Playing Chess with the Kremlin Kasparov Takes on Putin's Russia

With an alliance of liberals and left-wing radicals, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov hope to topple President Vladimir Putin. The effort has little chance of succeeding, but the Kremlin isn't taking any chances.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, began his riskiest play on Russia's most magnificent street. On Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, the president's hometown, a crowd of about 3,000 Kasparov supporters chanted "Russia without Putin!"

Measured against the entire population of Russia's second-largest city (4.6 million), it was a relatively small protest. Nevertheless, it was clearly large enough for the authorities to feel the need to retaliate with their own demonstration of government might. Riot police from the OMON special task force arrested 113 demonstrators.

It was not the first time Kasparov was standing outside in the bitter cold in front of St. Isaac's Cathedral in downtown St. Petersburg. Wielding a megaphone in his right hand, the leader of the United Civil Front, an organization numbering 5,000 members, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of preparing an "insidious coup d'état."

The chess genius is unlikely to ever become a powerful opposition leader with these tactics. Putin and his supporters ensured long ago that their challengers wouldn't stand a chance in December's parliamentary elections and the presidential election three months later. They raised the hurdle parties must clear to gain seats in the parliament to seven percent and deprived provincial governors of much of their power by essentially making them presidential appointees. They control Russia's television networks and its largest newspapers. And, as if that weren't enough, they dispatch tax investigators and prosecutors to deal with their political adversaries. " Russia is not a democracy ," Kasparov, 43, told SPIEGEL. Despite his underdog status, Kasparov is applying some of his chess acumen to extract himself from a defensive position by making some surprise moves.

An opposition past its prime

Still, it comes across as an act of desperation when Kasparov, in his move to challenge the popular president, chooses to ally himself with men like the less popular former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Eduard Limonov, an eccentric, 64-year-old intellectual. Of all people, this last remaining contingent of Russian democrats is a triumvirate of men whose futures are behind them and who are united by little more than their dislike of Putin.

The effervescently awkward Kasparov and Kasyanov, a man with a reputation for being a dandy, are both staunchly pro-American. But Limonov, a writer, condemns the United States, the country that granted him exile when the Communist Party leadership deported him from the Soviet Union in 1974. Kasparov wrote the series of chess bestsellers "My Great Predecessors," while Limonov was the author of "Memoir of a Russian Punk" and, in 2003, of the work that gave the droll triumvirate its name: "Drugaya Rossiya," or "Another Russia."

In "Another Russia," Limonov proposes the "transformation of the country into a conglomerate of armed, free and orgiastic communes." How this sort of rhetoric could possibly appeal to former Prime Minister Kasyanov, a committed capitalist who prefers to talk about economic growth and free competition, is puzzling.

At the demonstration in St. Petersburg, Limonov stood next to Kasparov. In the chess master's strategy, Limonov's role is to bring in the pawns so that Kasparov, the king, isn't exposed. Unlike Kasparov and Kasyanov -- middle-class opposition politicians in a country that lacks a true middle class -- Limonov is the only one capable of readily mobilizing several thousand supporters. With slogans like "Only a dead bourgeois is a good bourgeois," the "Limonovsky," a group comprised mainly of strapping young men, acquired the image of a gang of radical hooligans. Limonov himself, leader of the non-registered National Bolshevik Party for the past 14 years, propagates the message of "national and social resistance," and in doing so invokes Lenin in his later years, Goebbels in his early years, the left wing of the Nazi Party and notorious German RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.

Squelching the opposition

Anxious to prevent the democratic revolutions against autocratic regimes in Ukraine and Georgia, which were financed with money from America, to repeat themselves in Russia, the Kremlin is quick to squelch even the most insignificant spark of opposition. In December, Kremlin leaders sent out 8,000 police officers in Moscow to keep an eye on 2,000 demonstrators participating in the "Dissenters' March."

Putin is already calling on the country's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, to protect Russia from an "ideology of extremism" during the elections. But in the Kremlin's parlance, nonviolent protests are often already defined as extremist. When two Limonov supporters threw flyers demanding free elections into a session of the St. Petersburg city council in November, they were promptly tossed into the notorious Kresty "investigation" prison and accused of committing "acts of violence against representatives of the government." In Putin's Russia, harmless flyers are apparently so threatening to those in power that the disproportionate scope of punishment becomes reminiscent of the Soviet days.

