Garry Kasparov is best known as the world’s greatest living chess player. Since retiring from professional chess a decade ago, he has emerged as one of Russia’s most visible and vociferous critics of Vladimir Putin.
This week he was in Toronto to speak in the Grano Series on why the West should rethink its strategy for dealing with an insurgent Russia. Afterward, he fielded questions for Globe readers.
Is Putin satisfied with the gains he has made in Crimea and the stalemate in Eastern Ukraine, or were this summer’s events a prelude, with more to come?
It is a prelude because Putin has a domestic audience that he is playing to with these gains. His goal is to stay in power. If you are in power for 15 years and you made clear you would like to stay for the rest of your life, you have to convince people that you have something to offer. The shaky Russian economy is no longer a reason. Hence there’s a need for more drastic actions to justify his claim for power: Vladimir the Great, the collector of Russian lands, unifier of a divided empire … I don’t see how he can backpedal because a dictator can afford many things except one, weakness. The moment he shows weakness he’s no longer all powerful, invincible leader who cannot be challenged. He has to push forward with his agenda … there’s no way back.
You blame the “incompetence and indifference of the western world” for encouraging Putin to reveal his true nature. Can you expand on this?
Dictators of Putin’s magnitude are always testing waters. They can always smell weakness and, if they see the room for them to advance, they do it. So the question a dictator of Putin’s calibre asks is not why, he asks why not? This is the way Putin thinks. He plays by the rules only if he finds it’s convenient and profitable. But the moment that he finds that brute force is more beneficial, he immediately switches to this algorithm. The West needs to send a much stronger message back to his inner circle, to the Russian ruling class, that there will be a steep price for what is happening – everybody will pay, not only Putin. Only then will Putin think twice about this actions.
You are a staunch critic, but fellow Russians enthusiastically support Putin’s policies. Are your views on the fringe of public opinion?
Putin’s popularity is based on the polls conducted by anonymous callers. Do you expect people in Russia to be honest with somebody who phones them and asks if they support Putin? Most people being polled were born and raised in the Soviet Union, and anyone over 40 still has a good memory of that time and they’re being asked their views about a dictator, a former KGB lieutenant-colonel.
I’m consistently surprised that 20 per cent or more give a negative answer.
Looking at the sweep of Russian history, there is very little if any democracy. Why shouldn’t we see Putin’s model as the norm for Russia, one that is unlikely to change?
It’s a serious argument and it reflects the very unfortunate chapters of Russian history. But it also ignores the fact that there were quite a few examples in the 20th century where the nations transformed themselves into prosperous and free democracies. For me, the Korean experience is illustrative. North Korea is a modern slave state. The whole country’s a gulag and the worst kind of dictatorship. And in the south, you have liberal democracy, market economy and individual freedom. North and South Koreans are not even cousins; they are brothers and sisters. When you offer people liberty and you have responsible government that lets its citizens speak freely, start enterprises, encourage individual initiative, you have South Korea. If you move in the opposite direction you have the North. Contemporary Russian society is no different.
The recent decline in energy prices, oil in particular, looks like more than just a blip. How big a threat is this to Putin?
We know from the history of the Soviet Union, Russia, that oil prices influence the political direction of the country. Very low oil prices in mid eighties definitely caused, if not a demise of the Soviet Union, problems that encouraged [former leader Mikhail] Gorbachev to implementperestroika.
It is no coincidence that, when oil prices rose, Putin thought he had the political latitude to become more authoritarian at home and bellicose abroad. Will a new downward cycle in oil prices stop Putin immediately, I don’t know. But it is a serious issue for many of the VIPs surrounding Putin and could led them to reconsider their allegiance to the regime.
You live in New York City now. Will you return to Russia any time soon?
For me, travel to Russia would be a one-way ticket and I always buy round-trip. People who actively opposed the regime are in immigration detention or behind bars or under house arrest. They are not free to move around if they stay in Russia. Leaving was a difficult decision but it was the only one I had.
Do you miss being a professional chess player?
Life after chess was a difficult transition because, when you play the game, you have a very simple way to measure success or failure. You win or lose. The fight for democratic and human rights in Russia is different. There is no objective measurement. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s just do what you must do, and so be it. I had to make this adjustment in myself. It is a noble and worthwhile fight.
Rudyard Griffths is a Toronto writer and a co-organizer of the Grano speaking series.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.