Kasparov: 'Putin's System works like the Stalin regime'

8/17/2007 – In an interview with the influential German magazine Capital Garry Kasparov, opposition leader of The Other Russia, takes the regime of President Vladimir Putin to task. The ex-world chess champion also accuses the West of being accomplice to the decline of democracy in Russia. In spite of the constant danger of assassination he lives with his family in Moscow. Full interview.

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In this Capital Magazine interview the best-known Russian opposition leader dissects the regime of the reigning President Vladimir Putin. The charismatic ex-world chess champion accuses the West of being accomplice to the decline of democracy, but praises the courage of [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel. In addition Kasparov reveals where he keeps his money and in where he does push-ups. Since 2006 the 44-year-old has been at the head of the many-party coalition "The Other Russia". In spite of the constant danger of assassination he lives with his family in Moscow.

Putin's system works like the Stalin regime

Interview by Claudio De Luca, Moritz Küpper,
with photos by Martin Langhorst

Mr Kasparov, we meet you here in your holiday home on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Have you recovered from the strains of the past months? Amongst other things you were arrested after a demonstration in Moscow.

Kasparov: Relaxing here is very easy. I have been coming here for eleven years now, every summer, to this house, which belongs to a friend from Germany. To get to the beach is just walk across the promenade. I go swimming in the sea every morning and evening. In between I work on books and essays, take naps and eat well. Apart from that I try to keep physically fit. The period until the presidential elections next spring will be strenuous.

Do you use the gym equipment we see there in the corner?

Kasparov: Everyone here uses it – my bodyguard, my cousin and his family. I prefer fresh air and do push-ups on the beach.

You are the most prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin. Are you not afraid of an assassination if you move around so freely in public places?

Kasparov: I feel safe when I am abroad. Here in Croatia I have one bodyguard, because I am in one place for four weeks. But that doesn't ruin the holiday mood. In Moscow, unfortunately, things are quite different. I never leave my house without my five bodyguards, I do not travel with the national airline Aeroflot, and avoid restaurants. You have to be always prepared for the worst in a system for which bloodshed is a legitimate means.

Is Putin the guiding force behind the murders of regime critics like the journalist Anna Politkowskaja?

Kasparov: The Putin system works like the Mafia – and previously the Stalin regime. The leader says: "Politkowskaja is a pain in the neck, I don't want to hear anything more about her." And the apparatus solves the problem. I do not know whether Putin gave an explicit order to commit murder. But it is clear that he tolerates and accepts these acts.

Have you ever met Putin face to face and confronted him with these charges?

Kasparov: No, I have never met him. And I am not eager to do so. I have had to grapple with enough KGB people already, I don't need one more of them.

In spite of the antipathy – chess players also analyse the strengths of their opponents. Is there anything you admire about Putin?

Kasparov: For me the individual Putin is not so important. Putin is the product of a system, not its creator. His personal responsibility for the inhuman regime that threatens the future of Russia is overestimated.

Are you trying to test our memory? A few minutes ago you painted a different picture: the boss commands, his footmen execute the order.

Kasparov: That is only superficially a contradiction. Putin was picked out in the late 90s by the Yeltsin clan, groomed and raised all the way to the top. At the time he was not a strong, charismatic figure, but a henchman. I do not say that Putin has no power today. But the social evils will not disappear when he goes. The problem is deeper.

How does your radical criticism stand up to the fact that according to polls Putin is considered a strong leader by the people, and is very popular.

Kasparov: It is naïve to believe the numbers. Many people are simply afraid to speak the truth. Are you surprised? In addition people have a distorted image of the reality around them. The media is under the control of the Kremlin, negative things simply don't happen. That also makes Putin vulnerable: just two weeks of open, honest reporting, without censorship, would cause the whole system to shake. Especially if the sellout of the country became known. Through the privatisation of the economy a very small group collected billions and took them out of Russia. The strict control of the Government is intended to make sure that nobody seriously investigates if all these transactions were legal.

Is Putin pursuing personal financial interests?

Kasparov: He is the richest man in Russia, and he too has deposited a vast fortune in the West.

Do you have proof of these charges?

Kasparov: Just his stake in the companies Sibneftigaz and Gazprom should be worth 20 to 25 billion Euros. And do you believe that Putin does not have shares in the portfolios of oligarchs like Abramovich or Deripaska? But naturally I cannot produce bank statements. Putin is at the head of the system. Just simple common sense tells us that this will be reflected in his wealth.

It is a fact that the economy is booming, and that not only the top executives profit from this. At the same time his confident air has made the voice of Moscow one that the world again listens to. Isn't that balm for the troubled Russian soul?

Kasparov: Don't have false illusions. The objections to the US missile shield, the arguments over pipelines or the special role in the conflict in Iran and in the Middle East – in all these cases it is not about national interests but about individual interests, in the form of high oil prices. Putin is a businessman, the CEO of a "Russian Elite Corporation". The West has eagerly helped him to fill his own pockets.

What do you mean?

Kasparov: The heads of the G7 member countries have been wooing Putin for years, especially your ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was his agent in Europe. And so our president was able to present himself as a democrat amongst democrats – and at the same time conduct his schemes undisturbed.

The mood between the USA and Europe on the one side and Russia on the other has become sharper. Recently, at the summit in Samara, [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel criticised Putin, in public and quite severely.

Kasparov: That was courageous – and about time. With Merkel Putin at last feels some headwind, which also makes him visibly nervous. The other leaders of states should follow her example. Angela Merkel is, if I may say so, the first real man in the Group of Eight. Probably it is the result of the fact that for many years she lived under the control of the Soviet Union [in East Germany].

