Russia's unequal struggle

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
17 May 2007

I met Marina Litvinovich for the first time when she was in her early 20s, in 1999. Times were difficult. Boris Yeltsin's era was about to end, and Russia was getting ready for parliamentary and presidential elections. Marina was hired by Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin advisor, as part of the campaign aimed at stopping the coalition between Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Russia's ex-prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who believed they had a serious chance to gain power.

A tall blonde woman, sitting behind her computer and smoking one cigarette after another, she kept telling me in her cubbyhole office at Zubovski Boulevard how bad it would be for Russia if the forces behind Yuri Luzhkov ever succeeded in this aim.

"Moscow is an oligarchy full of corruption. Luzhkov controls the local media. It would be terrible if he became president of Russia. I would not want to live in a country ruled by these people. They would never respect democratic principles." Her imaginative and creative PR helped to stop the Luzhkov-Primakov political offensive.

Marina paid a high price for her activity; it did not help her that she worked for an organisation hired by the Kremlin. She was seriously beaten up by assailants waiting for her in front of her house on Malaya Bronnaya street in the centre of Moscow.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich's Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

"The Russian politics of vodka"
(7 December 2006)

Marina Litvinovich is undeterred. Several years later, she is now one of the leading anti-Putin opposition figures, a close aide of Garry Kasparov, the Kremlin's most outspoken critic. Marina is not the only one who at first believed the ex-KGB colonel would continue the legacy of democratic transformation, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and continued by Boris Yeltsin until he resigned in the end of 1999. So did Andrei Illarionov, Putin's former economic advisor, who now doesn't waste any opportunity to explain how much his ex-boss destroyed the foundations of Russian democracy and the market economy.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who headed the Russian cabinet during Vladimir Putin's first term and whose contribution to the rebirth of the country's economy could not be questioned, now says the president's autocratic policy could have devastating consequences for Russia. The mutual disenchantment of these figures with Vladimir Putin is so great that they agreed to cooperate with a most unlikely ally, punk writer and leader of the National-Bolshevik Party Eduard Limonov, who now instead of promoting radical-right ideas calls for the restoration of civilised, democratic principles.

Their voices were best heard during the "marches of dissent" organised in St Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod in March-April 2007 and brutally dispersed by special-forces militia. The next one is planned in Samara, one of the country's largest industrial centres, situated in southeastern European Russia on the banks of the Volga river.

Its timing was not chosen by chance. Putin's opponents want international public opinion to support them, so the demonstration was planned to coincide with the European Union-Russia summit on 18 May 2007. More such actions are being prepared. The coalition called "The Other Russia", with Garry Kasparov as a prominent leader, wants to mobilise Russians against growing autocratic tendencies in the country in the approach to parliamentary (December 2007 and presidential (March 2008) elections.

Chess vs yoga

The 43-year-old chess champion turned dissident doesn't feel discouraged on hearing that Russians know very little of his coalition and that compared to Vladimir Putin its popularity rating is very low. He remembers well that in August 1968 only seven people had enough courage to come to Red Square to protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia; twenty years later millions were even more radical than the Czechs and Slovaks in their criticism of Soviet autocracy.

For Garry Kasparov's struggle against Putin's Kremlin is not one more chess game he intends to play. In his eyes, it is more like roulette as the authorities keep changing rules of the game all the time. He is clear, sharp and far from diplomatic in his criticism of the present regime of members of the Duma ("puppets and clowns") and of Putin personally.

In the Kremlin's actions Kasparov sees no extenuating circumstances. The regime controlled by ex-KGB buddies has strangled free media, reshaped the election system to strip its opponents of any chance of climbing up the ladder of power, and concentrated all economic power in the country in its hands.

The Kremlin's primitive foreign policy, Kasparov continues, tries to intimidate and blackmail governments of post-Soviet republics such as Georgia or Ukraine which have chosen the path of democratic reforms. The evidence of an orchestrated "cyberwar" against Estonia - in the wake of the bitter dispute over the relocation of a monument in Tallinn to wartime Soviet heroism - is the latest indication of this trend.

Russia's top oligarchs - Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg, Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov, Vagit Alekperov and Karimov - can claim to possess vast fortunes collectively worth around $100 billion dollars, says Kasparov: but the richest of them all is Vladimir Putin.

Kasparov's argument is given point by the rhetorical question he threw out in an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel: "How much do you think the man is worth who has the power to throw them all into prison on the same day?"

