By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 15, 2007
MOSCOW -- They are an odd trio: a chess grandmaster, a flamboyantly controversial radical and a suave former insider. Together they have embarked on a political quest that seems not merely quixotic but hopelessly so: regime change in Russia.
The alliance of Garry Kasparov, 44, the former world chess champion; Eduard Limonov, 64, leader of the banned National Bolsheviks; and Mikhail Kasyanov, 49, a former prime minister, has led a series of street protests since late last year to demand free and fair elections in Russia. More than 2,000 people took part in a protest Saturday in St. Petersburg that was timed to coincide with an address by President Vladimir Putin to an economic forum there. It and another gathering in Moscow on Monday were peaceful.
Previous heavy-handed responses by Russian authorities, who have employed thousands of riot police to break up the group's unsanctioned marches, have fueled perceptions that the Kremlin will brook no opposition in advance of elections for parliament in December and president in March.
The intensity of the official reaction may also have inflated the importance of Other Russia, as the coalition is called, far beyond what opinion polls -- and Putin himself -- suggest are its chances of having any impact on the elections.
In separate interviews, the three men argued that however unlikely it may appear, Russia is at a tipping point, that the imminent departure of Putin will unleash such fierce infighting among Kremlin factions that the state's stranglehold on political competition will unravel. An open presidential election will follow.
They predict an opposition candidate will then win the contest, although they have not agreed on who that candidate should be. Limonov is backing Kasyanov. Kasparov prefers Viktor Geraschenko, 69, former chairman of the dismantled Yukos Oil.
"We recognize that our strength is not sufficient, but if our movement survives to mid-fall, we will be representing the center of consolidation at a time of disintegration in the Kremlin, and that creates new opportunities," Kasparov said. "We think by the end of this year, or the end of the fall, the regime will be crumbling, cracking from internal pressure. My assessment is that they fear . . . the success of one of their colleagues more than the success of democracy."
An entirely fanciful scenario, say analysts who argue that it is the Russian opposition, not the Kremlin, that has a long history of internecine struggles. And Other Russia, they add, has failed to inspire ordinary Russians. "I don't think they have had any significant response from the public," said Georgy Bovt, a political commentator. "They keep themselves on the surface, but they don't have a concrete strategy. I don't think they form a real opposition."
In an opinion poll by the Levada Center in May, only 5 percent of respondents said they would vote for Kasyanov for president, compared with 31 percent for Sergei Ivanov and 29 percent for Dmitry Medvedev, both of whom are first deputy prime ministers. The poll was taken before the former Yukos executive Geraschenko said he would run.
Other Russia was formed a year ago by disparate small parties and human rights activists who shared little ideological affinity except their belief, as a declaration by the coalition states, that the Kremlin was bent on the "destruction of civil liberties and the cleansing of the political field."
The star power of Kasparov and the pugnacity of Limonov and his followers lifted the conclave above other Putin opponents.
Kasparov became the youngest official champion in chess in 1985. He was never embraced by the Soviet establishment, but his attacking style, which he has transferred to politics, electrified the chess world. He retired from chess in 2005.
Limonov has careered from one public incarnation to another since he left the Soviet Union as a disaffected poet in 1974 and landed in New York, where he was unhappily dislocated, an experience he chronicled in a novel, "It's Me, Eddie."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, he returned to Russia and established himself as a hard-line nationalist whose actions have veered from the sinister to the theatrical. During the Bosnian war, he was filmed firing a machine gun at the besieged city of Sarajevo from Serbian-controlled territory. More recently, his young followers hung banners, saying "Putin Must Go," from public buildings they briefly stormed and occupied.
"The Kremlin considers him to be a real Nazi," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, who is close to the presidential administration.
Kasparov and Kasyanov said Limonov has dedicated himself to democratic politics. "He is a fighter, and today he is standing on the principle of a democratic Russia," Kasyanov said. "As soon as we create an environment for political competition, of course we will fight. The coalition is temporary."
Activists from Other Russia argue that there is deep but passive discontent in Russian society, among the poor who have not benefited from a continuing economic boom and among those in the business and intellectual classes who are distressed by the country's authoritarian direction.
In the Kremlin, "they are afraid that by the end of the year or the beginning of next year, the protests will become a tsunami," Limonov said. "They don't understand Russians' discontent. The hate of the population is hidden under the layers of the big lie."
Yet under Putin, poverty levels have been halved, a middle class is emerging and the country, flush with cash from oil and other natural resources, has reemerged on the world stage as an assertive power, much to the apparent delight of the population.
"We have nothing to fear from marginal groups," Putin said at a news conference with E.U. leaders last month when asked about Kasparov. "And especially not the very small ones we know about."
Putin enjoys a popularity rating of more than 70 percent. But recent polls also contain some worrying indicators for the Kremlin. In a March poll by the Levada Center, 73 percent of respondents said their lives either had not improved or had worsened over the previous year. Only 18 percent said they believed their lives would improve over the coming year.
"People don't believe the propaganda," Kasyanov said. "Take a simple thing like inflation. People are told that it's 8 percent. But, in fact, for half the population it's 25 percent, because for the major items they spend their money on, such as food and transportation, prices are soaring."
"Yes, there is discontent, but it's from communists and nationalists, and they are never going to vote for Kasyanov," said Nikonov, the foundation head with Kremlin ties. "He is a symbol of the capitalist corrupt oligarchy."