For years, Garry Kasparov’s opponents were lone figures across chessboards, or the occasional supercomputer. Now he faces riot police with shields and batons.
The former world chess champion seems an unlikely rabble-rouser. But since giving up chess in 2005 to devote himself to overthrowing what he calls the authoritarian system of President Vladimir Putin, Mr Kasparov has emerged – perhaps not surprisingly – as an effective political tactician.
Other Russia, the loose coalition he has been instrumental in forming, has organised pro-democracy “Marches of Dissenters” in Moscow, St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod since December. The marches have all been small, but the latest in St Petersburg last month attracted up to 5,000 people, one of the biggest protests of the Putin era, and was violently dispersed by police and special forces.
Two more are planned: on Saturday in Moscow and on Sunday in St Petersburg. These could again spark violence since demonstrators plan to exercise what they call a constitutional right to march in city centre locations – despite being denied permission. Moscow authorities have warned marchers they face a stiff response if they mass in the banned location, offering a less central venue instead.
“Western Europeans think 5,000 people out in the street looks irrelevant. But in a country where people know joining a demonstration might be dangerous for health reasons, or for keeping your job, even a few thousand people is already an accomplishment,” Mr Kasparov told the FT.
If an independent challenge is to emerge to the Kremlin’s efforts to ensure an anointed successor takes over from Mr Putin next year – or even an “Orange Revolution”, for now, a remote prospect – Other Russia may be one of the few quarters from which it could come.
Mr Kasparov’s case against Putinism is that it has created a fake democracy, which keeps in power a small elite that controls much of the country’s wealth. He challenges the view that Russians have acquiesced by trading political freedoms – which came to be associated with chaos in the 1990s – for stability and rising living standards.
After travelling across 30 of Russia’s 86 regions, Mr Kasparov claims Russians are much more disaffected than Mr Putin’s 80 per cent approval ratings suggest, and angry at not seeing more benefit from Russia’s massive energy earnings.
They continue to back Mr Putin, he says, only because they are offered no credible, independent alternative.
“In all towns there are social protests – people are not happy with what is happening with their life, and it is growing. There are many small streams that in the next few months will join in one river,” he says.
His strategy to channel that discontent, should it emerge, is to unite disparate individuals and opposition groups, mostly from outside Kremlin-approved parties. They range from Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister sacked by Mr Putin in 2004, to Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy, and Eduard Limonov, leader of the controversial – and officially banned – National Bolsheviks.
The Kremlin says the latter is a fascist group, and political analysts suggest that Mr Kasparov may have made an uncharacteristic tactical blunder by embracing it. Mr Kasparov calls it a radical leftwing group committed to peaceful protest that shares Other Russia’s main goal: political change.
The aim is to unite around a single candidate for next year’s presidential election, or multiple candidates who would stand on a common platform of restoring full democracy and free elections. The coalition likens itself to the broad alliance that beat General Augusto Pinochet in a referendum in Chile in 1988.
“Sometimes in a desperate situation even opposite political forces agree on steps that must be taken,” Mr Kasparov says.
Mr Kasparov is circumspect when responding to official claims that Other Russia is being funded by exiled oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, who this week reiterated that he was plotting Mr Putin’s overthrow, or Leonid Nevzlin, a founder of the Yukos oil company. He declines to name financial backers, citing the risk of reprisals.
“We don’t have any real contacts with those who might jeopardise our reputation,” he adds.
Such charges, he says, are part of the challenge of engaging in “unauthorised” opposition in Russia. Mr Kasparov’s political office was raided by police looking for alleged “extremist” materials under a new law passed in Russia last year; an assistant was mysteriously beaten. Bodyguards constantly accompany him.
He allows himself at least one chess analogy: “When you are under the threat of being mated in one move, you don’t think about long-term strategy. We survive, and every day of our survival gives us a chance to reach out to more people.”