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Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, is changing hats. At 44, after conquering the chess world, he is now attempting to master the art of politics.
"The difference between chess and politics," he says, "is that there are no rules in the latter, which is in its own way some kind of rule. You learn to adjust and survive and, in our particular reality, we are taking it one day at a time," says the son of Armenian and Jewish parents.
But Kasparov is not really a political tyro. He has been active politically since the early 1990s and supported Boris Yeltzin in the 1996 election. In 2004, he formed Committee 2008: Free Elections, and last year became a moderator of the opposition alliance Other Russia, which unites groups across a wide political spectrum.
You have been engaged in Russian politics for more than a decade, but this is the first time you are completely dedicated to political activity. What caused this decision?
I believe that the current regime will lead our country toward catastrophe. My declared goal is to prevent this from happening. In Other Russia, we are struggling for the demise of this regime before it's too late. I know that I'm a well-known man, and I'm going to use my name to reach out to as many Russians as possible so that we can explain our agenda and make a difference.
You are surely aware it might not be an easy task, considering the high support for President Vladimir Putin and his regime. Look at Moscow, at St. Petersburg, they are flourishing. Foreign investment is pouring into the country. Perhaps many people will tell you they are simply not ready to risk it?
You must realize that there is not one Russia today, but two. Only 15 percent of the population resides in the same Russia you are talking about and enjoys the prosperity. The other 85% lives in a completely different reality. The first Russia is seen on TV, it is visited by foreign journalists and tourists, whereas the second Russia is forgotten by its own people. We are talking about 120 million people who live in this reality. For them, the Putin era didn't bring any positive changes at all.
And yet support for Putin in the second Russia is unprecedentedly high. How can you explain it?
I believe the state-controlled media has a lot to do with it. The government took the first and second TV channels under its control to regulate the flow of information. Even supporters of the regime admit that were our main media free and uncensored, the regime would collapse within a month or two.
Lack of freedom of speech is one of the main complaints of most Russian opposition leaders, who claim they cannot get access to the media, thus they can't reach the voters. There is only another year until the election. How do you plan to overcome this obstacle?
I personally traveled to 29 districts and spoke to people to make them aware of our agenda and our goals. And we have already enjoyed some success in the regional elections in Moscow last fall. The surprising factor for us was that the majority of our voters were not party activists, but regular citizens who believe in us.
Do you believe that your party or any other opposition party can win this election and rock the system?
No, I don't think so. It's a known fact that this election is merely a farce, a game, nothing more. It's not a true, transparent democratic process.
So then one might say that all your efforts are in vain, since the outcome of the election is predetermined?
No. I believe that by the end of this year Russia will experience major political changes. It seems as if Putin's regime has exhausted all its resources. There is money in the country, but the social gap continues to grow, the revenues are not distributed properly. With some efforts our economy could have a chance to develop, but all that is not being done. The regime will not be able to sit on two chairs for long, building a dictatorship on the one hand, and allowing the elite to transfer huge sums to Western democratic countries on the other.
The same goes for Putin's successor. I'm quite sure that Putin will not follow [Belarussian President Alexander] Lukashenko's example and amend the constitution so that he can run for a third term. It would discredit him and his regime. His successor will have to be weak and strong at the same time, to serve both the interests of the ruling elite and the country as a whole. There are also many people close to Putin who might turn against the new nominee. This situation cannot continue to exist.
By the way, this tradition of passing the scepter has continued since Yeltzin's time. Although his regime was more democratic than today's, power was still inherited, not transferred as the result of elections.
When Putin came to power in 2000 and again during the election in 2004, there was a feeling that the situation was improving in comparison to the crisis of the mid-1990s. Today, many feel that Russia has come to a dead end. We are not about to experience another wave of economic growth, especially if oil prices go down, so disappointment in the regime will grow.
You often visit the US and in fact are one of the few Russian politicians who reaches out to the West trying to draw attention to what is happening in Russia. Have you been successful so far? What kind of support, if any, do you expect from the West?
I do as much as I can. I talk to people, I often travel to the US and I speak to the foreign media, such as The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times. Soon our party Web site will also be translated into English. I believe that we Russians will solve our problems ourselves, we do not need any help from outside. However, when Western leaders call Putin a "friend" and consider his regime to be democratic, it seriously damages the chances of the opposition.
The problem is that there is no visible and influential leadership in the West that can recognize its mistakes and admit that although Russia is important and it should be considered an important international player, it should not be called "democratic." The US has very substantial trade with China, but it's not being referred to as democratic. If [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez is called a dictator, why can't Putin be?
You predict major political changes, although the outcome of the election will hardly surprise anyone in Russia or abroad. How do you see your country in 10 years?
First of all, I hope Russia will remain in the same geographical borders as today. I say that because China and Muslim radicals on our borders might have other plans. Second, I hope that Russia will find itself. In the 21st century only a calculated strategic perspective can bring us success. What we need is the other Russia, the Russia of tomorrow, and not the Russia of yesterday which is being imposed on us by our rulers.