An interview with United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov: “If elections become pointless, and most citizens realize that the authorities have outlived their mandate but can’t be replaced via elections, then politically active citizens start seeking different ways of organizing themsleves – ways the public will regard as more legitimate.”

Garry Kimovich Kasparov discusses the reasons for the opposition’s summer silence, and his own plans for the future.

Question: It’s been a month since the “anti-summit” you organized. What do you think of its results now? To what extent was criticism of this event a problem – or did it help you?

Garry Kasparov: The Other Russia forum exceeded the boldest expectations of its organizers. The actions of the authorities added the necessary oppositional intensity to the event. The confrontation situation created by the inappropriate response of the authorities heightened the tension. And the results have been as follows. Firstly, we showed that calm dialogue between very different political forces is possible. Moreover, the nature of the opposition became clear. Certain parties consider themselves to be in opposition, but they’re unable to break free of the Garden Ring’s magnetism, continuing to play by and live by the Kremlin’s rules. But there are others who are ready to play by new rules. This inspires hope. Many predicted that our conference would be a failure because such very different political forces could never agree on anything. But we’re only taking the first steps, of course, and we must not be too hasty.

Question: Is the Other Russia now on vacation?

Garry Kasparov: Well, after all, it’s hard to demand any concrete moves in summer from participants in a new and fairly unusual construct which is still in the process of formation. We have some meetings planned for early September, and hope to work out a concrete action plan then. But the agenda is largely determined by the Kremlin’s actions, and its latest legislative initiatives are certainly bringing matters to a head – as it pushes on with implementing its 2008 scenario. Correspondingly, the Other Russia, which considers it necessary to retain the existing constitutional field and the ability of citizens to influence the authorities, will take some kind of action.

Question: What kind of action?

Garry Kasparov: Various proposals are coming in from Other Russia participants. For example, we need to decide whether or not to participate in certain election processes. We need to work out whether it’s possible to establish a parallel reality in politics. That’s because it’s obvious that in today’s Kremlin-controlled reality, all outcomes are decided in advance. The most important result of our July forum was our wish to reach consensus, if only on a very limited range of issues.

Question: But you still don’t have a concrete plan for united action.

Garry Kasparov: We consider it necessary to force the authorities to hold normal, full-fledged elections and abide by the Constitution. On the other hand, this may not be possible within the framework of the present-day political process. Then we would need to seek ways of mobilizing the public in order to solve those problems in a different political reality.

Question: What do you mean by that?

Garry Kasparov: Any administration can outlive its legitimacy. The present administration is still propped up by Putin’s legitimacy. As 2008 approaches, it’s becoming harder for the authorities to maintain even that. Social change can happen in two ways. The first is the normal procedure of elections. And the quality of that procedure doesn’t matter: the most important factor is whether the majority of participants are prepared to accept its outcome. The other way is what might be described as the Independence Square scenario. If elections become pointless, and most citizens realize that the authorities have outlived their mandate but can’t be replaced via elections, then politically active citizens start seeking different ways of organizing themsleves – ways the public will regard as more legitimate. So it might turn out that the administration’s latest experiment in curtailing the remnants of democracy produces an inevitable reaction from the people.

Question: While you’re preparing to use the initiatives of the authorities, others are already trying to protest against them. For example, Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov is already calling on regional election commissions for that purpose.

Garry Kasparov: We lack the Central Electoral Commission’s administrative resources. All the same, Veshnyakov’s actions do show that there are significant differences of opinion within the authorities. Veshnyakov, as one of the more progressive representatives of the authorities, understands that the latest legislative initiatives will leave not only radicals, but also quite substantial political forces, on the political fringe. And at a certain point, so many forces will be marginalized that their political weight will become too significant. Logically enough, Veshnyakov is sounding the alarm about this: don’t turn people like Mikhail Kasyanov into extremists! As for the Other Russia, it’s not at all easy for us to make progress towards achieving consensus between very different forces. It’s hard to make any announcements at this point.

Question: Aren’t you concerned that the labels you use for your political opponents might be off-putting for white-collar voters?

