“When you play chess, you have rules,” Kasparov told a few of us during a visit to The Post Thursday. “He can change the rules whenever he needs.”
Still, Kasparov isn’t reluctant to offer sharply delineated views on Russia’s future, and for a couple of reasons they command attention. His intellect is as formidable as you might imagine — he is probably best known in this country for taking on IBM’s chess-playing computer more than a decade ago — but it’s not just that. Kasparov is also far more charismatic than you might imagine, coming across as balanced, funny and very human. Given that chess champions are rock stars in Russia, he could have settled into an easy life of celebrity there. Or he could have joined the opposition to Putin’s kleptocracy, as he has, but from a safe and comfortable apartment in London or Manhattan.
Instead, he has maintained a life in Russia, where — given the grisly fate met by many journalists and human rights advocates — he lives with bodyguards and anxiety.
He does not live without hope for Russia’s future, however. And to that end, he came to Washington (meeting with executive and congressional officials) with three essential messages:
First, the ostensible power struggle between Putin, now prime minister, and his hand-picked president, Dmitry Medvedev, is a sham. Putin pulls the strings. Americans, including the Obama administration, have been taken in by this shadow play, Kasparov says, which is useful for Putin — Medvedev gives the regime a friendlier face to the West — but essentially irrelevant.
Second, Putinism is not working, and therefore its continuation is not inevitable. Despite being an oil exporter at a time of sky-high oil prices, Russia’s economy is ailing. Capital is fleeing, infrastructure is decaying, and people are noticing.
“I think the patience of ordinary Russians could be running out,” Kasparov said. “They can see that the one thing that’s going up is the number of Russian billionaires on the Forbes list.”
And having quarantined Russia from democracy movements that flared in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Putin now has to worry about infection from the Arab Spring. “Putin did everything to prevent an Orange Revolution, but now comes the ghost of Tahrir Square,” Kasparov said.
Finally, the United States has at its disposal a practical tool that could help undermine Putin’s hold on power — specifically, a bill sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin that would ban visas for and freeze assets of Russian officials implicated in rank abuses of justice or abrogations of freedom inside Russia.
“To outsiders, this may not seem like much,” Kasparov said. But it would undermine what Kasparov sees as the fundamental principle and purpose of Putin’s regime: that officials who are loyal to Putin can accumulate assets and park them abroad — and that Putin can protect them.
“If you are loyal to the boss, to the capo di tutti capi, you are safe, inside Russia and out — in Dubai, London, Lake Geneva,” Kasparov said. “If something happens to even a small group of these people, it will cause a dent in the monolith of power.”
Putin has bought off and corrupted so many European officials that Europe will not act first, Kasparov said. But the United States could — and because Russian oligarchs increasingly are investing in the United States, U.S. action would make a big difference.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have leverage,” Kasparov said.
Your move, Congress.