MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle.)
Garry Kasparov claims to have retired from chess, or simply quit, to take an active role in opposition politics. If Kasparov intends to lead or organize Russia’s liberals against the Kremlin in 2008, Russian liberalism – weak as it already is – may find itself facing extinction for a generation. Kasparov is the Kremlin’s greatest hope to sustain the current political status quo for years to come.
It is hard to know whether to cry or laugh when thinking about Kasparov’s reawakened interest in politics. His comment that he will "do everything possible to fight Vladimir Putin's dictatorship” is the kind of zinger the Western media live for. At the same time, many hostile Western editorials refuse to come to terms with the fact that Putin’s opinion-poll ratings remain extremely high, or that Kasparov (or any other political figure) can speak his mind under this “dictatorship.”
Kasparov lives in a fantasy world in which only Western news outlets (and local radio station Ekho Moskvy) have any real interest in what he says. But it would be unfair to question Kasparov’s genuine hopes for Russia, with the exception of how he describes the country’s current political environment. Unfortunately, most of his agenda only entails dissatisfaction with the present without suggesting alternatives – including how to work with other Russian liberals.
Vladimir Putin will officially leave the political scene - voluntarily - in 2008. Committee 2008: Free Choice, including former Union of Right Forces (SPS) leaders Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, and independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov have staked their political careers on ensuring that the next president will be anyone but Putin. This stance is political foolishness: When Putin leaves power, will Committee 2008 take the credit?
Kasparov has also said that the left-right spectrum is not in play in Russian politics. Rather, the most important political division is those willing to confront and oppose what he calls the growing “authoritarianism” of the state.
Russia's two major liberal opposition parties, the SPS and Yabloko, are divided on whether to work with the Kremlin as a loyal opposition. Both parties failed to garner enough votes in the 2003 parliamentary elections to win seats in the current legislature. In 2007, when Russia will hold its first Duma elections based solely on a proportional-representation system, the minimum percentage a party will need for a seat in the lower chamber will be upped to 7% - and small political parties will again face defeat.
It is quite possible that Kasparov is not interested in finding common ground with other liberals. He may have already accepted that the liberals cannot win power through the ballot box, suggesting that only social pressure will change Russia's political order. If true, Kasparov's political calculus is a major departure from Russia's other liberals - and potentially dangerous. Not only is he drawing a very sharp line dividing him from Russia's other liberals, but he is also showing little faith in the democratic process. Then there is his apparent hope for an uprising against the Kremlin akin to a "velvet revolution."
Kasparov may be overestimating the appeal of liberalism among Russians if another round of social protests like those seen when social benefits were monetized at the beginning of the year are repeated. Russia's radical nationalists may benefit far more than any of the country’s liberals. Political activism is on the rise in Russia, and it decidedly to the right.
While claiming to support a liberal agenda - even through radical means - Kasparov is indirectly helping the Kremlin maintain the status quo. There are many "statist liberals" within the Kremlin and the Kremlin's parliamentary vehicle, United Russia. It is liberal economic reforms that are controversial - many people want less liberalism, not more of it.
Kasparov appears to want to abandon his fellow liberals while hoping that the average Russian will soon rise up against the Kremlin and a president whose approval ratings are the envy of Western leaders. Kasparov apparently believes there is a popular demand for a liberal agenda. Indeed, there are political and social frustrations among many Russians, but liberalism's reputation among Russians remains tainted after the radical reforms of the 1990s.
Kasparov's fighting stance is very popular among Western audiences. In Russia, many interpret his words as coming from the lunatic fringe. This apparently suits the Kremlin just fine. Kasparov indirectly promotes the Kremlin's form of statist liberalism.
As for the rest of Russia’s liberals, not only do they continue to deal with the problematic legacy of liberalism during the first decade of post-communist rule, now they have to deal with a politician like Kasparov who divides them more than the Kremlin ever could. Kasparov is a fiery and ambitious political activist, but his personal crusade is at the expense of what Russia truly needs: An independent and liberal movement.