Chess on the Beeb – Kasparov vs. the Kremlin

2/8/2004 – We recently reported on the foundation by Garry Kasparov and prominent liberals in Russia of a group to oust Vladimir Putin in the 2008 presidential elections. Today BBC News aired a remarkable six-and-a-half minute report, in which the situation in Russia is described. The situation is described, not the least by Garry Kasparov, in very outspoken terms.

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Garry Kasparov lost his World Chess Championship title to Vladimir Kramnik a little over three years ago. But that painful defeat did not mean he dropped from the limelight. On the contrary: not a week goes by without Kasparov appearing somewhere in the world media. Which probably explains his ubiquitous presence on this site.

Today on Sunday afternoon we suddenly saw a report on BBC News. With great presence of mind we pressed "Record" just in time to capture the entire piece as a digital clip on hard disk. Unfortunately we cannot give you the original film material – not the least for copyright reason (it may appear soon on the BBC site given below). But we did make some screen grabs and transcribe the most important parts of the report.

Kasparov vs the Kremlin

In the battle for power, the Kremlin is strong enough to repel any opponent. The Kremlin dictates the rules, and it's always one step ahead. Russia's liberal opposition accuses the Kremlin of authoritarian moves, but it's being pushed out of parliament, weakened, divided. Today the liberals are facing oblivion, leaving one player in total control...

the grandmaster of Russian politics (picture of Vladimir Putin). But now the liberals are fighting back. And they've turned to a world chess champion to lead the charge.

Garry Kasparov has taken on super-computers, but today he's facing his toughest opponent yet – the Kremlin. Mr Kasparov heads a new group called "Committee 2008". Its aim: to be sure democracy survives what looks certain to be four more years of Vladimir Putin's presidency. Kasparov: "I think today Russia is effectively a police state. So we should not talk about a threat to democracy, which doesn't exist by Western standards. Independent media has ceased to exist – the crackdown was authorised by Putin. Parliament is a joke. It just stamps everything the Kremlin says."

Viktor Shenderovich is Russia's top political satirist, together with Garry Kasparov a member of Committee 2008. He's free to poke fun at Vladimir Putin on the radio, but like most critics of the Kremlin he's blacklisted by national TV. Shenderovich: "Every totalitarian regime feels insecure, and fears an independent press. That's why you won't find any hard-hitting jokes about Vladimir Putin on Russia's main TV channels. Instead they are nice. Viewers are told about how wonderful their president is. They're being stuffed with Putin, just like sausages."

So what will be the strategy? In the absence of a level playing field how will Committee 2008 challenge the Kremlin. Kasparov: "In chess we have rules. In Russia the rules can be changed by the Kremlin's orders. So the choice is either to accept that we live in a lawless society, in the jungle, or to create some rules, some rules that even the Kremlin will not be able to break without grave consequences for its political fortunes."

BBC: When Vladimir Putin came to power four years ago the Kremlin's game plan was clear. It set out to tighten its grip on all aspects of life. Since then it's taken control of the media, it's removed almost all opposition in parliament, and it's challenged big business by jailing Russia's richest tycoon. Garry Kasparov and other liberals may cry foul, but the truth is that most Russians appear to side with their president. Vladimir Putin's image as a strong leader has made him super-popular, the most trusted face in Russia. He's on target to win more than 80% of the vote in the March's presidential election.

Russians have such an appetite for their president they put his portrait on boxes of chocolate. Some go even as far as making giant meatloaves in his honour, with the words "Glory to Putin" in every slice. It shows Russian's taste for tough leadership, rather than liberal rule.

Even some of Garry Kasparov's most dedicated fans, playing sub-zero chess in this Moscow park, think their hero has made a major miscalculation. Like so many Russians people here feel that the liberals are to blame for their own difficulties, having spent years squabbling amongst themselves, failing to unite as a single party, and being seen to have failed the country when they did have power in the 1990s. Chess player in park: "When those liberals were running Russia they helped a handful of people become billionaires overnight. Now those tycoons are just using Kasparov to try and protect their might. The world chess champion should play chess, not politics."

Garry Kasparov has no illusions about the difficulty of his task. "Yes it's a long process before they can recognise that their problems are not with the local governor, but with Putin and his administration. It takes time. But you have to be there just to educate them. But either you do it here, or you emigrate, because you cannot live in your country seeing it being toppled by the incompetent, corrupt KGB administration and just do nothing."

BBC: The challenge has been made, Russia's liberals are preparing for a long battle, a four-year fight for democracy. The Kremlin is unlikely to give them any room at all for victory.

Steve Rosenberg, BBC News, Moscow.

Previous report

  • Kasparov vs. the Kremlin
    In the last election the party backed by President Vladimir Putin won more than 300 seats in the 450-seat Duma. Now a group of leading Russian liberals, including world chess number one Garry Kasparov, have set up a committee with the stated purpose of working for fair elections – in 2008.
  • BBC News web site
    Click on "Watch/Listen to BBC News" on the top right to check whether the report is available.
  • BBC World
    The report was part of the "Reporters" news series.

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