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The April 14 detention of chess champion and opposition politician Garry Kasparov in Moscow may be the Russian government's biggest miscalculation yet in its burgeoning campaign to stifle political dissent.
On Saturday, thousands of anti-riot troops broke up a demonstration in Moscow led by Kasparov and his coalition partners in the "Other Russia" umbrella group. An estimated 170 other demonstrators were detained and fined amid reports of police brutality. The same dispiriting scene repeated itself the following day in St. Petersburg, with more arrests and beatings of peaceful demonstrators.
Government-controlled media outlets have engaged in a campaign to demonize Kasparov and other opposition politicians as tools of a Western conspiracy; the country's main television station even referred to the demonstrators as "ultra-radicals."
Given all the fuss, one would think that Kasparov was either a genuine security threat, or at the very least a wildly popular politician with a big enough chunk of the electorate behind him to pose a serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin or his yet to be anointed successor in next year's presidential elections. The truth is that he is neither.
Independent pollsters have measured Putin's approval ratings as consistently hovering in the 60-70% range. In contrast, the vast majority of Russians know nothing about Kasparov's political activities, thanks largely to a de-facto ban against the media covering him. The ratings of Kasparov's partner in the "Other Russia" coalition, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, barely register on the popularity scale.
So why does the Kremlin seem so afraid of him? I believe there are two reasons. The first is Kasparov himself.
I FIRST heard him speak in May 2004 at a congressional hearing in which we were co-panelists. His intelligence, articulate grasp of the issues and personal dynamism leave the impression of a man with obvious leadership potential intent on using his celebrity to engage an increasingly repressive government on issues he feels passionately about.
He blasted the Russian media for being "totally submissive" to the Kremlin, especially on taboo issues like Chechnya and the government's mishandling of terrorist attacks.
The second reason is a systemic problem that most authoritarian regimes suffer from.
Putin spent the first years of his presidency restricting the independent media, subduing big business and narrowing the powers of regional leaders. Constructing a nascent dictatorship, however, turns out to be a lot easier than actually governing it. With the checks and balances of a free press and parliamentary and judicial oversight removed, government corruption has increased, and reliable information about what is really happening in the country is scarcer.
Within this information vacuum Kremlin officials and their political allies are beginning to believe their own propaganda about conspiracies against Russia abetted by human rights NGOs and liberal politicians.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, during which a pro-Russian leader lost power, significantly worsened the deep-seated paranoia endemic to the former KGB agents in Putin's retinue.
Unfortunately for the Kremlin, Kasparov's detention is likely to backfire, as it will likely only increase his popular support among the large numbers of Russians who, despite their generally warm feelings toward their president, are increasingly dissatisfied with how his government is addressing Russia's daunting economic and social challenges.
WITH SO FEW legitimate channels for expressing discontent, Russians are increasingly falling prey to nationalist demagogues, who did surprisingly well in the last parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the absurdity of the government's overreaction to "Other Russia" is so obvious that Putin risks creating a backlash in the West, where distaste for the Russian government's heavy-handed tactics is rising.
However, expressions of distaste by Western governments are not enough now that the Russians have reverted to the Soviet-era tactic of openly targeting political opponents. Protection of dissidents and human rights activists from persecution should be seen by our government as a sine qua non for partnership with Russia, or any other country, for that matter.
Otherwise, the repression will only get worse, and the consequences for Russia's future ever more dire.
The writer is Research and Advocacy Director at the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.