Kasparov is no latecomer to politics. For twenty years he has been a consistent supporter of democratic choice in Russia. Even in his world chess championship contests against his arch-rival Anatoly Karpov (known for his conservative, pro-communist views), Kasparov manifested this political position. As early as 2001, only a few months after Vladimir Putin was elected president for the first time in March 2000, he began trying - after a change of heart - to raise the alarm among the international community.

In a 4 January 2001 column for the Wall Street Journal titled "I was wrong about Putin", Kasparov wrote:

President Putin's KGB roots have sadly informed a style of governance that is neither reformist nor particularly democratic. The common thread throughout his domestic and foreign policies is his effort to trade on fear - the fears of Russians that their country is under attack from hostile external forces (Chechens, NATO or free marketeers); and the fears of Westerners that if not for a strong, pragmatic leader, Russia will again become unruly, unstable and potentially aggressive. Instead of beating down the real hostile forces in Russia - corruption, ignorance, a bloated state - Mr Putin cleverly changes the rules of the game."

After retiring from professional chess in 2004 to focus on politics after the crushing defeat of the democratic parties at the parliamentary elections of that year, he was one of the founders of the Committee 2008. To this broad coalition of democratic activists it was clear that the Kremlin achieved its success using administrative power and unfair manipulation of public opinion; thus, the struggle for fair and free presidential elections in 2008 had to be started as early as possible. By 2005, Kasparov deepened his involvement in politics by creating his own organisation, United Civic Front.

He is not afraid of the authorities (though fears on behalf of his family are something else). It would be impossible to fabricate against him the kind of charges which allowed the Kremlin to send Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, to prison; in this respect Kasparov's international reputation is his best shield. But just in case, he doesn't never leaves his house without a team of personal bodyguards.

Also in openDemocracy on Russian politics and civil society:

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya … and Politkovskaya"
(12 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report"
(25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe"
(30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire"
(3 May 2007)

Floriana Fossato, "Russia's restricted voices"
(10 May 2007)

A cold winter

The Kremlin propaganda machine is relentless in its criticism of Kasparov. It presents him as a puppet of the ex-oligarchs Leonid Nevzlin and Boris Berezovsky. The authorities accuse both these men of being criminals who escaped from Russiato avoid justice and are now seeking revenge by ruining the stability of the country's political life. Some press publications have worked to uncover allegedly questionable behaviour in Kasparov's private life; other sources busily inform Moscow's western partners of The Other Russia's marginal and insignificant support (though a report by the respected polling institute the Livada Center in May 2007 found that more and more people are at least becoming aware of the radical opposition's activities).

The Kremlin's low propaganda has been supplemented by harsher tactics. During the "march of dissent" on Moscow on 14 April, Kasparov was arrested, interrogated and fined. The Russian prosecutor's office made an attempt to deprive his attorney Galina Moskalenko of her professional status and prevent her from practicing law.

For Kasparov, the Kremlin's brutality is evidence of its weakness and vulnerability. But this may not be true: it could be that the Kremlin feels so strong that it believes it no longer has to pay attention to western reactions even when it uses heavy-handed tactics against the opposition.

Kasparov says he will not give up. That doesn't mean running for the presidency himself in 2008. All he wants - he told Forbes - is to have a government that obeys the constitution. But that entails the need "to ensure free and fair presidential elections in 2008 and to dismantle the Putin kleptocracy that has hijacked the democratic process, the media and every aspect of civil society in Russia in order to enrich itself at the expense of the vast majority of Russians."

Today, Marina Litvinovich regrets having worked for Putin and his PR advisor Gleb Pavlovsky. She can hardly believe the degree to which her worries about the Luzhkov-Primakov alliance have materialised - but under a regime that she at first supported. The oligarchy she was so much afraid of won anyway; corruption grew; and the secret services came to control nearly all walks of Russian life.

She realised the depth of her original error during the Beslan school tragedy in September 2004, in which more than 300 children lost their lives. Since then few people have made as many efforts as Marina to find out what really happened and why. She is now the editor of the Beslan Truth website, the best source of information on all aspects of the Beslan siege. She hopes her present activity will in its way secure her forgiveness for past misjudgments.

Marina Litvinovich has again paid for her courage: in March 2006 she was beaten up by unknown attackers near her office. But she does not complain; other people have paid a much higher price for their opposition to the present regime.

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