Chessmaster Garry Kasparov Is Determined to Checkmate Vladimir Putin

Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov is determined to stop Vladimir Putin's tyrannical crackdown on political opposition.

Mig Greengard

The crowd of around 100 people gathered in Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park were there to hear Garry Kasparov talk mainly of the game he has mastered, chess. But in his remarks, Kasparov could not avoid a passing reference to the violent crackdowns against Russia’s anti-Putin opposition. “I want to thank the police,” Kasparov said. “They protect us here and they arrest us in Russia.”

The former chess champion was in New York for the 10th anniversary of his foundation to help schools develop programs to get American students involved in chess. For the occasion, Kasparov was honored with a cake, and students from all over the area gathered for a “friendly tournament.” Michael Khodarkovsky, the director of the foundation and a longtime friend of Kasparov from their days on the chess circuit in the Soviet Union, explained that all the kids would be getting a medal just for participating.

When I caught up with Kasparov, he was very concerned about a series of arrests of leading opposition figures last week by Moscow’s investigative police. Among those carted away were Alexei Navalny, a blogger and lawyer who has emerged as a leading voice against corruption in the Russian government.

“They are now turning the witnesses into suspects,” Kasparov said in an interview with The Daily Beast, his voice rising a bit in disbelief and anger. The arrests were in connection to clashes between the police and protesters that occurred on the May 6 election when at least 20,000 people turned out in Moscow to protest Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president the next day. The Russian police claim that 20 of their officers were injured in the clashes that day. Kasparov, however, said provocateurs had started the clashes and that videos showed dozens of peaceful protesters receiving unprovoked beatings from the police.

At this moment, when a unified opposition was taking to the streets, Kasparov said he expected more from the Obama administration. He was particularly furious at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told CNN on May 8 that the protests expressed the hope that as “the new term that President Putin is about to begin, Russia will be able to continue democratizing, protecting, and respecting the rights of all Russian citizens, ensuring that there is a level playing field for political and economic participation.”

“It’s horrendous. It’s despicable,” Kasparov said of Clinton’s comments on Putin’s inauguration. “When people are facing criminal charges and the regime is about to start massive repression, this is encouragement for Putin to do whatever he wants.”

Clinton has changed her tune on Russia in recent days. This week she accused Russia of sending armed helicopters to Syria to assist in President Bashar al Assad’s military campaign against his opposition. The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, a few days later declined when asked to repeat those charges after Russian officials denied the shipments.

Kasparov said the Obama administration’s hope to work with Russia to bring an end to the fighting and the beginning of a negotiation between the opposition and the Assad regime was naive. “They will be defending Assad to the bitter end,” he said. “It is psychological, they cannot see another brother in the dictatorship brotherhood going down, especially as a result of armed resistance.”

Since 2005 Kasparov has been an important leader for the coalition of groups opposing Putin and his party, United Russia. He attempted to run for the presidency in 2008, but was barred from the ballot.

When asked about his political plans in Russia, Kasparov said he was better suited to play the role of coalition builder and not opposition politician. “I am still trying to play the role of the unifier, bringing together the factions,” he said. “I am ready to play a role in the transition, but I don’t see myself as a long-term Russian politician. I believe I can play a more important role on the global scale. I don’t want to limit myself for the rest of my life playing politics in Russia.”

Kasparov said he wants to play a role in ridding Russia of Putin’s rule. But he is also a realist. “What we know about these regimes is that they can collapse overnight,” he said. “But again, with Putin’s resources and determination to stay in power, we may be facing harsh times ahead of us.”

One project that may consume more of Kasparov’s time in the near future is his campaign to unseat the current ruler of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Ilyumzhinov, a former governor of the Russian province of Kalmikya, has been atop the federation since 1995. He has also attracted attention by saying at one point that he was abducted by space aliens.

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In 2011 he was one of the last major figures to visit Muammar Gaddafi as he was fighting a rebellion supported by NATO.

“I will probably run if I have to,” Kasparov said. In 2010 Kasparov supported the candidacy of Anatoly Karpov, the world champion from 1975 to 1985 when he lost the title to a young Kasparov. Kasparov said the bottom line was that Ilyumzhinov “must go.”

For Kasparov, he sees similarities between Ilyumzhinov and Putin. “I think they are both doomed historically. It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “Chess is a very minor thing compared to Russia and the damage Putin can impose on my country and the rest of the world. I can say unseating Ilyumzhinov is very doable. Putin will be harder.”