Former chess champion Garry Kasparov is too busy on the phone to answer the door of his mother’s apartment just off Moscow’s historic Old Arbat street. Instead, his elegantly attired mother, Klara, appears. Fifty minutes later she announces the interview’s end, and Kasparov rushes off to another meeting to plan a soft revolution against his nemesis, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.
Five years ago, Russia ignored Kasparov’s warnings against Putin’s creeping authoritarianism: The sparsely attended rallies his group organized were brutally broken up by police. In 2008 he and other reformers founded Solidarity, an umbrella group of liberal opposition movements. Kasparov pressed on, attacking the regime on his blog and website as well as on radio.
Then came Putin’s September announcement that he would run for President in March to retake the office he held from 2000 to 2008. Middle-class Russians suddenly woke up. Mass protests rocked Moscow a week after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, which were tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. On Dec. 24, Kasparov addressed a rally in the capital that drew tens of thousands onto the streets for the second time in a few weeks. “Less than a month ago there was a different country,” he says. “The next three months could contribute to more dramatic changes.”
Although the opposition to Putin, a loose coalition ranging from nationalists to Solidarity’s liberals, has no real leader, Kasparov is the only one in the movement who commands global recognition. He is also part of a key triumvirate organizing the protests.
Solidarity insists that the government dissolve Parliament now and delay the Mar. 4 presidential vote to hold new elections under more democratic rules. Putin has tried to appease the protesters while rejecting their key demand of annulling the results of the December parliamentary vote, which handed a wafer-thin majority to the ruling party. Outgoing President Dmitry A. Medvedev is enacting laws to ensure greater competition in national elections scheduled for 2016 and 2018. Putin’s ex-Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, has held out the possibility of new parliamentary polls in 18 months or two years.
“Obviously, they will be working on different countermoves,” says Kasparov, who became the youngest world chess champion at age 22 and was a top player for 18 years. “We have a lot of ingredients for change, but we also have a very powerful system that wants anything but change.” Like other activists, Kasparov has spent time in jail. He employs a bodyguard who controls access to his mother’s place, while his wife and 5-year-old daughter live in New York.
The risk now for Putin is that the authorities will resort to fraud to ensure him a convincing first-round victory. If that happens, more protests likely will erupt, weakening him. Alexei Navalny, 35, a blogger who targets corruption at state companies and was jailed briefly last month, is already calling for a million people to rally across the country in February. Navalny, an ally of Solidarity but not a member, makes no secret of his presidential ambitions. He “is smart, intelligent, well-educated, and a person who is liked by a lot of Russians,” says Kasparov.
If Putin is concerned about the opposition’s show of strength, he isn’t showing it, says Sergei Markov, a former lawmaker in the Prime Minister’s United Russia Party who is an adviser to the Kremlin. “Putin has a very tough stance, he’s very sure of himself, and he’s sure of the support of the majority of the population,” says Markov. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, says the Prime Minister is convinced he will win outright, which requires more than 50 percent support. “Any campaign which doesn’t have as its aim victory on the first round is a bad campaign,” he says.
“It’s a mistaken strategy, a very risky one. Putin can win on the first round only with large-scale manipulation, but no one will believe in it,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin adviser until his removal after backing a second presidential term for Medvedev. “Putin will be denied a clean victory, and he will be a lame duck from the first days of his presidency. This is very dangerous.” Putin could get as little as 36 percent of the vote, according to a Dec. 16-20 survey by independent pollster Levada Center, or as much as 45 percent, according to a Dec. 24-25 poll by the state-run All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
The opposition may struggle to keep up its protests, given the fragility of the coalition. Boris Nemtsov, a co-founder of Solidarity, is a rival of Navalny’s, for example. “The ambitions of political figures is what is holding us back,” says Yury Saprykin, a journalist who helped organized the Dec. 24 protest. He says he’s not sure he wants to help organize more rallies.
Kasparov says he sees an end to Russia’s strongman, who ridiculed the protesters by comparing the white ribbons they wore to condoms. “He still believes that with a few dirty jokes and the demonstration of his muscles, he can get it back. But he’s standing in the way of history.”