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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kasparov Rallies Opposition Against the Regime

Itar-TassFormer chess world champion Garry Kasparov, right, speaking to protesters in St. Petersburg during a recent rally.
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, took a pen and notebook and diagramed the protesters' march through St. Petersburg on March 3. Like a general reliving a battle or a player analyzing a winning combination, he sketched Ploshchad Vosstaniya and showed where the police had gathered in strength, blocking the street leading to the governor's office.

A tactical mistake! "This is typical for this government," he explained. "They protect themselves."

As a result, only a few police officers guarded St. Petersburg's main commercial street, Nevsky Prospekt. And that was where Kasparov and thousands of others -- as many as 5,000 by some estimates -- poured through a barricade and marched into the city's historic center, defying the government's ban on the event and the country's recent history of political apathy.

The whole thing lasted only two hours, ending with brief clashes with the police and more than 130 arrests, including those of several opposition leaders, though not Kasparov. Still, it was one of the largest protests against the policies of President Vladimir Putin.

And to Kasparov, it was a first crack in the authoritarian political system Putin has created, one that he has committed himself to dismantling as presidential elections approach next March.

"We never saw such a protest," he said. "Everybody recognizes it is a new page."

Kasparov, 43, is not Putin's only critic, but he may be the most prominent. And he has brought to oppositional politics the same energy and aggression that characterized his chess, attacking Putin and the Kremlin -- or the regime, as he repeatedly calls it -- with language rarely spoken so bluntly in Russia.

"This regime is getting out of touch with the real world," he said. "It's a deadly combination of money, power and blood -- and impunity."

Such attacks have drawn the scrutiny of the authorities, though so far nothing worse; someone who sounded angry that Kasparov had given up chess for politics attacked him with a chessboard in 2005. "I am lucky," he said at the time, "that the popular sport in the Soviet Union was chess and not baseball."

He travels with bodyguards. He hired them out of concern for hooligans, he said, not because other Kremlin critics have been killed, like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in Moscow last October.

"If the state goes after you," he said, "there's no stopping them."

This is not where Kasparov expected to be when he resigned from the world of professional chess two years ago, quitting while still the highest-ranked player, if no longer the world champion. He is a famous man and a wealthy one, the author of numerous books on chess and its lessons for life, who is now leading acts of civil disobedience in an uphill battle to protest Putin's policies.

"I am absolutely objective," he said. "I think we can lose badly because the regime is still very powerful, but the only beauty of our situation is that we don't have much choice."

Kasparov is the chairman of the United Civil Front, an organization he formed in 2005 to promote activism in a country where it has steadily disappeared, though for reasons that are fiercely debated.

He is also the guiding strategist behind The Other Russia, a collection of groups from across the political spectrum united by their marginalization by authorities loyal to Putin.

The Other Russia has held conferences, including one on the eve of last year's meeting of the Group of Eight, and staged rallies like the one in St. Petersburg.

"It was not a protest against a specific measure," he said. "It was not, 'give us more money, salaries' or 'stop raising prices.' It was a protest against the regime."

Kasparov has always been something of an outsider. He is half Jewish and half Armenian, born in Baku, the capital of mostly Muslim Azerbaijan. He moved to Moscow in 1990 when tensions between Armenians and Azeris intensified.

By then he was already world champion, a title he won in 1985 as a brash upstart against Anatoly Karpov, the champion considered a favorite of the Soviet establishment. Kasparov became a strong advocate of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s.

When a coup against Gorbachev failed in August 1991, Kasparov threw his support behind Boris Yeltsin and the other new democrats. For a time, he was one of the leaders of the Democratic Party of Russia. He broke from Yeltsin to support a challenger, Alexander Lebed, in the 1996 elections.

One criticism against him has been political fickleness: that he has drifted from project to project, even as he continued to compete, mostly abroad.

A constant, however, has been his opposition to Putin. After an initial grace period, he began to fulminate against the new president, reaching a broad international audience as a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. One column, published in January 2001, barely one year after Putin became president, was titled, "I Was Wrong About Putin."

"Unfortunately, my forecast, based on an assumption that a young pragmatic leader would strengthen democracy inside Russia, fight corruption and level the curves of Yeltsin's foreign policy, was wishful thinking," he wrote.

He has not let up since. He rails against Putin's foreign policy, accusing him of intimidating former Soviet republics that should be close allies, while fostering ties with Iran, North Korea and China.

He accuses Putin of having neutered the news media, stifled political opponents and independent businesspeople, and undercut the essential institution of democracy: free and fair elections.

His biggest challenge may be delivering his message. The state's control of television ensures that his views never reach the public en masse. News reports of the St. Petersburg march on national channels described the protesters generally, not Kasparov specifically, as "all manner of radicals, from fascists to lefties."

His willingness to include all Kremlin critics in The Other Russia, including radicals like those in the unregistered National Bolshevik Party, has left him vulnerable to guilt by association. In December, counterterrorist police officers raided the United Civil Front's office, seizing books and printed materials advertising a protest march for a few days later.

A question that hovers over him is whether he will run against the person who emerges as Putin's chosen successor. He demurs, but does not deny the possibility. He said there were other potential candidates, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, adding that the more pressing issue was building and maintaining a united opposition.

Kasparov is arguing for political freedoms at a time when Putin's approval rating hovers around a stratospheric 80 percent. The economy, fueled by high energy prices, is growing. A retail binge is under way, especially in Moscow and even outside of it.

But he contends that Putin's control of all levers of power has obscured the fundamental weaknesses in the system: the corruption, the vast gap between rich and poor, the declining standards of health care, education and living conditions.

"At the end of the day," Kasparov said, referring to his campaign ahead of the 2008 election, "it will depend on whether people care. You can't invent public protest. It either exists or it doesn't exist."