Pushed Outside the System
An interview with Garry Kasparov, Russian opposition leader and renowned world chess champion. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
Editor’s Note: Former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov recently stated that he will not be returning to Russia fearing that Moscow will detain and prosecute him for his role in opposition activities. We interviewed Mr Kasparov back in December for our Jan-March issue of New Eastern Europe 1(VI)/2013. In this interview he was very positive about the opposition movement in Russia and the newly established coordinating council, contrasting the recent pronouncements by Kasparov and his fears of the Russian authorities. In light of this, we are republishing editor-in-chief Adam Reichardt’s interview in its entirety.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Almost a year has passed since the Duma elections which seemingly awakened the opposition protest movement in Russia. You have personally been involved in many of the rallies and have been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Looking back over the last year, what would you say has been the biggest accomplishments of this movement?
GARRY KASPAROV: Clearly, there’s been a major change in the political landscape in Russia, and it is not just an accomplishment of the opposition movement. The real change was not on December 5th 2011, the day after these fake elections, but rather on September 24th 2011 after Dmitry Medvedev publicly gave all the powers he had never used back to Vladimir Putin. This was a signal for many Russians who hadn’t even thought about politics or didn’t want anything to do with the political opposition. At that moment, these Russians realised they had a choice: either they would have to leave the country, stay there under Putin; or they could fight.
So I think there was this spontaneous reaction immediately after the fraudulent election on December 4th 2011, and what we saw over the year that followed was that the movement failed to dismantle the regime immediately, although the core of the opposition – which was previously estimated at three to four thousand and has remained unchanged for almost five years – has now jumped to 30 to 40,000. Some of the demonstrations have even reached over 100,000 in strength; this is a very good sign for us and probably a very bad sign for the regime, because if anything happens and the public gets annoyed, angry or anxious as it did in December 2011, this number could rise quickly from this new level.
What’s more, the opposition has finalised the coordination of its different factions – the liberals, nationalists, and left-wing radicals, etc. This is something the United Civil Front, which I helped establish in 2005, has been advocating for years. We held free and fair elections of candidates to the opposition coordinating council in October 2012, and this signifies the first attempt of the different groups to work together.
In your opinion, is being “anti-Putin” enough to hold this opposition together?
The reasoning behind this coordination within the opposition wasn’t only because the protesters don’t like Putin, but also because they are trying to work out the vision of the future of Russia. We believe that a new vision for Russia is the last obstacle for the opposition, and the last line of defence for the regime. It’s true that not that many people like Putin, but they still have a genetic fear of a collapse of the regime and what happens next. Russians have a legitimate scepticism over any dramatic change judging from the experience of the 1990s. And this fear of change is the last barrier protecting the regime and holding the opposition together. A vision of a Russia without Putin could help the people recognise that the Putin regime is no longer the guardian of a safe future, but rather its destruction.
The truth is that the longer the Putin regime survives, the less the chances are for Russia to survive. The Putin regime is a slow acting poison. Actually it’s no longer slow acting. This poison destroys state institutions and its endemic corruption makes it impossible for the state to recover.
Some of Putin’s opponents think they can defeat him by working within the system, through political means. Do you agree?
These are not examples of the real opposition. The People’s Freedom Party, for example, is not a coalition. It’s a replica of all the liberal groups that have always tried to gradually influence the regime. The coalition that we have built today is made up of those who are pushed outside the system – and these are the groups which have been attracting the hundreds of thousands of supporters. Their demand is to dismantle the regime. Not to try to influence it from the inside.
And do you think that the system can be transformed from within?
We’ve already seen this strategy and it doesn’t work. In 2006, I was one of the first to say this at one of United Civil Front’s earliest conferences, when a lot of people were laughing and booing at us. And my words back then were: this regime won’t change through the ballot box. However, please do keep in mind that this is not something I personally like. The majority of the opposition now share my sentiments because Putin has made it very clear, just like Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar Assad: he is not going to leave power no matter what public opinion polls say.
Nevertheless, the protesters are being criticised for not being representative of Russian society. They are said to belong to the wealthier classes, predominantly inhabiting urban areas. And the groups making up the coordinating council are criticised for their lack of organisation along with a wide range of political views under one tent. Will this ultimately hurt the effectiveness of the movement?
History and experience of coalition building against a dictatorship tells us that success only happens when these different groups come together. In the late 1980s in Chile, even the communists were included in the coalition with the Christian Democrats and other similar groups who forced Augusto Pinochet to a referendum and restore democracy in Chile. Nobody thought that the Christian Democrats and the communists, and the socialists who were actually a very important element in this coalition, shared the same views. They had totally different views about the future of the country, but they knew that as long as Pinochet was in power, there would be no future. Similar things are happening in Russia, but to the surprise of many, even Russian experts, there are very few differences left among the antagonised political groups with respect to the political future of the country.
Of course, there are still some quite substantial differences when it comes to the economic policy of these groups. Obviously the left-wing radicals advocate for the dramatic redistribution of wealth, while the nationalists believe that the Russian state should become more exclusive and fight immigration. However, I don’t believe that these are the issues which are important for the coalition today. That’s for an elected parliament to decide. My bet is that a freely elected Russian parliament would either vote for a parliamentary republic or a weak form of presidency like Germany or Estonia.
You don’t seem to believe that the Russian people prefer a strong leader?
I believe that the Putin regime has acted as a vaccination to many Russians against a strong presidency. We now understand that under Russian conditions, this leads to a dictatorship.
As someone that has been advocating for organising the factions of the opposition from the beginning, I have met all of these groups and view myself as a facilitator of the process. The agreement, especially among the younger members, is that all of the political differences can be solved in a parliament, not by one man. There will be elections, people will raise their hands, and if the majority wants nationalisation, which I don’t believe is going to happen, we’ll move this way. Experience tells us that these groups can work together because they recognise, despite the state propaganda and attempts to divide us, that we all are going to live together in the same country, and if we want this country to survive we are going to have to unite together against Putin’s regime.
And what about the criticism that the protesters are middle-class, urban dwellers?
It’s probably true that in the beginning those taking to the streets were urban and upper-middle class. But now, if you look at the demographics, it has changed. You shouldn’t be surprised, however, that it is only Moscow, because Putin has concentrated all the political and financial powers in Moscow. As a result, the people understand that nothing which happens outside of Moscow matters. If you go to protests in Ryazan, Vladivostok, Irkutsk and elsewhere, or even in St. Petersburg, it’s not going to affect power. In order to challenge Vladimir Putin, you have to see the stars that adorn the Kremlin. That’s what people understand. Nobody cares if you show up and demonstrate with anti-Putin slogans in Rostov. Buy a ticket and come to Moscow, and then we’ll get what we had on May 6th 2012: thousands of people arriving from different places in Russia.
On the one hand, the complete picture is not very bright because the opposition is concentrated on Moscow. On the other hand, this also helps us as we don’t have to bother about other cities. With 500,000 people on the streets of Moscow, this is what is going to change the regime; and it makes our job easier. But still, 500,000 people will not show up unless the country is in the right mood. Those who flock to Moscow from the small Russian towns and rural areas act as mysterious energy; and this is enough to influence Muscovites to build up more courage and energy to come out in bigger numbers. It is these numbers which will open a new chapter in Russian history.
Garry Kasparov is a member of the Russian opposition coordinating council, founder of the United Civil Front political movement and world chess champion.
Adam Reichardt is Editor-in-Chief of New Eastern Europe.