Russian Chess Champion Turns to Game of Politics

Since retiring from professional chess, former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov has turned his powers of strategic thinking to the game of politics, founding an umbrella group to promote free elections in his homeland. Kasparov says that politics in Russia, unlike the game of chess, has no rules.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Garry Kasparov is renown as the long reigning World Chess Champion. He's now applying his powers of strategic thinking to another game, politics in his homeland. He's been working to promote democracy and prevent a slide back to totalitarianism. We've reached Garry Kasparov in New York. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (World Chess Champion): Thanks for inviting me.

LYDEN: Mr. Kasparov, in the last month Russia has been shaken by two high profile murders, the vice chairman of the Central Bank, Adrei Kozlov, and the crusading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down last week in Moscow, the thirteenth journalist to be murdered in Russia since Vladimir Putin took office. What do these murders tell us about the stability of Russia today?

Mr. KASPAROV: It's a growing insecurity and it's felt not only by ordinary citizens but also by the governing elite, because with 2008 looming, they are all (unintelligible) to great uncertainty.

LYDEN: The election of course, 2008.

Mr. KASPAROV: Yeah. Okay, you call it election. But it might be change of government in Russia, but I wouldn't call it an election, because election process in Russia was questionable under Yeltsin, but with Putin is just a farce.

LYDEN: Well, let me ask you. As a chess player, do you expect President Putin to step down, as is required by the constitution in 2008? What do you think his next move will be?

Mr. KASPAROV: I think it's a 50/50 call, because we can't get into Putin's decision-making process, but I would probably bet now for him trying to find one way or another to stay in.

LYDEN: Last year you said when you formed the nonpartisan group called the United Civil Front that one of it's chief aims was to unite people and to demand free elections, freedom of the press, independent courts. Is this still your program, or given the instability we've been talking about, do you think it might be better to join a political party and run for office?

Mr. KASPAROV: No, there are no political parties as such in Russia. If you disregard United Russia or just a new so-called left wing (unintelligible) in Kremlin, you have Communist Party and few others. But...

LYDEN: And the United Party that you just mentioned, of course, supports the Kremlin.

Mr. KASPAROV: Yes, but it's the - you can't get proper registration in Russia unless you are engaged in one way or another in negotiation with Kremlin, and our goal from the very beginning, and still is now, was to unite different political forces based on a very broad coalition program. To a certain extent, it can be compared to situation in Chile in 1988, '89 when Pinochet announced the referendum and all the political groups from Communists to Christian Democrats, they united with just one goal, to beat Pinochet and to stop this dictatorship. We have similar goal now in Russia.

LYDEN: But if I could just interject, you mentioned Chile a moment ago. The opposition to Pinochet became very united. In Russia, the problem seems to be that the opposition is very divided.

Mr. KASPAROV: It was the case. It is changing now because in the last four to five months I think the actions of Kremlin and Kremlin-controlled Parliament are forcing even those who sincerely hope that they could negotiate a deal with Kremlin, now they're all kicked out of this so-called mainstream political field into the radical opposition. I will predict that within the next four, five, six months, the very powerful radical opposition group in Russia will be formed because there is no other choice for people who want to change the suicidal course of our country.

LYDEN: Will you be a part of that? Will you consider running for office?

Mr. KASPAROV: I'm trying to play an important part of that because my country is in great danger, and as a person who has been defending the colors of my country for 25 years, I believe I have to be in the midst of this fight as well.

LAYDEN: Let me ask you about Georgia. Without going into everything that's happened between the two countries, Georgia has moved closer to the West and NATO and Russian authorities have been cracking down on ethnic Georgians in Russia. They've deported illegal residents. They've barred Georgian children from attending school. Does President Putin have popular support for this campaign?

MR. KASPAROV: It's very easy to foment national hatred, especially if you control media. Putin is trying to find a new message for the country and to blame someone for all these troubles that ordinary Russians are experiencing lately.

LAYDEN: And you would define the trouble ordinary Russians are in how?

Mr. KASPAROV: If we try to analyze the economic situation in Russia today, we come up with a picture of two different countries. It's 15 percent on one side, with rich and so-called upper middle class, and 85 percent of people who are struggling. And they keep asking whether there is any connection between the government's crackdown on political freedom and the deterioration of their living standards. It takes time, but the moment they find the correct answer for these fundamental questions, everything will change in Russia. And I think the government is scared to death that it will happen rather sooner than later.

LAYDEN: You are a chess player, and I would just like to you, if this were a games of chess, what would your position be now relative to the Kremlin?

Mr. KASPAROV: Well, now in the games of chess we were lucky, we had rules. In politics you had very few rules, if any, and in Russia there's only one rule, which means no rules at all. By judging our chances in such an unfortunate situation, I would say our best strategy is to survive.

LAYDEN: Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and founder of the United Civil Front, an opposition group in Russia. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KASPAROV: Thank you, Jacki.

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