale of Russia’s problems?
It’s a part of political reform. When we talk about free and fair elections, it includes freedom of speech, freedom of political debate, freedom of associations, the election of all officials from top to bottom. So it’s a whole package. It’s also about reducing presidential powers, because all-powerful presidents in Russia, as we have seen during the last 10 years, are not immune from the virus of dictatorship.
Putin has very high approval ratings, but given that his administration still continues to wield tight control over the media, especially television, what is going on?
Probably this question contains the answer. The tight control guarantees the high rating. Nobody knows what is Putin’s real rating, unless this control is loosened. I don’t think that in countries like Russia or, say, Pakistan you can measure the popularity of the leader objectively.
How would you characterize the current regime? What would you call it? Sovereign democracy, weak authoritarianism?
I think the confusion is related to the fact that the Putin regime doesn’t have an immediate analog in history. It contains elements from very different political and economic systems. That’s why it’s hard to identify. It definitely has elements of a very strong central authority that is sucking money from the regions. It has elements of the Mussolini corporate state. It has elements of the typical Latin American oligarch dictatorship. But overall, it has a support structure where loyalty is the main quality for any political appointment.
Some analysts have said that since the middle class is growing in Russia and property rights are important to them, they will eventually demand democratic institutions and the rule of law. Do you see this positive trend in Russian society?
First of all, I don’t think there is a middle class in Russia. Russia today is losing ground because prosperity is only based on enormously high oil prices. Also, when you look at the structure of Russian society, it doesn’t give you any reasons for optimism because the gap we’ve been reaching for is getting wider. Instead of a middle class, we have two poles that are drifting in opposite directions. Roughly 85 percent are people with no access to the enormous financial wells accumulated by the Russian state. The other 15 percent are benefiting from the distribution of these benefits. But even they are not feeling very comfortable, because only 1 or 2 percent of them can really say they are doing fine. The rest are praying for this oil miracle to continue, but if you look around the globe, oil never produced any positive political and economic results. It’s a curse that drags a country back.
How important is [the radio station] Echo of Moscow to your campaign? How would you get your word out to the Russian people if it were shut down?
Echo of Moscow is the last remaining media outlet that offers a platform for different political groups in Russia. And it’s a lost voice. If Echo of Moscow is shut down, it means we are living in a dictatorship. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. But we have to use any opportunity that is given to us by the current political landscape. We still have Internet.
It’s a process that I wouldn’t characterize as a one-way street. If people want to get information about the situation in the country, they’ll find a way. It’s about the demand. If there is a demand in society to hear the story different from the virtual reality presented on Russian television [and] controlled by the Kremlin, they will be looking for information. So we must be ready for the moment when the Russian people will demand the truth.
Is there a demand now?
I think the demand is growing because there are too many questions Russian people cannot answer without receiving the alternative story. Why at a time of phenomenal financial accumulation by the Russian state are people not seeing any improvement in their living standards? Why are prices going up? Why is inflation so high? Why is corruption endemic? Why are people not having new opportunities when the government promised them great new opportunities? And while they can’t answer these questions, they’re looking for alternative stories that might address them. It’s the first time in our history that the Russian people are contemplating the connection between political freedom and living standards.
But your organization is allowed to function. You have an office in the center of Moscow. Doesn’t this say something about the freedoms that are allowed in today’s Russia?
There are certain differences between [Joseph] Stalin’s regime and [premier Leonid] Brezhnev’s regime. But I don’t think that we should be mistaken by the fact that some organizations can function OK. We pay the rent, and we are not creating trouble for the authorities. But our political abilities have been reduced dramatically by new laws adopted by Putin’s puppet parliament. We cannot participate in the elections. We cannot promote our political agenda the same way as Putin’s party. Even if you look at the parties that are registered -- the liberal parties or left-wing parties -- they are also very limited by their ability to do anything that may not be to the Kremlin’s liking. And of course, raising money officially is out of the question, because no business in Russia can afford to officially finance opposition groups. That’s why we have to meet people and discuss these issues privately and receive any kind of support in a liquid cash form.
I’ve heard you’ve been officially blacklisted from network television. Is this true?
Oh, even [Vladimir] Pozner [influential political TV talk-show host] confirmed it. [Government officials] are not only hiding the fact that many leading opposition personalities are included on this so-called blacklist, but that the people on that list cannot appear on any Russian TV program, no matter what the circumstances.
Pozner said he’d be happy to have you on his show, but says that his show focuses on the most important event of the week.
It’s very cynical of him to say this. There are many important things that we are part of. For instance, on April 14 and 15 [last year], there was a brutal assault against marchers of dissent. So we were definitely the most important event of that week. I don’t think Pozner even opened his mouth to comment on it. We’re organizing more marches, and when the government is bringing thousands and thousands of special police troops from all over the country and literally introducing martial law in the center of Moscow – that’s a story. We hoped that Pozner could find time to discuss it. This is the problem with Pozner and the like. They pretend to be objective, but in fact their behavior gives Putin’s regime a chance to install fear and to silence the opposition, because those who could raise their voices prefer to be conciliatory with the government. They prefer government benefits to the policy of rebellion.
So Pozner could do more?
It’s not only Pozner. Pozner is one of many. Obviously, he’s one of the famous anchormen on television. If they all acted differently, we would live in a different country.
People have said that given Russia’s history of brutal dictatorship and the hardships of the Yeltsin years, Russia could do a lot worse than Putin. What do you think?
