Garry Kasparov is – what else? – playing chess when I arrive at his Tel Aviv hotel suite. He drags himself away from the laptop and phone in the bedroom just long enough to let me in, says a quick hello while waving me vaguely toward a couch, and then disappears again.
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I know he doesn’t have much time to talk – he’ll shortly be leaving for Tel Aviv University, where he is scheduled to play one of his famed simultaneous exhibition matches, against 30 greater and lesser local talents (all of whom he will defeat, of course). As the minutes slowly pass, and I overhear him discussing sophisticated variations for pawns and knights with whoever it is on the other end of the phone line, I start to assume that the former world champion has quite forgotten that I’m waiting.
Brilliance in chess, after all, requires absolute focus. The tuning out of all distraction. And Kasparov, who held the world’s top ranking for 255 months in succession – three times longer than any rival – is considerably more than brilliant. He is widely regarded as the greatest ever exponent of this most cerebral of pursuits.
Recently turned 47, the black locks now graying, Kasparov formally retired from chess five years ago. But plainly the obsession remains overwhelming.
He has been coaching the 19-year-old player Magnus Carlsen, helping the Norwegian prodigy establish himself as the youngest ever World No. 1. And even now, on what should be a short holiday break in sunny Tel Aviv, with that 30-game contest ahead of him, the Russian maestro evidently remains deep in the thrall of chess’s endless permutations.
As the burble of moves adopted and rejected continues from the bedroom, I look out from his window to the Tel Aviv beachfront and ruefully wonder whether, had I arrived here 10 or 15 minutes earlier, I might have beaten the phone call and got the interview.
But Kasparov has developed a second obsession in recent years. Raised in Azerbaijan, he was born Garry Weinstein to a Jewish father, who died of leukemia when he was seven, and an Armenian mother whose surname he later adopted. And he spent his formative years in the paranoid world of competitive chess in the Soviet Union, where it was often the players, no matter how gifted, who were the pawns, and where success on the board of play was deemed vital to the nation’s global prestige.
Having grown up with the weight of Communist expectations on his frail shoulders, in the fevered climate of nationalism, manipulation and defection that culminated in the collapse of the USSR, it is no great surprise that, from competitive chess, the adult Kasparov turned his focus to political activism. And that, here too, his commitment is absolute.
And so it is, after I have waited perhaps a quarter of an hour, that Kasparov the chess nonpareil reluctantly surrenders to Kasparov the political activist. He emerges from the bedroom, warmly shakes my hand, and sits down to discuss that other white-black strategic adversary, his nemesis Vladimir Putin.
PUTIN, THE former president of Russia and now the prime ministerial power behind his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, is, in Kasparov’s emphatic conception, a terrifying creature of ruthless avarice – the personification of Russia’s woes and an acute danger to much of the international community besides. Kasparov’s post-chess cause, his post-chess obsession, is to bring Putin down and thus “restore democracy” to his country.
To that end, Kasparov has set up social movements for change, organized a series of anti-Putin rallies and demonstrations, mounted a short-lived presidential bid of his own, and found himself intermittently threatened, arrested and even briefly jailed.
Inevitably, therefore, Putin quickly makes an entrance into our conversation, when I ask Kasparov how, applying a grandmaster’s strategic thought processes to some of our difficulties, he would advise Israel to handle the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. And once on stage, the baby-faced ex-KGB chief proves a lasting presence.
“Look,” Kasparov begins with a world-weary sigh, “Israel is in some kind of political trouble because there is no political will in the West to do anything with the Iranian crisis. Europe is too busy with their own agenda now. They are busy printing more money to save Greece and other countries rather than thinking about anything a year ahead. America is also busy printing money, but one would expect them to come up with a plan. Yet it seems there is no plan. Making the same statements that a nuclear Iran is ‘intolerable’?” he snorts cynically. “Fine. As we heard many times, a nuclear North Korea was also ‘unacceptable.’”
Swiftly now, in his fast, excellent English, Kasparov moves on to Russia. “Without Russia’s technical assistance,” he notes correctly, “Iran wouldn’t be even close to a nuclear bomb.”
And that brings us immediately to the dark lord. Kasparov can be an understated, almost self-effacing and certainly a friendly presence, but when it comes to Putin, his body coils and his language turns fierce. “I said it during the Bush administration, and I repeat it now: Unless you make Putin listen, nothing is going to happen [to stop the Iranian nuclear drive]. And he’s not going to listen to your requests or your pleading, or [respond] to some kind of sweet deal. At the end of the day, selling nuclear technology to Iran, selling anti-missile defenses, brings cash. And if America or Israel, or both, at a certain point attack Iran, the oil price goes up, so for Putin it’s a win-win situation. Unless he sees real consequences for his well-being, he will not do anything.”
But how, in Kasparov’s view, can Putin be made to fear “real consequences for his well-being.” Only, it seems, via his wallet. In the next few minutes, Kasparov, leaning toward me from armchair to couch, lists a succession of Russian oligarchs who he says serve as the prime minister’s financial henchmen – the “family,” as he puts it, making considered use of Mafia terminology. “The only way to make him listen is to go after his money,” he says.
Unless America is truly ready to take on some of these oligarchal heavyweights, says Kasparov, brow furrowed now, speaking still faster and with still more passion, “just don’t tell me you want to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Iran will not stop unless Russia is ready to join the sanctions, because apart from the nuclear technology and anti-missile defense systems, Russia is a main energy supplier. It seems the [Obama] administration is ready to attack Goldman Sachs,” he says witheringly, “but it is not ready to attack Putin’s financial interests. Which means that Iran feels safe, and rightly so.”
How is one to “attack” the Putin “family”? On what basis?