Garry Kasparov: People who are prepared to defend their economic and political interests don’t pay much attention to rhetoric. The people who do pay attention to it are those who seek justifications for their own passivity. At present, most citizens aren’t strongly opposed to the actions of the authorities in rolling back democracy. On the other hand, people are becoming more active in defending their socio-economic rights. Even in outwardly-prosperous Moscow, we see protests by the Butovo home-buyers, and dormitory residents, and the residents of apartment buildings scheduled for demolition. Protests are flaring up all over the country: conflict between ordinary citizens and the bureaucratic system is growing. In this case, our rhetoric only reflects this political reality. If a political party sets itself the all-consuming goal of obtaining the Kremlin’s registration, participating in elections, and waiting to see whether it’s given 7% of the vote or not – well, it has a right to make that choice. Such a party is relying on the fact that the Kremlin needs to have at least some sort of opposition in its system. It’s hoping that it will get a few seats in parliament and be able to defend at least some of the people’s interests. But this is a dead-end policy – it only serves to lend the authorities a veneer of legitimacy.

Question: And for yourself, are you completely rejecting the traditional path of winning elections? Might you not see yourself as a member of another party, for example – such as Kasyanov’s?

Garry Kasparov: Russia doesn’t have a functional Duma. All it has is a puppet parliament that rubber-stamps the Kremlin’s decision. The laws being rubber-stamped by the lower house at present make it possible to determine an election’s outcome long before the campaign even begins. And it’s not just about vote-counting. It’s a question of who is or is not allowed to participate in elections. As for Kasyanov, it’s perfectly obvious that no matter what kind of party he registers, his party will never be permitted to take part in elections. Even the Republican Party of Russia, led by Vladimir Ryzhkov, still can’t manage to get registered – although it’s always tried to avoid political radicalization. But Grigori Yavlinsky is doing fine – the Yabloko party has been registered.

Question: But shouldn’t you try to persuade the people to elect the right kind of legislators? Isn’t that the only proper path?

Garry Kasparov: Persuasion is an option only when the people have at least some chance of influencing the dominant party’s policies. There’s always this dilemma: either you keep trying to use the minimal opportunities available for that, or you admit that such opportunities no longer exist, so any attempt you make to participate in the process only adds to its veneer of legitimacy. These days, there is no longer any doubt that the election process has become an utter farce.

Question: So you’re prepared to fight the authorities, even though the president’s approval rating is at record heights?

Garry Kasparov: The people’s real opinions are unknown. The only way to find out would be to hold a relatively fair election. But opinion polls aren’t a reliable indicator – not when some unknown person on the phone asks direct questions about Putin, in a country where all voters were born in the Soviet era and remember what the KGB was. As yet, most of the people don’t see the need for active participation in politics. But only those who deliberately turn a blind eye can fail to notice that the number of people who do want to participate in politics is increasing. At a certain point, this process will become insurmountable for the authorities.

Question: You’ve gone back to chess. Is that because you’re disillusioned with politics?

Garry Kasparov: Nonsense. That’s a deliberate provocation by those who don’t want me to do what I’m doing now. But surely Kasparov the politician isn’t forbidden to touch a chessboard occasionally?

Question: Why is the opposition in Russia so helpless?

Garry Kasparov: The broader a coalition is, the more specific and understandable it should be. In effect, a referendum on retaining the existing administration is now being imposed on us. That’s why the Other Russia has emerged in politics now. But the opposition needs to realize that it will no longer have any points of intersection with the Kremlin.

Question: How likely is a referendum to happen?

Garry Kasparov: I don’t think it will be allowed – because a referendum allows people to vote against the proposal, as well as for it. So a great many people who hold the opposite point of view would get an opportunity to express it. If the Kremlin decides to keep Putin in power, it will try to do this without holding a referendum. The risks are too great – not because the Kremlin couldn’t ensure the desired outcome, but because the people might get the feeling that the outcome isn’t what they imagined.

Question: Do you think your name is an asset in politics?

Garry Kasparov: I defended my country’s colors for 25 years. I’m doing the same thing now. I have already proved myself. For me, my personal success or failure in politics won’t mean the collapse of the common cause. What’s important for me is that our country should stop plunging into the abyss. I’ve had a very good reception. So far, I haven’t had any problems with people.