Many democratic opposition figures in countries sliding toward authoritarianism see Western election monitors as a lifeline, a chance for a fair election that might be fixed if not for the watchful eye of outside observers. That’s not the case for Garry Kasparov, the iconic chess champion who has emerged as a public face of Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
“We are asking Americans and Europeans not to send observers,” Kasparov said in an exclusive interview. “You understand Putin will get whatever he wants. What is the point of pretending this is an election? It’s a charade. Don’t interfere with it, just don’t pay respect to the charade.”
Putin, the former Russian president currently serving as prime minister, announced last month that he would be seeking the presidency anew in the Russian elections scheduled for March, putting a damper on President Obama’s Russia policy, known as the reset. After years of George W. Bush embracing Putin directly, under the reset the Obama administration courted current President Dmitry Medvedev in the hopes of bolstering moderate and liberal voices in the Kremlin against Putin and his loyalists.
Kasparov, a former world chess champion, was critical of both presidents and blunt about the reset. “It’s a disaster,” he said. “From day one they bet on Medvedev as a counterweight to Putin. The whole idea of reset was founded on the false assumption Medvedev was an independent politician. He is not.”
Later in the interview, Kasparov acknowledged that his views on Obama’s Russia policy has not won him any friends at the State Department. “They have no interest in hearing my very specific views,” he said. Kasparov spoke Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation for a conference critical of the reset with Russia.
While Kasparov disparages the upcoming Russian elections, recent public-opinion surveys show Putin enjoys more popularity than Medvedev. On Oct. 17, Putin gave a televised interview to three top Russian channels in which he said he was running because Russia was in economic trouble.
“When a country is experiencing difficult, hard conditions, when it is emerging from crisis and getting back to its feet, these elements of stability—including in the political sphere—are extremely important,” he said. Putin also said he would make Medvedev prime minister depending on how his party, United Russia, did in the elections.
The Obama administration credits its reset policy with gaining a new arms-control agreement known as NewSTART, prompting Russia to end its sales of a complex air-defense system to Iran and winning Moscow’s support for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Obama administration officials, however, also acknowledge that their policy has not done anything to reverse the scaling back of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Russia.
Kasparov did not limit his criticism of U.S.-Russia policy to Obama. He said the Bush administration had failed to account for Putin as well. “This is not a problem of this administration. To a certain degree they inherited it from the Bush administration,” he said.
Kasparov said Bush largely ignored Putin’s consolidation of power during his term because the Russian had promised considerable counterterrorism cooperation after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush and his first national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, were naïve in “betting on this so-called liberal wing in the Kremlin and expecting Putin to walk away quietly,” he said.
Rice, in her new memoir, provides some support for Kasparov’s critique. In her chapter about the brief 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Rice observes that in her conversations with Medvedev, he did not appear to be fully briefed on the movements of the Russian military.
“Perhaps we should have seen it coming, but this Putin was different from the man whom we had first met in Slovenia,” Rice writes in a chapter about his consolidation of power. “The Russian leader we thought we knew—who’d helped so much in Afghanistan after 9/11 and talked of strategic cooperation—seemed to be disappearing.”
Kasparov said he largely agreed with Rice’s take. “That is the right assessment,” he said. “But the mistake was made in the first meeting. Putin was looking around and testing the water and he quickly discovered the West was weak.”
Kasparov said Putin is a master of psychologically exploiting Western leaders in order to get the freedom of action he desires in his own sphere of influence, the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellites.
“Since Hitler there was no leader as successful at playing the psychological games with leaders in the Western world,” Kasparov said. “The difference is Hitler used tanks. Putin is using banks.” Kasparov later clarified that he was not accusing Putin of launching a genocide against an ethnic minority and that his analogy only applied to how two authoritarian leaders played Western leaders off each other.
While Kasparov has been a critic of the executive branch’s foreign policy toward Russia, the opposition leader is supportive of some initiatives coming out of Congress. He expressed support for bipartisan legislation named after a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody, to create a public list of Russian officials banned from traveling to the United States because of human-rights violations.
“What is the point of pretending this is an election? It’s a charade. Don’t interfere with it, just don’t pay respect to the charade.”
As a result of the legislation, known as the Magnitsky Act, the Russian Foreign Ministry has threatened U.S. diplomats with undoing the reset policy and creating lists of U.S. officials who would be banned from visiting Russia.
“Why is Putin’s regime so adamant in protecting these individuals?” Kasparov asked. “They understand that if they give up on any member of the group, then the whole institution of Putin’s power, which is based on personal loyalty to the mafia boss, is over.”
Kasparov also said Russia should not be allowed to enter the World Trade Organization until Moscow negotiates a border arrangement with Georgia. Since the 2008 war, Russia has stationed troops in two provinces that have declared independence but are still internationally recognized as Georgian territory. “Russia has a big outstanding problem with Georgia. Unless some compromise is reached with Georgia, I do not think Russia should be allowed in” the WTO, he said. “Giving Putin something in exchange for nothing is the wrong way to negotiate.”
The Obama administration has made help for Russia’s accession to the WTO a key plank of its second phase of the reset. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner said he would oppose Russian accession to the WTO until the border issues are resolved with Georgia. Congress would have to pass legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations.
One Obama choice Kasparov had some praise for was the president’s nominee to be the next ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul.
“I know McFaul quite well,” Kasparov said. “From this administration, this is the best we can get. I may disagree with three out of five issues with McFaul, but with other potential nominees I am afraid it would be five out five.” Nonetheless, Kasparov said McFaul, now the senior Russia policy analyst on the National Security Council, has “made a number of mistakes in his assessments in the transformation of Putin’s regime.”