Chess Champion Moves to Check Putin’s Power

Times Staff Writer

As a 7-year-old chess prodigy, Garry Kasparov was already beating opponents several times his age. When he was 22, he became the youngest world chess champion in history, and went on to become an undefeated champion for nearly 10 years. Even two matches against an IBM supercomputer, capable of analyzing 50 billion potential moves in three minutes, ended in a 1-1 tie.

In the end it can be said that Kasparov he has defeated all of his intellectual adversaries but one: Vladimir V. Putin. And now, Kasparov is making his move against the Russian president.

Announcing his retirement from chess recently, the 42-year-old master declared that his new vocation was politics, and vowed to take on Russia’s increasingly autocratic power structure.

He wants Putin to step down in 2008, as the constitution mandates, and a democratically elected leader to take his place.

“I think we have more than enough data today to figure out where Putin is heading. His record from 1999 to the spring of this year is very consistent. Everything has been part of a positive plan of eliminating the democratic state in order to protect the power base that helped him to stay on top,” Kasparov said in a recent interview at his Moscow apartment.


“Our goal now is just to make sure we have an election. It’s not even about winning,” said Kasparov, who refused to say whether he would run in 2008. “It’s about making sure that we restore the election mechanisms, because the trend in Russia now is all negative. In 2004, the presidential election was a farce, a sort of appointment.... And there are no doubts that it was just the beginning. Because they can’t stop.”

There is widespread skepticism as to whether the powerful circle of business leaders and bureaucrats around Putin will be willing to cede power when he is obliged to leave office at the end of his second term.

Some predict that an “heir apparent” will step forward to take Putin’s place as figurehead. Others believe that Putin and the party that backs him, United Russia, may try to manage the 2007 parliamentary election to such a degree that it would enable power to be shifted to the parliament -- with Putin becoming prime minister.

Putin repeatedly has said that he would not run again in 2008, but recently declined to rule out coming back in 2012.

Kasparov has been quietly raising his political profile since the 2004 presidential election, when he co-founded a nonpartisan pro-democracy group.

Then, after continuing battles with the international chess federation over administration of the title, he announced in March that he was abandoning the game professionally to pursue politics and write full time.

“I felt that I could use my resources, to apply my philosophy, my strategic vision in my native country, because it’s such a crucial, decisive moment in history, and I felt my presence could make some difference,” explained Kasparov, who said he had been banned from state-owned TV because he posed a threat to the government.

“I don’t have any negative record in the eyes of the Russian people. I don’t have any ties to oligarchs, or to [former President Boris N.] Yeltsin’s Russia. I’m a person who’s been defending Soviet national colors, Russian national colors,” he said. “People listening to Garry Kasparov, who is independent ... may cause a collision [for] Russians who have had no chance to hear opposite opinions.”

Kasparov said he brought another important quality to the table: a chess player’s judgment.

He is finishing work on a book, scheduled for publication in 2006, titled “How Life Imitates Chess.” In it, he asserts that the sharp reasoning and intuition that guide a superior chess player’s moves are the same elements that determine all effective decision-making.

“I have a strange idea that the decisions made by the housewife and the president of the United States consist of similar ingredients,” he said. “And at the end of the day, a lot of it is intuition.

“Most of us I don’t think trust intuition. We live in an era of modern technologies. We have to touch it. Where in fact intuition is a very important element that helps us to make more sophisticated decisions.”

In Kasparov’s case, intuition tells him that Russians are losing patience.

“I have been traveling around the regions, and in St. Petersburg in January, I was accused of being too conformist,” he said. “I mean, some of my statements were considered as being too accommodating to Putin’s regime. So you see, within the Garden Ring [of central Moscow], I’m an extreme radical. But the moment you move outside, I’m more at the center of the debate.

“People are ready to talk to you about action. I can see a huge difference between now and six months ago. And it’s not only elderly pensioners. It’s students. In the last six months, and I’m a professional chess player, I can sense it. There’s a huge change in their minds. They want action. They’re losing faith in their future.”

In the last few weeks, Kasparov has become more marginalized politically after an apparent falling out with the co-founder of his Committee 2008 organization, popular independent parliament Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov. And some of Kasparov’s erstwhile associates have faulted the chess player for focusing on Putin instead of developing politically attractive alternatives.

“I definitely do not support what Putin does in politics, and sincerely believe Putin has made many mistakes, both in the economic and social spheres, over the past year and a half,” said Mikhail Zadornov, a parliament member who is also working to build a democratic opposition. “But as far as I’m concerned, the slogan ‘Down with Putin’ is not really a No. 1 priority when a political program needs to be worked out.”

For all the opposition, the big focus now is not on 2008, but on the next parliamentary election in 2007, when it is most likely that Russia’s future will be cast.

Kasparov said his task would be to convince the public that forfeiting democracy was too high a price to pay for the promise of stability that Putin offered.

But he believes that the public no longer sees democracy as the threat it did when Russia’s fledgling freedom, in the early post-Soviet years, brought widespread poverty and threatened social collapse.

“It’s a very painful educational process,” he said. “But people are now recognizing that maybe democracy is not as bad. It’s not an alien invention sent by Western intelligence, but it’s something that could help them guarantee their own security.”