Any opposition not controlled by the Kremlin is considered a threat to the state and the administration, true to form, has brought in its heavy guns to deal with renegade Kasyanov. Shortly after his political comeback, the state-controlled media revived a nickname that places him in a less than favorable light: Misha Two Percent, a reference to the percentage Kasyanov is said to have illegally earned -- a two-percent commission he allegedly charged in return for turning a blind eye to illegal business ventures while working at the finance ministry between 1993 and 1999, where he rose through the ranks from department head to cabinet minister.

Kasyanov insists that his only earnings as a public servant consisted of his government salary, and that he was only involved in private business ventures for one year after leaving office as prime minister. But it must have been a profitable year for Kasyanov, who subsequently managed to purchase the former state-owned dacha of Soviet Communist Party ideologue Mikhail Suslov, a property worth several million euros.

Kasyanov for president?

In Kasparov's chess game against the Kremlin, the controversial Kasyanov is the Queen, and his role is to force the opposing King, Putin, into a corner. Kasyanov is seen as the most likely candidate for president within the triumvirate. He served as prime minister under Putin for four years and is widely viewed as an experienced political heavyweight.

But even well meaning supporters of the opposition movement doubt whether someone like Kasyanov can rise to the level of national hero the way Putin has. Under his watch as finance minister during the chaotic, post-Soviet administration of Boris Yeltsin, pensions were paid late, often as bureaucrats and oligarchs kept themselves busy by shamelessly stuffing their pockets.

To pose a truly serious threat to the Putin team, Kasyanov and Kasparov would have to form an alliance with the Communist Party, which, with 160,000 members and 48 of the 450 seats in the Russian parliament, the Duma, is the country's strongest opposition party. But Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is against aligning his party with the democratic opposition. Kasyanov, Zyuganov says derisively, is merely interested in "plundering Russia once again."

Indeed, the former prime minister often comes across as a general without an army. This lack of support is reflected in the listless mood at a meeting of his movement -- the People's Democratic Union, which counts only 3,000 members nationwide -- in the southern Russian city of Stavropol, where a dozen middle-aged men sit on worn, Soviet-era movie theater seats in a small room with pink wallpaper.

Using the same self-assured tone with which he once conducted cabinet meetings, Kasyanov now condemns Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference and warns against demonizing the West. But the news blockade the Kremlin has managed to impose on the triumvirate ensures that Kasyanov's message doesn't leave the room.

Even if it did get out, it wouldn't be very popular. Kasyanov's credo of a "modern, civilized society" and his criticism of an "aggressive foreign policy" under the intoxicating influence of oil and gas prices have fallen out of fashion in Putin's newly confident Russia.

Putin strikes back

In the unlikely event that hundreds of thousands of Russians were to end up getting inspired by the rhetoric of the Kasparov-Limonov-Kasyanov trio, Putin's aides have already taken the necessary steps. Kasparov and Kasyanov are rumored to be receiving funding from abroad, a charge both men have denied.

If it turns out that former supporters of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate and Putin adversary who is now in a Siberian prison, are working for the two men and, more seriously, that campaign funds have come from the Khodorkovsky camp -- an allegation both are denying -- Kasparov and Kasyanov could quickly wind up in court. Limonov has already spent two years behind bars for alleged arms dealings. Last month the Kremlin reminded former Prime Minister Kasyanov of just how vulnerable he is, when prosecutors summoned him to testify in a case involving an arms deal with India worth $230 million.

But neither the threat of prosecution nor the fact that he and his two allies failed to make it onto a single list in regional elections in 14 Russian provinces on March 11 -- the most important test of voter sentiment before the December election -- have managed to disturb the former prime minister's composure. Speaking in a soft bass baritone, he greets visitors in his sleek, modern office, which is the size of the office he once occupied as prime minister. Kasyanov, entirely the statesman for a moment, walks to the window, gazes down at Moscow from his 16-floor vantage point and rests his hand on a large telescope pointed at the Kremlin.

At least looking through the telescope brings him a step closer to the center of power in Russia.

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