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New Yorker: Kasparov vs. Putin

Below are some excerpts from David Remnick’s extensive profile article of Garry Kasparov from the latest issue of the New Yorker (the full text of the article is available online for the time being). Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, was a correspondent in Moscow for many years and is the author of the book “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.”

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New Yorker:

In recent years, Putin has insured that nearly all power in Russia is Presidential. The legislature, the State Duma, is only marginally more independent than the Supreme Soviet was under Leonid Brezhnev. The governors of Russia’s more than eighty regions are no longer elected, as they were under Yeltsin; since a Presidential decree in 2004, they have all been appointed by the Kremlin. Putin even appoints the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The federal television networks, by far the main instrument of news and information in Russia, are neo-Soviet in their absolute obeisance to Kremlin power. “Putin is no enemy of free speech,” Ksenia Ponomareva, who worked on his first Presidential campaign, told the St. Petersburg Times. “He simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly.” The business community must also obey the commands and signals of Putin’s circle. There are now nearly as many billionaires in Moscow as in New York City, but the arrest for fraud, in 2003, of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil magnate who had been the country’s richest man, was a clear, ominous signal that wealth is dependent on Kremlin approval. Khodorkovsky, who dared to fund opposition parties, pronounce his own political ideas, and attempt to cut pipeline deals with China without Kremlin permission, is now serving an eight-year term in Penal Colony No. 10, in eastern Siberia.

***

In today’s Russia, demokratia as it emerged in the nineties has been derisively called dermokratia: “shit-ocracy.” The notion of liberalism, too—a belief in the necessity of civil society, civil liberties, an open economy—has been degraded. Of all the pro-democracy activists and politicians of the late eighties and the nineties, the only one remembered fondly—if not very often—is the physicist and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. And that may be because he died in December, 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet empire. The liberal parties that began in the nineties, such as Yabloko (Apple) and the Union of Right Forces, remain tainted by their connections to the Yeltsin era and no longer have seats in the Duma. “The state lets the opposition exist so long as there is no coalition,” Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister, told me.

***

Kasparov argues that Putin’s popularity is the phony popularity of dictators. “The support for Putin is a kind of passive resistance to change,” he said. “You cannot talk about polls and popularity when all of the media are under state control. I don’t want to give anyone any bad ideas, but with such a propaganda apparatus, backed up by an all-powerful security force, seventy-per-cent approval should be a minimum!”

***

“The vast majority of people enjoy the fact that for the first time in Russian history they have lived for fifteen years now without the constant pressure of totalitarianism in every aspect of their lives,” Vladimir Milov, an economist who left Putin’s government in 2002, said. “For example, you can travel abroad freely. The majority of people can’t yet afford to do this, but the most active and educated can, and this makes a huge difference. The authorities here let you exist so long as you don’t call them into question. In other words, the deal they offer is: You let us steal and we let you live.

***

“Here is how it will go: Putin will decide the successor and he will be elected without much struggle,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young (and very lonely) liberal in the Duma, said. “All the opposition will be put on as a show for stupid foreigners like you to demonstrate what a great democracy we are. And all the resources of the media will be employed to put on this show.”

***

Kasparov gave a version of the same speech that he had lately given in Washington and Toronto. There were a few notes of reassurance—“Putin’s regime is not a geopolitical monster”—but there was no shortage of stark warning. “The Cold War was based on ideas, like them or not,” Kasparov said. “Putin’s only idea can be concentrated into the motto ‘Let’s steal together.’ ”

***

In the hallway, Illarionov told me that it would be a disaster to take part in the March elections. The opposition would be crushed and coöpted. “Garry has invested his energies and his day-to-day life in this, and I respect him very much,” he said. “But this is a mistake and will lead millions of people into a dead end.” His fear ran deeper than mere defeat. As a tsar, he said, “Putin reacts traditionally. And, if they have no real enemies, they create them. They need enemies. They cannot live without enemies. If all enemies are destroyed, then there is Yabloko, the Republican Party, the Right Forces, the Other Russia—they’ll finish these enemies. It’s a natural law of dictatorship.” The best that Kasparov could do, in the short term, was to establish the idea of an opposition in the narrow margins provided by the state.