Thursday, December 28, 2006

MOSCOW — In his 20 years at the top of the professional chess world, Garry Kasparov was known as a risk-taker, a relentless aggressor who loved to throw his opponents off balance. A year after his retirement, Mr. Kasparov is still taking risks, but against a very different kind of opponent.

Mr. Kasparov, 43, has thrown himself into the murky and sometimes dangerous world of Russian politics. A fierce opponent of President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Kasparov has become the driving force behind a movement to unite opposition forces ahead of Russia’s 2008 presidential election.

In the process, he has been threatened, his offices have been raided and he has even been struck on the head with a chessboard by a disgruntled former fan.

“I’m discovering that politics, especially in Russia, is very different from chess,” Mr. Kasparov said. “The rules can change. You think you’re playing chess but you’re actually in the casino.”

Mr. Kasparov burst into the chess world in 1984 as a 21-year-old protege challenging the reigning world champion, Anatoly Karpov, in a match to be won by the first to win six games.

After a disappointing start, he battled Mr. Karpov to a seemingly endless series of draws and eventually began to whittle away at the champion’s lead. Then, in the most controversial finish to a competitive match ever, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) called off the contest, citing the two players’ health.

The competition had gone on for six months and Mr. Karpov had lost 22 pounds. The decision to cancel infuriated Mr. Kasparov, who went on to win a rematch the following year, and he began a long feud with FIDE that eventually led him to set up a rival chess association.

Like many other Russians, Mr. Kasparov had hoped after the end of Soviet rule in 1991 that Russia was on the path to becoming a Western-style democracy. But since Mr. Putin came to power in 1999, he said, he has come to fear for the future.

“Frankly, at the end of the 1990s, I thought it would be all right, that the country would flow into a better system and things would improve automatically. And then Putin arrived,” Mr. Kasparov said.

“I was more and more concerned about what was happening in my country, so I decided to use my energy, my strategic thinking and my ability to analyze situations to change something. Maybe not a great deal, but still something.”

Mr. Kasparov decided that his best strategy was to try to unite Russia’s fractured opposition movements — from left-wing populists to liberal intellectuals — under one banner.

He organized a conference, dubbed “The Other Russia” and timed to coincide with the meeting of Group of Eight leaders in St. Petersburg in July. It was the largest gathering of prominent opposition figures in Moscow in years.

Participants in the conference continued to work together and on Dec. 16, the Other Russia held its first public demonstration. Mr. Kasparov estimates that 4,000 supporters attended the demonstration, held only a short walk from the Kremlin in Moscow’s Triumph Square.

They were vastly outnumbered by police and soldiers shipped in from outside Moscow, who formed a chain around the square to prevent the protesters from marching. A police helicopter flew low overhead.

For longtime Russia watchers, it was in some ways a bizarre spectacle.

To Mr. Kasparov’s right stood Eduard Limonov, the bearded and bespectacled leader of the National Bolshevik Party, known for its radical and anarchist tendencies.

On his left stood Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and economic reformer known for his support among bureaucrats. Mr. Kasyanov was head of the Russian government in 2002, when Mr. Limonov was sentenced to two years in prison for trying to overthrow the state.

Mr. Kasparov admits that such a disparate group could never work together in government, but says that isn’t the point.

“Such different political figures can stand together if we have a common goal,” he said. “This coalition may not work, but this strange mixture could be an explosive that could demolish Putin’s regime.”

He said the Kremlin crackdown on groups involved in the Other Russia is proof that it fears its potential.

Authorities pulled hundreds of opposition activists off buses and trains and detained them on their way to attend the Triumph Square rally, he said. Days before the protest, police raided his offices in central Moscow and seized what they said was “extremist literature.”

Mr. Kasparov’s allies praise him for bringing fresh impetus to an opposition that for years has been divided by infighting.

“He’s new, he hasn’t been involved in politics before and he’s very energetic,” said former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada, a veteran opposition politician who spoke at the rally. “The Other Russia seems to be only way for the opposition to realize anything. If we don’t stand together, we will fail.”

Mr. Kasparov hopes to unify the opposition behind one candidate for the presidential election, no small task. In the meantime, his strategy is to simply survive in the face of mounting government pressure.

“We’re facing overwhelming odds,” he said. “If you’re under threat of being mated immediately, you don’t think about a good pawn structure for the end game, you have to defend your king. Right now in Russia, it’s all about survival.”

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide

Sponsored Stories