Garry Kasparov's Endgame


In the second excerpt from his new book, How Life Imitates Chess, the former chess champion talks about how he hopes to change the political situation in Russia

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov released his latest book this month, at the same time he formally entered the race to become President of Russia. How Life Imitates Chess is Kasparov's effort to examine how the lessons from his chess career can be applied to the worlds of business and politics. As such, it's something of a primer on his political strategy in Russia, where his outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin and his own presidential aspirations are considered far-fetched at best and dangerous at worst. In this, the second of two excerpts from the book, Kasparov addresses directly how he hopes to change the political situation in Russia.

At the end of 2006, as this book was headed to the printer in several countries, the internal political chaos in Russia spilled out into the world's headlines. A British national, KGB agent defector, and harsh critic of the Kremlin, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated with the rare radioactive substance polonium 210. The investigation into his death currently spans at least three countries.

Litvinenko's murder came on the heels of the Moscow killing of the well-known investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya—on Russian president Vladimir Putin's birthday, no less. The killings have turned a spotlight on what the West had assumed was the autocratic but stable Putin regime. Suddenly the foreign media is realizing what we in the Russian opposition have been saying for years—the Kremlin is ever closer to dictatorship than democracy and yet is not stable at all.

The Best Way to Learn is To Teach

This interest has led to a corresponding increase in attention to my own role in the opposition movement and to questions about how my former career as a chess champion has aided my mission. With that in mind, my publisher wondered if it would be appropriate to include some last-minute comments about how I have applied the lessons presented in this book to my political fight in Russia.

But this epilogue is more than a topical convenience. While writing this book and preparing my business lectures, I have discovered a great deal about synthesizing these lessons and using them in practice. It is quite accurate to say that I have been learning from my own book, confirming the old adage that the best way to learn a topic is to teach it. The most important, and most difficult, element on my new political agenda was developing a strategy that would pump life into the anti-Putin forces. It was like sitting down to a chess game already in progress and discovering my side was close to checkmate in every variation.

I could immediately draw a parallel to my first world championship match, the 1984–85 marathon against Anatoly Karpov. There I spent months a step away from total disaster, a situation that required an entirely new strategy, one based more on survival than triumph. I did it; I survived to fight another day, and the next time we met I was victorious.

Sorting Out Allies From Enemies

The anti-Kremlin forces were in a similarly dire state in 2004. Unfortunately, in this game our opponents change the rules regularly and always to their advantage. But even in this unpredictable and unfair contest a good strategy gives us a fighting chance. I started with the fundamentals of planning: a thorough evaluation of the position and the determination of its most vital elements. Finding the outlines of the big picture came first. It was necessary to sort out allies from enemies, an easy enough task in the black-and-white world of the chessboard but far more complex in the gray realm of politics. Two things eventually became clear to me. First, that the continued existence of organized opposition to Putin's crackdown was in no way guaranteed. We needed to dig in to survive or risk being pushed completely off the board. There is no losing with grace or reaching a peaceful accord with such an opponent. When facing an authoritarian regime bent on total control, every day you endure sends out a message of hope: "We're still here." With no access to television and other state-controlled media, it was essential for us to find other ways to get out those vital words.

Second was the need to form a coalition. The opposition was in disarray, small political and nongovernmental groups each with its own issues with the government. Despite the numerous causes and ideologies represented, I became convinced that we needed to unite, to find common cause again the repression. The one thing we all had in common was the knowledge that democracy was our only salvation. Liberals, Communists, human rights activists—we all believed, and continue to believe, that given a choice in a fair election the Russian people will reject Putin's attempt to turn our country back into a police state.

Focusing on the Core Issue

This move did not arise spontaneously. My first steps were as the cofounder and chairman of the Committee 2008: Free Choice in January 2004. This was a coalition of like-minded liberals and members of the media—that is, not just politicians—dedicated to ensuring free and fair elections in 2008, when Putin's second, and constitutionally final, term of office ends. My work there convinced me that Russia's problems were too big to solve from any internal or ideological stance.

In this book I discuss the tendency to discover problems that cannot be solved from within the available framework, and here was such a problem. Negotiations were used to gain political capital that was traded for superficial concessions by the Kremlin, a process that only perpetuated the corrupt system and made us a part of it. To have a real impact it was necessary to focus on the core issue: you were either working with the Kremlin or dedicated to dismantling the regime.

