Press conferences are supposed to make headlines, but on June 5 in Geneva I made a little more news than I had intended. I was there to receive the Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award from the organization UN Watch. It was a great honor to receive an award bearing the name of the American civil rights champion who worked with Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy before becoming a global rights figure in co-founding UN Watch in Geneva.
At the press conference a reporter asked a question I have received hundreds of times, about whether or not I feared for my safety and freedom in Putin’s Russia. But I did not give my usual reply about nothing in life being certain. I answered that if I returned to Russia I had serious doubts I would be able to leave again, since it had become obvious in February that I would be part of the ongoing crackdown against political protesters. “So for the time being,” I concluded (if I may quote myself to make the record clear), “I refrain from returning to Russia.”
This was not intended to be a declaration of leaving my home country, permanently or otherwise. In the context of the question, even the Russia experts among the journalists in attendance failed to pick up anything special about my cautious response. It was only when The Moscow Times reported it that the headlines and speculation began to fly. I was simply expressing the dark reality of the situation in Russia today, where nearly half the members of the opposition’s Coordinating Council are under criminal investigation on concocted charges ranging from illegal protest to embezzlement. This difficult decision was already old news to me and my family; I have not been home since February. Even my 50th birthday in April was celebrated in Oslo, as much as it pained me to make my mother and other close family travel abroad.
My principal work on the opposition Council is foreign relations, which mostly entails lobbying governments and organizations abroad to condemn the appalling human rights record of the Putin regime and to bring sanctions against his government and his cronies. Putin’s rage at this year’s passage of the U.S. Magnitsky Act legislation shows this is the correct path and this path must be followed in Europe as well. The Moscow prosecutor’s office opening an investigation that would limit my ability to travel would cripple these efforts. It would keep me from my professional speaking engagements, all of which are abroad since my dissident status has denied me any possibility of earning an income in Putin’s Russia. A travel ban would also limit my critical work for the nonprofit Kasparov Chess Foundation, which has centers in New York City, Brussels, and Johannesburg to promote chess in education.
It has been 18 months since the last massive public protests against fraudulent Russian elections took place in Moscow. Seeing hundreds of thousands of people in the streets was an important moment for Russia, and a proud moment for me. When I retired from chess in March 2005, to join the opposition movement, my concept of uniting every anti-Putin element in the country to march together regardless of ideology was harshly criticized. Seeing hundreds of flags representing every group from liberals to nationalists all marching together for “Russia Without Putin” was the fulfillment of a dream. But it was a brief dream followed by a rude awakening for the opposition and, sadly, the continued slumber of most of the Russian people.
For his uncontested return to the presidency Putin locked down the capital, turning the center of Moscow into Pyongyang. He has since shown no hesitation in persecuting activists, leaders, lawyers, scientists, or even musicians who dare to publicly challenge his power. Putin has taken off the flimsy mask of democracy to reveal himself in full as the would-be KGB dictator he has always been. The phase of attempting to create popular outrage by going through the motions of sham elections is over. Everyone knows the system is a cruel joke, but this knowledge is not in itself sufficient to get millions of people to risk their safety and freedom against a well-armed police state.
The big picture for the opposition must include Putin’s provocations in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Russian people are bullied by propaganda and intimidated by the security apparatus, but they are also bought off by the billions of dollars in oil revenue the state brings in. The real Russian economy is an antiquated mess, rife with bureaucratic inefficiency, a lack of competition, and epic corruption. Everything depends on the sale of natural resources, especially gas and oil. Should the price of oil drop significantly the Putin regime’s ability to keep expanding the bloated public sector would be crippled. The huge expenditures on propaganda and the security apparatus would stand out even more as Putin’s top priority. Pensions and subsidies would squeeze the budget and tough cuts would be required. People would stop being so forgiving of the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been siphoned out of Russia by Putin’s closest cronies, who pulled money from the treasury and into European real estate and Swiss banks.
A drop in oil prices and the subsequent economic shock would also break Putin’s unspoken promise to the average Russian citizen: that in exchange for their freedoms, that in exchange for giving up democracy and free speech, they would have economic security. To be fair, this Faustian bargain with the KGB devil did not sound so unreasonable during the chaotic early days of market reforms and corruption after the fall of the USSR and Yeltsin’s failure to protect the fragile democratic structures he helped create. But of course such deals never turn out well. Now Putin must do everything he can to keep the price of oil high in order to support the welfare state he has created as well as keep his partners in crime satisfied. If it means inflaming the civil war in Syria and assisting Iran’s nuclear goals, why not?
This agenda also represents a sort of Club of Dictators. Autocrats and thugs never like to see one of their own in trouble; it sets a bad example. So Putin supported Ahmadinejad and Chávez and received their support in return. Putin supports Assad to prolong the bloody conflict but also because regime change and the embrace of democracy is never good news anywhere in the world for a dictator. Putin is also an international problem, not just a Russian one. He and his gang export corruption as well as oil and the massive Russia Today propaganda machine is well funded at Putin’s personal insistence.
When authoritarian regimes unite, those fighting for human rights must do the same. For eight years I worked to bring disparate groups together in Russia against Putin. But that fight is a global one, and recruiting allies to our side is essential. A European Magnitsky List that restricts the travel and investigates the assets of criminals in the Putin administration would be a huge blow to his grip on power. The oligarchs who support Putin and the officials who carry out his orders do so in exchange for his ability to protect their fortunes and their lavish lifestyles abroad.
In recent years, I have worked to create an international coalition of dissidents and activists. Last year I succeeded one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, as the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation. Thor Halvorssen, its founder and director, has put together a remarkable series of events and campaigns with an emphasis on uniting freedom fighters around the world. HRF’s annual Oslo Freedom Forum is the epitome of these efforts to bring activists together to share information and strategies. Earlier this month I helped promote the We Choose online democracy project in Iran, which uses a Russian-developed e-voting platform to allow true freedom of expression.
That is my mission today. My work continues—now more than ever. In my acceptance speech in Geneva, I cited the Pirkei Avot of the Talmud and the section that inspired the title of Morris Abrams’s memoir, The Day Is Short. It goes, “The day is short, the task is great, the master is insistent.” Indeed, the days often feel very short and the tasks facing us are very great. The next verse, Avot two-twenty-one, is also relevant to this never-ending battle for human rights and justice. “It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
I will not desist. I am not abandoning Russia or the fight to oust Vladimir Putin and restore the rule of law in my homeland. Russia will always be my country and I will not subject myself to the whims of thugs and crooks. I refuse to be an easy target or to be caged and limited to being little more than a figure of sympathy. It is very painful not to see my son Vadim and my mother in Moscow, but Klara Kasparova gave me both her name and her fighting spirit. Thanks to her I have always been a fighter and I will continue to fight. When Putin falls, as every dictator does, I look forward to helping build an open and independent Russia, a strong and democratic Russia, a Russia where we are all free to live and to speak without fear.