Chess champ manoeuvres to take a piece of Putin

Chess champ manoeuvres to take a piece of Putin
by Jeremy Page

The Australian
August 4, 2005 Thursday All-round Country Edition

Despite a rough opening, Garry Kasparov is determined to topple the
political king, writes Jeremy Page in Moscow

IF chess is mental torture, as Garry Kasparov once said, then Russian
politics has not been much kinder to him since his dramatic debut
this year.

In the past five months he has been hit over the head with a
chessboard, roughed up by police, pelted with eggs and tomato sauce
and bombarded with verbal abuse.

All this after he announced in March that he was retiring from
competitive chess to dedicate himself to the political fight against
President Vladimir Putin.

Kasparov, 42, is not used to being the underdog, having dominated
chess since 1985 when he became its youngest world champion.

Yet far from being intimidated, he is throwing himself into the
toughest — and riskiest — contest of his life, with all the flair
and aggression that made him the greatest chess player to date.

“There’s only one chance for this country — if the regime collapses,”
Kasparov said.

“If the Government doesn’t change, then we must change the Government.”

Unlike most of Putin’s opponents, he is not talking about running in
the next parliamentary elections in 2007 or standing for president
in 2008.

He is travelling around Russia calling openly for a peaceful
revolution, like those that rocked Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine
last year.

The trigger, he predicts, will be an attempt by the Kremlin to change
the constitution to allow Putin to serve a third term instead of
stepping down in 2008.

“Next year the country will go through a political crisis which will
decide the future of the country,” Kasparov said. “We’re talking
about mass protests.”

Such talk is highly provocative — if not seditious — when the Kremlin
has spent much of the past five years silencing political opponents.

In May, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed for nine years in
what was widely seen as punishment for meddling in politics. Then
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, became the target of a
corruption probe last month after hinting at running for president
in 2008.

So far, the worst Kasparov has suffered is being hit on the head with
a chessboard by a young activist in April and roughed up by police
outside Khodorkovsky’s court hearing in May.

In public, Russian officials have responded to his challenge with
disdain — dismissing him as a political non-entity who appeals only
to the West.

Many political analysts agree, saying most Russians have not heard
about his campaign and would not support him because of his Caucasian
and Jewish roots. He was born in Azerbaijan to an Armenian mother
and a Jewish father.

But at the same time, officials are going to extraordinary lengths
to prevent such a respected celebrity from entering the political fray.

That much became clear when Kasparov went to southern Russia in June
to drum up grassroots support in Dagestan, North Ossetia, Stavropol
and Rostov.

“Unlike my critics, I go to the Russian regions,” he said.

“It’s the only way to learn the situation in my country because the
media is under the Kremlin’s strict control.”

In Dagestan, authorities blocked him from meeting refugees from
neighbouring Chechnya and even tried to stop him giving prizes at a
children’s chess tournament.

In North Ossetia, a meeting with Beslan residents in a cultural centre
was cancelled after officials hastily arranged a showing of the movie
Madagascar there.

Then he was hit with eggs covered in tomato sauce in Vladikavkaz,
the regional capital.

At his next stops, in Stavropol and Rostov, the airports refused to
let his charter plane land.

Hotels in Stavropol would not accept him and meetings in both places
had to be held outside after the venues developed “technical” problems.

Kasparov says he believes local authorities were under orders from
Putin’s personal representative in the region, Dmitry Kozak.

“If they act in this way, they are scared — scared of anyone talking
with the people,” Kasparov said. “If people don’t like my ideas,
then fine, but at least let them speak with me.”

Kasparov dabbled in politics in the 1990s and, early last year,
was voted chairman of Committee 2008: Free Choice, a liberal group
dedicated to ensuring the next presidential election is free and
fair. But his real political awakening came after the Beslan school
siege, when the Kremlin announced plans to abolish direct elections
for regional governors.

This year he formed his own, more militant, group called the United
Civil Front.

“It’s extreme because the situation is extreme,” he said.

“The Government is violating the Russian constitution and limiting
our rights to influence the electoral process.”

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