Kasparov Leads Opposition Coalition in Russia

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov has brought together a coalition of opposition parties for Russia's 2008 elections. Critics say Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated so much power that the country's democracy is in jeopardy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In preparation for next year's presidential election, a coalition of Russian opposition groups is challenging President Putin's grip on power. The group is called The Other Russia. One of its founders and most prominent members is former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. I asked him just how wide his coalition is.

Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (Former World Chess Champion): It's very wide. We also have member from liberals to die-hard communists. But we managed to come up with a program that we all believe is absolutely vital for our country to survive. On the top of it, it is sweeping political reform to avoid dictatorship, which was built under President Putin.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a sense, though, does that mean that it's a single-issue group that is ushering out of power Vladimir Putin?

Mr. KASPAROV: Yeah. Putin is somewhat sort of a figure of speech, because at the end of the day, it's not just Putin, it's the whole system, which is based on super-presidential power. So we believe that the presidential powers must be reduced. The parliament should be changed from its current puppetry status. The judicial reform should be carried out, and more power, both financial and political, should be delegated from the center to the regions.

Also, we agree on some sort of social and economic package for more than 85 percent of Russians that are not feeling any benefit from the high oil prices.

MONTAGNE: When you speak about bringing a certain amount of equality economically to the country, break down for us exactly what has happened in the last 10 years with this oil money that has poured into Russia. Who's gotten rich and who's gotten poor?

Mr. KASPAROV: The latest list of Russian billionaires is very impressive. We have quite a few people with fortune ranging from $10-20 billion, while majority of people didn't see any benefits from these enormous oil prices. All expenses in Russia nationalized, while all the profits are privatized. This system does not satisfy a majority of my compatriots.

MONTAGNE: And yet various polls have put President Vladimir Putin's popularity as high and sometimes above 70 percent.

Mr. KASPAROV: Oh, absolutely. This is true if you ignore one very important fact. You don't run normal polls asking personal questions in a police state. I'm sure that Saddam Hussein's popularity, a few days before American tanks rolled in Baghdad, was also 99 percent.

When you call to an average Russian asking about Putin, the president of the country and the KGB officer, you don't expect a true answer. If the same person asked about other issues - economy, crime, security, living standards, you receive very different answers.

MONTAGNE: No matter who gets elected next year when Putin's second and final term is up, what does the future look like without Vladimir Putin at the helm?

Mr. KASPAROV: If somebody is appointed, then Russia will be in great jeopardy. Because the new leader, if he comes from this Putin (unintelligible) will fighting his former colleagues to consolidate his grip in power. So unless we force this regime to have proper elections where we hope that united candidate from the opposition can make a strong show, then the future of Russia, in my view, looks very dark.

MONTAGNE: If someone said appointed - it will be very different than if there were free and fair elections - are you saying there won't be the appearance of elections?

Mr. KASPAROV: No, no, no. Appearance, no. Of course there will be an appearance of the election. Everybody has elections. Soviet leaders had elections. They will run some sort of elections anyway, but we all understand that elections, when the opposition has no access to the press, when opposition candidates can be taken away from a voting lists, when the current laws that adopted by these puppet parliament forbid any criticism of your running opponents - according to Russian law, you cannot criticize your opponents. So Russian laws are built on the assumption that no opposition candidate which is threatening Kremlin is allowed to stand and run.

MONTAGNE: You're famous, you're popular. Are you running for president? Would you run for president?

Mr. KASPAROV: I'm more of a moderator. So I'm the one who reached all those different groups from right to the left. And for time being I have to keep this position to make sure that this fragile coalition is kept together. But obviously now I will have to make sure that my services will be required, and I do whatever it takes.

MONTAGNE: Does being one of the most brilliant chess players in the world make you more able to figure out the endgame of all of this?

Mr. KASPAROV: Intelligence doesn't hurt your plans. But at the same time I also recognize that intelligence is more helpful when you have the rules. And obviously the only rule in Russia is that the Kremlin makes the rules. So we have to recognize that our ability to strategize is highly limited by Kremlin's unwillingness to play a fair game.

But at the same time we know that every day we survive it's really a victory, because we can reach more people, we can spread our message. And we think that, you know, the mood in Congress is changing into our favor. And if we can keep up this pressure on the regime, our chances are better than slim to none.

MONTAGNE: Garry Kasparov is one of the prominent members of the political coalition, The Other Russia. He's best known to non-Russians as the former World Champion of Chess.

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