I think it’s insulting to my country. You should ask the mothers of Beslan [the school hostage crisis] or those who lost their lives in “Nord-Ost” [the theater in Moscow that was seized by Chechen radicals]. You should ask the relatives of the political prisoners who are now growing in numbers in Russian prisons. You should ask a lot of people in the country who are not seeing any improvements in their lives despite the fact that under Putin the number of Russian billionaires -- dollar billionaires -- increased tenfold. Compared to Yeltsin’s era, some found stability. But it’s natural after revolutionary changes in any country, even one without oil reserves, that the situation will get a little cooler.
But Russia had great opportunities under Putin because all this money could have been used to rebuild our infrastructure, to start building a new country, and to improve living standards for tens of thousands of Russians -- not for a bunch of Putin’s friends and oligarchs.
David Remnick in a New Yorker article last year wrote that your fight against Putin is “futile.” What do you make of this?
I totally disagree with him. I think that our fight is important. We may not succeed fully in our fight, but bringing Russia back to democracy is very important, not only for my country, but for the rest of the world. It’s a fight for ideas. It’s a fight that is based on our beliefs that democracy and human rights are of utmost importance for progress. We’re not fighting to win elections now. We’re fighting to have elections. It’s a very important step forward.
You said that you plan to fight until Putin’s regime is dismantled. Realistically, how long do you think it will take to achieve your goal?
Putin’s regime is doomed. I think there’s no doubt. The equation is time and a price Russia and the rest of the world will pay to see this regime collapse. It is already showing cracks that will become quite obvious even in early 2008. And the fact is that Putin and his cronies are desperately looking for any solution to keep Putin within the system without breaking the constitution, without demonstrating the totalitarian nature of the regime. So they are stuck in a dilemma with no solution. Putin’s problem is that he wants to rule like Stalin and to live like [Roman] Abramovich, [Russia's richest man]. And it’s not going to happen. Either you have to be a dictator or an oligarch. Combining the two as Putin has been trying to do will not work.
Which one is he going to pick? He has to step down.
I don’t think today we can make predictions because I believe Putin doesn’t know yet. I think he’ll try to find a solution, but it’s very hectic. There are too many options on the table, and I don’t think anything works because in Russia all power will stay in the hands of the president. That’s the Putin-Yeltsin system. Creating any other position will be too messy, and it will not last for long. Eventually, I think the political groups that are now surrounding Putin will be fighting each other. Adding to all the crises we are facing now, like the social economic crisis, the infrastructure crisis, the looming banking crisis, there will also be a political crises, because all these groups will have to look for a new political configuration. No matter where Putin moves, it will create changes in the political geometry. Any successor, even the weakest one, by the power of the position will create an alternative source of power that will eventually prevail.
Is it possible for Putin to rule from behind the scenes?
No. Putin’s only power is based on the fact that he’s the president. Nothing else is going to grant him enough power to control the situation.
So he’s got to stay in power?
That’s why he’s so nervous. Putin cannot be seen as another [Aleksandr] Lukashenko [Belarusian president]. He cannot break up the constitution because the entire fortunes of Russia are tied to the free world. Russia can make friends with China, with Iran, with Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas. But all the money, the financial benefits that they gained after eight years of looting Russia is concentrated in the free world. They need the reliable protective legal environment of the West. Putin is trying to present something democratic; otherwise, someone else could be the guarantor of this money -- [money] that could be easily challenged as a part of laundering. But this way, it stays safe in London, in Paris, in Miami, in Switzerland, in Austria. That’s why crossing a red line and turning into another Lukashenko or [Robert] Mugabe [Zimbabwean president] is unacceptable. That’s why they’re looking for this trick to become a dictator without breaking up relations with the G7.
So what do you think we might see in March [when the presidential election is scheduled]?
I think we’ll see a lot of exciting turns in this story. I don’t think that anyone can predict the outcome, except the fact that this regime will be gone, because it will bring Russia to a disaster. If the regime survives, the country dies. I’m a great optimist that my country must survive. I believe in it.
Some political analysts have said that only nationalists or communists could gain enough support in Russia to change the regime. They say that most Russians would not support a democratic revolution such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. They point to the failure of Yavlinsky and other democrats as an example.
It’s not about nationalists, communists, or democrats. It’s about unifying all the forces against a dictatorship. At the end of the day, no political group in Russia will gain an outright majority. The only democratic government in Russia will be a coalition government. We have to learn how to negotiate between different groups that get elected using open democratic procedures. I’m not here to tell you what would be the composition of this new Russian government.
What’s important for the Other Russia, where we have a successful corporation of different groups, from liberals to left-wing nationalists, is to guarantee that we all have equal chances to be elected. We may disagree on many other issues, but what is important and what is completely missed by our traditional democratic groups that are still living in the 1990s, is that a liberal democracy is the only foundation for a successful modern state.
I’m seeing giant billboards all over Moscow promoting “Putin’s Plan.” What do you think the plan is?
Putin doesn’t have any plan except getting rich. Putin’s motto is nationalizing expenses and profitizing the profits. There is nothing for Russian people. There is nothing for Russia. That’s why the entire wealth of Russia is allocated not in Russia, but outside of Russia. The financial benefits the state is getting through these enormously high energy prices all moved in the wrong direction.
So would you say that’s really Putin’s plan?
You know, a plan is something too comprehensive for Putin. He’s very opportunistic and he’s got this country. He was the right man at the right place. He saw a unique opportunity, and he grasped it. He’s a street fighter. He never fought for power. He came from nowhere. This is not [Mikhail] Gorbachev or [Boris] Yeltsin or others who fought for power. It’s not even Stalin or Hitler, because he never had any real opposition to become a leader. He got there by a miracle. It was holiday time. He collected all the money he could. His regime is built on this unique opportunity to get rich and suck everything from its current positions. His regime created a system in which every bureaucrat knows that an official position offers a great opportunity to become rich. That’s Putin’s plan.