Gary Kasparov is one of those brave and honorable men that Russia throws up against the odds in every generation. Aged 44, he is the former world chess champion, and leads a group called United Civil Front, a pretty miniscule part of the already miniscule opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov and his group wanted to hold a protest demonstration in Moscow. Permission was refused. Some hundreds held the protest just the same, and were met by 9,000 riot police. 9,000! That’s a military operation. As Kasparov later observed, it places Russia somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe on the dictatorship scale.
They arrested Kasparov, of course, and about 170 others. After holding Kasparov for ten hours, they fined him a thousand roubles – about $80 – and let him go. The money was a token, they had made their point. Now he has a criminal record, so next time they can imprison him as a regular offender.
Why is Putin drawing a line under Russia’s brief experiment with democracy? Some say that he is taking advance measures to fix the presidential election due next year, either to have an extra unconstitutional term himself, or to fix it for a stooge. Others think that he resents the American projection of power in the world so strongly that he is determined to restore the Cold War, and this can be done only by a Russia with authoritarian powers. It could also be the usual Kremlin fear of plots. Boris Berezovsky, the one-time oligarch who facilitated Putin’s rise to power but broke with him and settled in exile in Britain, just declared that Putin has to be overthrown. In classic Leninist language he said, “We need to use force. There can be no change without force, pressure.” Soon afterwards, he explained that the change he had in mind would be bloodless. Still, this was quite enough for the Kremlin to demand the extradition of Berezovsky and to panic the masters of the pre-emptive cringe in the British Foreign Office. The Russian authorities are busy trying to set him up as the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210 last November. They’d dearly love to send him and Kasparov off in freight cars to faraway Siberia, to join others there who have failed to please Putin. The fate of Kasparov is actually a litmus test for this increasingly odious regime.