Kasparov: ‘Political change in Russia carries negative genetic memory’

December 5, 2012

He's the greatest chess champion of our time, but these days Garry Kasparov focuses his strategic thinking off the board -- on mapping out a future for Russia's opposition movement as it rails against the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Garry Kasparov. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
Russian chess great turned activist Garry Kasparov. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Kasparov was ranked first in the world in chess for nearly 20 years and once faced off against the IBM computer Deep Blue, but after retiring from the game in 2000, he has turned his attention to combating Putin. He attempted his own bid for president in 2007, but he was unable to contend because the Kremlin blocked a mandatory endorsement meeting. Since then, he's taken part in a series of opposition rallies and earlier this year was arrested during a protest at the trial of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

We recently talked with Kasparov, who was in town for a human rights summit. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:

WorldViews: The big protests that began a year ago seem to have tapered off. What comes next?

Kasparov: "The demonstrations aren’t necessarily over, and they may have a lasting effect. Today, the base and the activists are 10 times the size that they were before. We've seen a dramatic change in public opinion. Putin is no longer the president of hope.

"Today, Putin’s popularity, if you can use that word, is dwindling, and even Kremlin-controlled polls demonstrate that Putin’s supporters are still backing him on the basis of inertia. People are afraid of change, and it’s hard to blame them. '91 is not a year many of my competitors want to remember. Political change in Russia carries some negative genetic memory.

"The goal of the opposition is to formulate the image of the future. We need to not to be trapped by “who will replace” Putin, but asking “what will replace" Putin. We do not need to replace a bad czar with a good czar.

"Russia has been quickly learning the fundamentals of a properly functioning society, and it makes the end of Putin’s regime inevitable. He’s not going to stay there for [his term of] 6 years."

WorldViews: If so, how do you see Putin's exit happening?

Kasparov: "We can't know for sure...One important moment is in D.C., and the Magnitsky Act [which places restrictions on Russian officials involved with the torture and death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky] will hopefully pass. It’s time to replace sanctions against states with sanctions against individuals. Any meaningful foreign policy today should have an individual angle. 

"There are many vulnerable people who are vital for the survival of Putin’s regime. Changing the priorities to sanctions against individuals might be the best way to promote human rights."

WorldViews: What would the opposition's plan consist of?

Kasparov: "We need rule of law, reliable institutions that can fight corruption. The opposition’s goal is to make sure the transition will be as peaceful as possible and cause the least amount of damage possible."

WorldViews: Of all the anti-Putin activists, why do you think Pussy Riot in particular prompted both such a strong reaction by the government and such vocal protests to their jail term?

Kasparov: "This case became the centerpiece for looking at the protests. Two or three years ago, it was a different story, but then two or three years ago they wouldn’t have gone with such a blatant statement in the main hall of the Russian Cathedral.

Pussy riot member Maria Alekhina. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel) Click through for more photos of Pussy Riot.
Maria Alekhina, one of the jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Alekhina and two other band members were sentenced in August to two years in prison on hooliganism charges for performing a "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's main cathedral. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

"The discrepancy between an action and the punishment and the hysteria of the state controlled media -- that brought attention to the fact that rule of law in Russia exists only on paper. It became a symbol of the social uprising against the regime."

WorldViews: Putin recently fired his defense chief on corruption charges...Is he serious about fighting corruption?

Kasparov: "The greatest wealth accumulated during Putin’s rule is by people close to him. There have been some measures taken against people who have been close to his inner circle, but I think it’s also a result of growing public pressure.

"The instability of the regime makes groups attack each other. They’re all part of the same system, and i don’t expect them to embrace democracy ad political reform unless they have to do it for political survival. Right now, I would assess the situation as in-house fighting because the country is no longer on the rise. Even the pipeline is no longer bringing in the same benefits as before. They could see the stagnant economy and...they have to attack one of their own."

WorldViews: Will the opposition ever unite---can you work with Navalny, Chirikova, Udaltsov, Sobchak and others? How can the opposition movement provide a credible alternative to Putin?

Kasparov: "Regarding unity, we’re not living in a situation where we'll have elections soon and we have to get together to elect one candidate. We’re not fighting to win elections, we’re still fighting to have elections, and that’s a fundamental difference.

"We are dealing with a regime that is killing, politically, every alternative that can be shown on the horizon. Despite this very alien environment for political dissent, we succeeded in having our elections for the opposition council. We got 80,000 people voting, mostly offline, some of them online. It was the first experience of having such an election. It has the legitimate back-up of the public representing all different political crops. Over the last year, we’ve made huge progress. We’d like to expand this to the regions and we believe modern technology affords us that opportunity."

Read more from our Russia correspondents, Kathy Lally and Will Englund.

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Max Fisher · December 5, 2012