Similar ideas about uniting were already in the air, and they led to the formation of the All-Russia Civil Congress in December 2004, and I was elected cochair. I had been observing the dissatisfaction of the activists on every side. They were tired of dancing to Putin's tune while watching their party leaders cut deals for paltry handouts. The Civil Congress was conceived as a unifying platform, but it fell short when forces from both sides of the political spectrum were as of yet unable to leave behind the Yeltsin-era civil war mentality and to work alongside their traditional adversaries. My greatest contribution would be to help bridge this gap.

Leaving Professional Chess Behind

In March 2005 I retired from professional chess and could plan my next tactical maneuver on the political front. A major obstacle was that the ruling administration controlled all access to television. Without access, the political grass roots were dying out all over the country. We needed to find a way to reach out beyond the Garden Ring, the wealthy center of Moscow. We needed an organization that would unify the opposition groups across the ideological divides as well as develop our nationwide network of activists. This new organization was the United Civil Front (UCF), and under this banner I traveled Russia from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad to spread our message, to talk about why the countryside was so poor and the elites so rich. And, most important, to say that it was not too late to come together and fight for our civil liberties and democracy, because only those things would improve the deteriorating standard of living.

This mixing of opposition groups has also had several positive side effects. The leftists and those still mourning the Soviet Union have come to recognize the importance of liberal democracy and political freedom. The liberals have learned to accept the need for the social programs touted by the left. Unity has not only stiffened the opposition to the Putin government, but has also clarified and advanced the specific goals of our member groups.

Getting the Message Out

Each of these entities contributed to my education. I was learning quickly and we were making progress, but we still needed to reach a larger audience both inside and outside Russia. It was time to go on the offensive. The Group of Eight (seven by my count!) held a summit in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006, and the leaders and media of the free world would be in Russia. It provided a golden opportunity to unite and also to get our message out.

We organized a convention in Moscow, an international conference that brought activists from all over Russia to share ideas and support. We also invited the international media and speakers from all over the world who were not afraid to speak strongly for democracy in the shadow of the Kremlin. My All-Russia Civil Congress cochairs and I wrote countless letters of invitation, calling in favors and twisting arms when necessary. Eventually many prominent figures contributed statements of support, although few G-8 administrations had the courage to openly endorse us. We titled our event the Other Russia Conference, so named to tell the world that the stable, democratic Russia Putin presented was not reality.

We knew we had achieved significant progress when the administration made efforts to harass us at every turn. (If this is truly a measure of success, I should be proud that the humble UCF offices were raided by security forces this month, a few days prior to our December 16 march in Moscow.) The Other Russia movement has united the Russian opposition, and although our situation is still precarious, we have succeeded in forcefully promoting ourselves into an important piece on the political chessboard.

Vulnerable to External Pressure

The development of the Russian opposition has occurred in parallel with my own evolution as a political thinker. The United Civil Front added political clout to the concept of the All-Russia Civil Congress. It all finally came together, literally and figuratively, in the Other Russia. As unfavorable as our position may still be, my evaluation of our opponents' forces discovered that they are not without their own weaknesses. Unlike the old Soviet regime, this ruling elite has a great deal at stake outside Russia. Their fortunes are in banks, stock markets, real estate, and football teams, predominantly foreign. This means they are vulnerable to external pressure. They literally cannot afford the cutting of ties that would come with open hostility between an increasingly dictatorial Russia and the West.

So far, however, it has been difficult to convince the so-called leaders of the free world and the free press to bring such pressure to bear. Putin uses Russia's energy wealth as a cudgel, and Europe's leaders meekly fall in line. Thus the third element of my strategy has been to expose this hypocrisy in as many editorial pages as I can reach. This plan is not so shortsighted as to not keep in mind the potential consequences. It is essential to maintain our coalition because if the increasingly shaky Putin regime collapses due to internal conflict, it could lead to total chaos. It is worth remembering that just fifteen years ago the mighty Soviet regime disintegrated, much to the surprise of Western intelligence agencies. We have to always look ahead enough moves to be well prepared, even for victory!


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