Kasparov looks at me a little pityingly. “I think there’s enough,” he says after a pause, and rapidly cites a sequence of tax-evasion and money laundering allegations that he believes could be successfully pursued, were there sufficient will. “I’m sure there are many options” for international law enforcement. “If you believe that the Iranian nuclear bomb is an imminent threat, not only to Israel but also to the interests of the United States and the Western world, you act,” he says flatly. “If you don’t believe it, you can find thousands of excuses [not to act] – as the Western powers found 75 years ago when not acting against the rise of Nazi Germany.”
Does he really want to make that comparison?
“Putin’s threat is probably not comparable to the one in the 1930s,” he clarifies, “but to a certain degree it will have a very serious impact on the Western system, because the No. 1 Russian export is not oil. It’s corruption. And Putin has found great demand for this product in the West. The damage he has done to the Western political and business system has yet to be understood.”
Repeating phrases I’ve seen him utilize in past interviews, language built to shock, he claims: “Where Hitler used tanks, Putin is using banks. And I don’t know which will have the more lasting consequences. He doesn’t use poison gas, but he uses natural gas. He’s very smart in building his personal relationships and using enormous amounts of cash. I’d guess he controls more cash than anyone else on this planet.”
But isn’t even this horrifyingly depicted Putin concerned about enabling a nuclear Iran on Russia’s doorstop? Kasparov’s response is an emphatic no. “It’s a legitimate question to ask about Russia,” he allows. Russia doesn’t want a nuclear Iran. But Putin? Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons “doesn’t affect Putin’s power base in Russia,” he says. Actually, “it might only help... A crisis around Iran will boost his position. It will give him more bargaining chips at this geopolitical casino.”
The Russian interest, as distinct from Putin’s interest, says Kasparov, mirrors Israel’s. He argues that, whatever their ideological backgrounds, Russians regard Putin’s policies on radical Islam as “suicidal for our country.” They don’t see Russia endangered by the West, but rather facing “the geopolitical threat from China and a growing threat from the south. A nuclear Iran is a terrible threat,” he says.
The trouble is, he plunges on, that with Russia facing so many domestic problems at present, the Iranian threat is not a priority. “For people who live in the far east, yes, China is a priority; they can see the gradual Chinese invasion. For people who live in or near the North Caucasus, they can smell the rise of Islamic-based terrorism. Although it is mixed in with all kinds of local fights, you can still smell the rise of resistance based on Shari’a law and the rejection of the secular state. But Moscow is so far away. Yeah, there was an explosion in the Moscow subway” – 40 people killed by two female suicide bombers on March 29 – “and it clearly had a trace to the North Caucasus, but still, you know, it’s very hard to break the social apathy... And in this vacuum of the national agenda, Putin can simply rule always with his own plans.”
So what are Putin’s plans, what is his agenda?
“I said once that his dream is to rule like Stalin and live like [billionaire oil businessman and soccer club owner Roman] Abramovich,” Kasparov shoots back. “With the emphasis on Abramovich... It’s all about money and power. The advantages brought by money are at the top of his agenda. But he knows that he cannot keep the money unless he stays in power.”
Ominously, Kasparov then adds: “He probably lost his opportunity to walk away peacefully... At a certain point, for people who rule undemocratically, there is no way back. He has already crossed that line.”
While he regards “puppet” as the wrong term for Medvedev, he considers the president – who this week infuriated Israel by meeting with Khaled Mashaal in Damascus and urging the inclusion of Hamas in the diplomatic process – to be too weak to lead what he says is a not insignificant level of opposition to Putin. “It may be that at a certain point, even Medvedev will realize that the balance of power shifted in his favor. But Putin made a very good choice [of presidential successor].”
A good joke that’s currently circulating, Kasparov says, is that “there are two parties in Russia: Putin’s party and Medvedev’s party. The problem is that Medvedev doesn’t know which party he belongs to.”
After that abortive bid in 2007, is Kasparov going to try to challenge for the presidency again?
“In Russia, we’re not fighting to win elections, we’re trying to have elections,” he replies carefully. “Our fight is very different... because we do not live in a democratic country. This is something that people in the West and also in Israel don’t want to recognize. By the way it is getting worse... They keep violating basic rights guaranteed by the constitution, and they are limiting even what is left of the political freedoms. In Russia today, you cannot stage any kind of peaceful protest without being harassed, detained, maybe arrested, and maybe even convicted.”
I ASK him, this intense individual, a genius in one pursuit who has transferred his passion to a far more resonant field, whether he considers that we are untenably naïve about the dismal Russian dictatorship he has described.
“It’s about intellectual self-deception,” he replies with a small shrug. “You [in the West] don’t want to hear this. If you recognize that Putin belongs to the group of [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko, [Zimbabwe’s Robert] Mugabe and [Venezuela’s Hugo] Chavez, you have to change your behavior. You’d rather not.”
In the case of China, there is less hypocrisy, he points out. America and Europe are doing a lot of business with China, but no one is claiming it’s a democracy. “We all understand that they rule differently. We do business because it’s for mutual benefit. But at the end of the day, you know that China is China.”
With Russia, however, the US and the world’s leading democracies
“pretend that Putin is a member of this elite club. So there’s nothing
wrong with [Italy’s Silvio] Berlusconi or others making friends with
him, and for others to be on his payroll. No one wants to touch it. The
only reason I make parallels with the 1930s is because it’s the same
rejection of the obvious.”
Doesn’t stating “the obvious” in such open confrontation with so powerful a figure as Putin place Kasparov’s life in danger?
so. There is no personal protection surrounding him here, but “I have
bodyguards in Moscow,” Kasparov notes. Still, he adds, “in Russia, if
the state goes after you, nothing helps.”
He pauses, relaxes and allows himself a rare half-smile. “I try to live a normal life.”