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Interview: Garry Kasparov Talks About Putin's Endgame

Former world chess champion turned opposition politician Garry Kasparov in RFE/RL's Moscow studios during a previous interview.
Former world chess champion turned opposition politician Garry Kasparov in RFE/RL's Moscow studios during a previous interview.
Former world chess champion and current Kremlin gadfly Garry Kasparov sat down recently with RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Ibragim Bayamduroglu to talk about the Russian political landscape. In a wide-ranging interview, Kasparov interprets Vladimir Putin's vision, cites a Russian tendency toward authoritarianism and its effect on the region, and skewers the idea of a "pro-Russian" Ukrainian president.

RFE/RL: In one of your interviews, I stumbled across a definition of "sovereign democracy" that was coined in the "ideological laboratory" of the Russian presidential administration. Accordingly, Baku came up with a similar formula: "consolidated democracy." Do you think that the Putin regime is exporting ideological matrices to the countries of the former Soviet Union, and that we are actually dealing with a gigantic network of agents of influence in form of authoritarian regimes in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other states?

Garry Kasparov: In my opinion, using different kinds of epithets and adjectives in connection with the word democracy is a sign of mere hypocrisy, to put it mildly. Either there's democracy, or there isn't. Diluting the meaning with all sorts of attributes makes no sense to me at all.

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, being under the control of the USSR, would call their states "people's republics." The sham that is currently going on in the states of the former Soviet Union is due to the fact that the politicians in power are eager to polish up their image abroad. In contrast to the Soviet Union, these contacts are very important nowadays -- when it comes to the political stability of such regimes as well as for the personal welfare of the main actors.

Everyone is concerned about his niche, his name, and wants to adapt the concept to so-called national characteristics. But at the end of the day, it's all the same.

We know that the governments in most of the successor states formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union are replaced through a process of regular elections.

There are exceptions of course, like for instance the Baltic States, which are members of the European Union, together with Ukraine and Moldova, as well. In those countries, the governments have been reformed as a result of elections. Now, those elections take place under utterly complicated circumstances wherein opponents constantly accuse each other but the government is replaced nevertheless after the elector has made his choice.

With some reservation, it can be said that certain democratic elements are present in Georgia as well; but it is very clear that the government has to pronounce its explicit wish to resign before something is going to happen. On the western front, only Belarus is an exception.
Russia's inclination toward authoritarianism undoubtedly strengthened the leaders in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan, as they are afraid of normal democratic procedures.

As for the eastern part of the former Soviet Union, the picture is rather uniform. Authoritarian structures prevail to differing extents. But we can still determine certain regularities, and the role of Russia is not to be underestimated. It is clear that we would have the same situation in Tajikistan and, let's say, Uzbekistan without the direct influence of Russia. However, Russia's inclination toward authoritarianism undoubtedly strengthened the leaders in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan, as they are afraid of normal democratic procedures.

Caucasus 'Stability'

RFE/RL: Could you give us a detailed assessment of the future of democracy in the South Caucasus? Which scenario do you expect with regard to democracy in the next three to five years?

Kasparov: Besides problems of traditional societies, the Caucasus has to cope with quite a few unsettled territorial conflicts that also nurture authoritarian governmental structures. It is obvious, that the Karabakh conflict has a strong influence on the political climate both in Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is obvious, too, that the Azerbaijani leadership can capitalize indefinitely on this topic to underpin its legitimacy even in a situation in which democratic institutions are virtually eliminated.

In Armenia, the power de facto belongs to those who opted to take violent action in Karabakh. We are dealing with a military dictatorship that utilizes some kind of democratic procedures. It is quite clear, however, that there won't be any real changes with the current clan structure having seized power in the course of the Karabakh conflict.

Similarly, the situation in Georgia is determined by the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While we must acknowledge the reforms initiated by Mikheil Saakashvili that drastically lowered the level of corruption and authoritarian structures in the Georgian state, under the above-mentioned circumstances, the ruling elite must keep a firm grip on the country.

This means that it is rather difficult to envisage a scenario that could change the domestic situation in the countries of the South Caucasus without solving the problems constantly hindering normal cooperation in the region. And then there's the blazing Russian Caucasus, with an ongoing war all against all, which is not to be neglected.

At the northern border of Azerbaijan, Daghestan by no means contributes to the democratization of the Caucasus. If we look to the south, to Iran, which cannot be "accused" of excess democratic zeal -- it goes without saying that the unstable situation does not prepare the ground for a democratic development.

The slightest sign of stability is used by local authoritarian leaders to bargain for the sympathies of Western countries that are, for the sake of a balanced relationship, bound to turn a blind eye to obvious, blatant violations of human rights and the deconstruction of democratic institutions in these countries.