But in spite of such criticism the European Union, which also speaks for Germany, is retaining the basic idea of a strategic partnership with Russia. Is that the correct path?

Kasparov: That depends on what the cooperation entails, in concrete terms. It is critical that the European Union sticks together and does not tolerate the way Putin and his followers are stepping on the freedom of the people. In this matter one has to deal very firmly with Moscow and not engage in any form of horse-trading. Here Germany, the most powerful EU country, has the decisive role to play. I am counting on Merkel's good sense of direction.

That sounds great – in theory. But in view of its great dependence on oil and gas has the EU any options to apply pressure and force Russia to adopt their values?

Kasparov: Don't make yourselves smaller than you are. Russia needs to sell its raw materials as expensively as possible. And there is no way past the European Union. Apart from that the largest Russian financial assets lie in bank accounts held in Europe and America. For this reason the fear of a cold war is also quite absurd. Putin's clan has absolutely no interest in this option. It would simply harm their own interests. The West clearly has the upper hand from a point of view of power strategy. And it should use this.

What is the role of economic factors? Do you support the German Foreign Minister's ideas of convergence through interdependence?

Kasparov: This leitmotiv has applied for many years now. But reality shows us that no hopes have been fulfilled. Under Putin the economic cooperation with the West has blossomed as never before. And still, year by year the situation of democracy is deteriorating.

Should German companies stop investing in Russia, in order to protest?

Kasparov: I wouldn't go so far. If a company can do business in Russia – go ahead! I simply do not believe that this will change anything in the way the system works. Foreign investments are dangerous when business and politics are mixed and follow the principle: you open your market and we close our mouths.

In the meantime Russian companies are investing billions in West Europe, mainly in Germany. That causes concern to large parts of the population. With justification?

Kasparov: Of course! It is mainly companies like Gazprom, who want to gain a foothold in the West. They are under the control of the Kremlin and are not just after profits, but also striving for political influence. If the Putin clan wants something it will use any means, legal or illegal. Why do you think that of all places Sochi was selected to host the Winter Games in 2014, even though the city is quite unsuitable for this event?

Tell us.

Kasparov: It was a clear case of corruption. Putin himself met with fifteen members of the International Olympic Committee and had some very convincing monetary arguments in his briefcase. After he had won the bid in this way the state will invest twelve billion dollars in Sochi. You can count on it that most of the money will end up in the pockets of companies close to Putin. Incidentally, it would not surprise me at all if Putin became the next IOC President.

You are trying to beat the current regime in 2008 with your many-party coalition "The Other Russia". But now of all times the organisation is showing signs of weakness. Former Prime Minister Kasyanov has left the coalition. Is that bitter for you?

Kasparov: You know, when we started in 2005 our position was very weak. In the meantime we have become public enemy number one for the Kremlin, which is resorting to force. People can no longer ignore us. That makes me proud, not bitter.

Could the next Russian President be Garry Kasparov?

Kasparov: That is highly unlikely. From today's point of view I consider another candidate better suited: Viktor Gerashenko, former head of the Central Bank. He is older than me, does not polarize people as much and would be a better compromise candidate for "The Other Russia".

Finally, one thing we would like to know. During your chess career you earned a lot of money, now you are writing books and holding well-paid lectures. Have you invested your fortune in Russia?

Kasparov: No, of course not. What an idea! I have placed my money safely in the West. Here investment experts are making sure that it grows properly. I am not an oligarch, but I will not have any monetary problems.

Copyright Capital. The original text (in German) has appeared in the printed version of the magazine.


Article in Transition Online

The Thugocracy Lands Another Punch

Just ahead of election season, Russia's politicians change the laws so they can put more dissidents in prison.

The mud has been thrown. And much of it has stuck. These days, when Kremlin officials talk about "extremists" they usually mean the political opposition, and The Other Russia coalition in particular.

When the coalition's best-known figure, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, was detained at an opposition rally in Moscow on 14 April the police said they were investigating him for "publicly calling for extremist action." The charges were soon dropped, but the stigma persists. The threat of "extremism" charges had been used two days before the April rally when police raided the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yabloko, the former liberal bloc in parliament.

These two cases – and others – fell apart for one reason: existing law was not strong enough to support a successful prosecution. But now all that is changing. As parliamentary and presidential elections approach, the State Duma has been busy amending the law. In late July President Vladimir Putin signed a series of amendments that his majority party, United Russia, claims are targeted against nationalists and those planning violence. But the political opposition warns that the new clauses will amount to a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Under the new legislation no fewer than 13 aspects of extremism will become offenses. They include "public slander of state officials," "hampering the lawful activity of state organizations," "humiliating national pride," and "hooliganism committed for political or ideological motives."

These loosely written and hastily adopted measures will make it much easier for the state to stifle its critics. And these clauses, with their vague wording, leave great scope for draconian interpretation. That could allow them to be used just as easily against peaceful democratic opposition groups as against real extremists who are ready to use violent means to gain their objectives.

The new clauses suggest the authorities are increasingly fearful of a wave of civil protests of the kind that brought thousands of people onto the streets in the spring. So those who take to the streets in the future, and those who distribute the leaflets calling on them to protest, can be harshly dealt with under the catch-all clauses passed against "extremism."

Read the full Transition Online article Galina Stolyarova

Transition Online (TOL) was founded as a Czech nonprofit organization in April 1999, the month after the final issue of its print predecessor, Transitions magazine, was published. The new organization was founded by four of the former print magazine's staff members who were dedicated to keeping the widely respected, cross-border coverage of the magazine alive.


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