What is the State of Dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Russia has never been the friendliest environment for political dissent, and beginning with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the situation has only grown more challenging. Since that time, Russia has raised fines for taking part in unauthorized protests, tightened state control over the media and non-governmental organizations and cracked down on opposition websites.
For Garry Kasparov, actions like these are all too familiar. Kasparov is best known as arguably the best chess player of all-time, but since retiring from the game in 2005, he has been jailed and beaten for organizing against the Russian president. Today, Kasparov, who now lives in exile, is one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics. As chairman of the Human Rights Foundation’s International Council in New York, he works to prevent the return of totalitarianism in Russia.
FRONTLINE spoke with Kasparov on Jan. 12, 2015 about his experience as one of Russia’s most well-known political dissidents. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How would you characterize the state of dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
It’s very hard to imagine a strong opposition movement in a country ruled by Vladimir Putin, which is a one-man dictatorship … There’s no room for opposition that could challenge the government. You use the word “dissent.” Yes, there’s plenty of dissent, but the dissent has yet to reach political forms. …
There are many dissenters, people who disagree with regime for one reason or another. A lot of people recognize that this regime has brought the country to the dead end, but like in the previous eras of the Soviet Union, many of the people who could see the deadly consequences [of] Putin’s rule prefer to leave the country rather than to fight inside.
How has the situation evolved over the course of his time in power?
I think that with Putin’s official return to the Kremlin [in 2012], he didn’t have much of a choice but to sort of turn outward, because … [the] first half of his rule was based very much on the economic factors. … High oil prices created wealth, and a sense of stability for the Russian middle class, and Putin and his team played their cards quite impressively, because Putin avoided any identification with a political trend. So he could be a nationalist. He could be a liberal. He could be a populist. He wore so many hats.
It was all about illusions and making sure that the political opposition will never unite against him. Official opposition played by the rules imposed by Kremlin. It was all about creating some form of political capital, and then exchanging it with the Kremlin for some benefit within the system.
So it was a fairly comfortable rule, and Putin didn’t need to use sort of drastic measures against opposition, or he didn’t need to look for some foreign policy adventures.
When he came back, the economy looked different. … And also, for the Russian middle class, especially for young people, Putin’s return was kind of a shock. People were happy to trade their freedom, or part of their freedom, for a better economy, for stable life. But I don’t think anybody thought about Putin staying forever. …
There was a clear understanding that Putin’s comeback meant nothing else but a lifetime tenure in Kremlin. And that created discontent in the Russian middle class, especially in Moscow, and it led to the massive demonstrations … So Putin had not much choice. He needed to show his strength domestically, he needed to put pressure on the opposition. …
Are there particular policies that you would point to at as emblematic of this shift?
Every year he has been gradually reducing the space of political freedom in Russia. [In] 2001, attacks on the free press. Next two years, he replaced independent or semi-independent central key stations with cronies. Then the limitations for the election process in 2004, he cancelled the direct elections of the governors. It was a steady process, and then gradually limitations in the Russian legislation, and then in the penal code, measures to prevent the open demonstrations and criticism of the government. There’s no one milestone. It was a steady process … And eventually, when you look at the results of Putin’s rule today, almost everything that aims at criticizing the government is a criminal offense.
You obviously have first-hand experience with some of this. Based on your own history, what is it like to even be a political activist in Russia these days?
Right now, for me, going back to Russia would be one-way ticket. I think that with my political views and my open statements, I wouldn’t stay free for long in Russia. So that’s why people sharing the same views and being as loud as myself, they are either behind bars or out of the country.
I was arrested for the first time in 2007, but at that time you could end up with five or 10 days in prison. It was like, you know, just a warning. Today, for the same things we did in 2007, you’ll end up in prison for five years. Again, it was just sort of a gradual change. …
When you look at opinion polls in Russia, Putin is still wildly popular across much of the country. Why?
I would be very cautious in accepting the results of these polls … We have to admit that today, the propaganda machine is also very effective. I would not be surprised if a lot of people, they truly believe what they’re hearing on Russian television. …
But also still, I would be cautious, as I said already, because today when you talk about opinion polls, you rely on people responding to questions asked anonymously on the telephone. Now, even if people are concerned about the situation in the country, or dislike Putin, it’s still very hard to confess about their true feelings. Because they remember the Soviet Union, and many of them were born in Soviet Union, and they know what is KGB.
So what is truly amazing, my point is that when you have 80 percent supporting Putin, these 20 percent are capable of saying to an unknown person, to somebody who is questioning them, that they are not happy, they are not supporting Putin, which is quite amazing. …
So what would it take to turn that type of discontent into an open and healthy debate?
The answer is I don’t know. And nobody knows. So I cannot tell you that if Putin goes down today — and I believe that he will never leave the Kremlin by his own will. So he dies there whether from biological factors or from outside intervention. It will lead to unpredictable consequences, because the one-man dictatorship means that the whole system of checks and balances is connected to one person. It’s like a spine. You take out the spine, the whole system collapses.
I believe that we can learn from the history. It’s a simple rule. The longer the dictator stays in power, worse are the consequences following his death or his removal from power. …