RFE/RL: Will Russia take immediate military action against Azerbaijan if [President] Ilham Aliyev, exercising the right to self-defense under the UN Charter, tries to bring to a partial end the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia?

Kasparov: I reckon that there won't be an intervention in the near future, because Georgia's military adventure revealed the weakness of the Russian army. Furthermore, the international repercussions were shattering to some extent -- there is no intention to repeat operations of such kind in the future.
Yanukovych's electoral victory clearly demonstrated that there are no pro-Russian politicians in the Ukraine, just Ukrainian politicians.

We shouldn't forget that in the case of Georgia, a problem was done away with that bothered Putin personally -- that is, the security during the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Security not in the sense of a guaranteed absence of a terror attack, but in pursuing the aim of moving hot spots of possible conflict farther from the site of the Olympic Games, which are to be held a stone's throw from Abkhazia -- that is, in de jure Georgia. Putin intended to provide for a broad safety corridor. That's why Abkhazia was a more important and desired goal of Russian aggression against Georgia than South Ossetia, which merely served as a pretext. Concerns mainly centered on the Crimea.

Yanukovych's electoral victory clearly demonstrated that there are no pro-Russian politicians in the Ukraine, just Ukrainian politicians. The fact that the newly elected president of Ukraine is going to pay his first state visit not to Moscow but to Brussels underpins the vector of Ukrainian politics. This means that we needn't expect any adventures or serious deteriorations in that direction.

Putin's Russia is only indirectly concerned with the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a means of maintaining its sphere of influence. I doubt that Russia will meddle. Moreover, I'm quite sure that Ilham Aliyev won't decide to carry out any serious action -- it's not in his interest. He's learned his lesson very well -- threaten to take action but never act on such words. This allows him to almost endlessly work on strengthening his position. I think Ilham Aliyev is very successful at that.

RFE/RL: When it comes to the "Asian mentality," what in your opinion is the biggest obstacle to overcome on the way to democratic values, functioning democracy, a market economy, and civil society -- in other words, to what basically equates to the matrix of the Western civilization?

Kasparov: This, of course, is a far-reaching question that has to be investigated thoroughly. Treatises on the topic are legion.

To a certain degree, that's because of the evolution of traditional society over the course of many centuries. These traditions are closely intertwined, with religion leaving its mark on the system of intrasocietal relations. But it is quite difficult to establish a clear-cut cause-and-effect relationship, as the causes are manifold and closely connected.

It is simply not correct to link the level of democracy to prosperity. It is absolutely clear that the economic wealth of Saudi Arabia exceeds the performance of the Czech Republic. But apparently democracy is quite stable in the Czech Republic, which cannot be said about Saudi Arabia. As we delve into the past, we must not forget about the existing model of society.

If we look at statistical data, we see that Protestant countries in terms of economic development are more successful than those observing Catholicism. There is coherence, after all, among different societal factors. Most likely, the system of mutual relations that has evolved in Eastern Europe and Asia corresponds to another level of governance.

But again, I would not draw definitive conclusions from that. If we look at South and North Korea, it is pretty hard to believe that we're dealing with the same people. Half of the people are forced to live in a concentration camp; the other have created one of the most dynamic economies in the world.

Or if we look at everybody's darling, China, there is an analogue called Taiwan that is inhabited by the Chinese as well. But the standard of living and of innovation of the Taiwanese economy cannot be compared with the Chinese growth rate. We can't attribute a long history of democratic traditions to Japan, either, but today Japan boasts a fully-fledged democracy in which governments change according to democratic procedures. It's no coincidence that the Taiwanese, Japanese, and South Korean economies are among the most innovative in Asia.
I don't think that nature envisaged an insurmountable mechanism that would hinder any country from taking the path of democratic development.

I don't think that nature envisaged an insurmountable mechanism that would hinder any country from taking the path of democratic development. When considering the Islamic world, Turkey is the best example of a country where democracy irreversibly gained a foothold despite religious and cultural traditions still respected today. With some reservation, this can be said about Pakistan, too, where we can observe dynamic political processes going on [and] governments change as a result of elections. In my opinion, it is up to the ruling elite to initiate cardinal changes.

Unfortunately, in Russia this "Asian mentality," as you put it, still comes to the fore. But at the same time, it is obvious that there is a certain orientation toward the West. In the end, this is a fragile balancing act between the Asian manner of governance and high living standards that are guaranteed through Western technology.

RFE/RL: Do Putin and Medvedev have a strategic vision for the future? In your opinion, to what extent is the West, and especially the United States, influenced by Putin's assets, which are pumped into the Western markets? And is the West therefore holding back its criticism and pressure, particularly in emergency situations such as the Russia-Georgia conflict?

Kasparov: We have a saying that a stranger's soul is like a black box. Which is why I would not want to analyze Putin's psychological motivations. At any time the atmosphere in the West could change, for which determined political will I do not see at the moment is a necessary prerequisite. From the sidelines, it seems that he's caught up in his own exorbitant ambitions.

I can't think of a scenario under which he would gradually resign from power. For him and those around him, power became a source of unlimited enrichment. A loss of power would be tantamount to an annihilation of the economic success that has been achieved so far.

The downfall of democratic institutions in Russia doesn't add to the self-confidence of either Putin or his friends, as the loss of power could lead to repercussions in Russian society. A new government, not necessarily a democratically elected one, undoubtedly would clamp down on these insurgents.

This traditionally happens in Russia and in every other undemocratic country as well -- the quest for a scapegoat won't be long, either. The easiest way to find a scapegoat is to ascribe that role to former governments. The only game Putin can play is to establish a lifelong dictatorship in the country, at first de facto and finally also de jure. In this case, Medvedev is an interim figure bound to assist Putin in his plan to guarantee a smooth transition to a new term in office.

A different story is that this situation might be uncomfortable or even unacceptable to a large part of the Russian elite, because nobody gave their consent to a lifelong reign for Putin. The handover of power to [Dmitry] Medvedev was rather painless, everybody thought that the waves would calm automatically. By now, it's quite clear that Putin doesn't want to relinquish the levers of power.

Quite frankly, I have to admit that with regard to the enormous financial assets and funds of Russian leaders in Western banks and on stock markets, the chances for the West to exert influence on Russia are quite low. I doubt that Western leaders are willing to exert pressure. I would not exclude an intervention in case of a crisis. But we must not forget the effort undertaken by the ruling elite in Russia to manipulate Western politicians, businessmen as well as journalists. That's why Putin's "fifth column" is that powerful in the West.

Furthermore, a large portion of the assets of leading Russian figures is mixed, meaning that it is not quite clear how to counter this development. Rosneft, for instance, was mainly built upon capital stolen from [jailed oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky's company, but the IPO was successful with many Western corporations investing in it. This means that it is extremely difficult to detect these assets in their pure form.

At a certain point, the atmosphere in the West could change. But I don't see determined political will [for that] at the moment.

RFE/RL: Russian history is saddening. Irina Khakamada once said that "Russia's history equals a centuries-long contempt of the ruling class for their own people." As a result, Russia is trapped in the vicious circle of "dictatorship-revolution-restoration-dictatorship," preventing Russia from setting foot on the path of sustainable, irreversible democratization. What must happen to break this vicious circle? Can this only be done by reformatting the very statehood to a wholly new paradigm?

Kasparov: In my opinion, this vicious circle will be broken by history itself. Because sticking to the current form of governance, which is to say guaranteeing the survival of Putin's regime, will necessarily lead to the demise of Russia within its present borders. The Far East and Eastern Siberia are already developing according to a Chinese scenario, the full scope of which will be revealed in the near future. In the next 10 to 15 years, a lot of Russian territories will become at least de facto Chinese. This will change the situation in Russia fundamentally.
Sticking to the current form of governance, which is to say guaranteeing the survival of Putin's regime, will necessarily lead to the demise of Russia within its present borders.

Furthermore, the situation in the North Caucasus is rather unstable. Mutual relations and the cooperation between Putin and [Ramzan] Kadyrov, the high price that has been paid to buy the loyalty of the local elite through an enormous tribute of multibillion[-ruble] investments, all this cannot be an arrangement for good. The situation in the region can easily get out of control if the capital inflow is interrupted. It is apparent, even when leaving democratic institutions and values aside for a moment, that Putin's regime has led the country down a blind alley. Our task is to usher in a shift of paradigms, a new foundation.

It is hard to judge how to achieve this, but we know for sure that this has to be done. We need to strive for a consensus among the main political forces in Russia. I tried to come up with a definition of this new paradigm in six articles entitled "Russia after Putin." I would consider Russia's integration into Europe the most important element of this strategy. In the event that we don't want to lose the Far East and Siberia, we need a united Europe. This is a difficult, non-linear process. But we don't have a choice. A united democratic Eurasian continent welded together by common economic interests is our only hope and contribution to stability in the world. If we fail, I fear that Russia in its present form is in for the most serious of upheavals -- the outcome of which is extremely unpredictable.

When declaring that disintegration is unlikely, we should remember that about 20 years ago nobody would have expected events to speed up and get out of control. We are living in a world where major states and large geopolitical projects have to prove their competitive edge. It is clear, as well, that with regard to the intensifying American-Chinese confrontation and the inert power of a united Europe, Russia has to make up its mind -- because it is losing ground as an independent center of power.