The Kasparov Opening: a short life of the Committee 2008

Some Western media call former chess master Garry Kasparov the leader of the Russian “democratic opposition.”  In contrast, many ordinary Russians consider him to be no more than an attention-craving trouble-maker.  It is important to understand the origin of this discrepancy.  It highlights the limits of Western understanding of the role played by the anti-Putin opposition, which Kasparov represents, in today’s Russian political landscape.  It also reflects a deep – and still deepening – crisis of the Russian liberal movement that finds itself so isolated from the Russian people.   

Kasparov’s recent re-entry into public life coincided with the birth of the so-called Committee 2008.  In January 2004, a handful of liberal-minded journalists, politicians, and human right activists expressed, at a news conference, their concern about the state of democracy and the growing authoritarianism of President Putin in Russia. 

Conceding that the March 2004 re-election of Putin for the second term was simply a “technical formality,” the participants announced the formation of the “Committee 2008: Free Choice.”  The announced goal of the Committee was to ensure the democratic transition of the presidential power in 2008 by preventing Putin from staying in office indefinitely. Kasparov became the Committee’s chairman.

One cannot deny a certain degree of political and moral clarity in the Committee’s statements and actions, especially early on.  On March 2, on the eve of the presidential election, the Committee suggested to all registered presidential candidates to withdraw.  It also called on all “responsible and free-minded” voters to boycott the election.

In the end of August, the Committee joined the Communists and the Yabloko party in an appeal to the Supreme Court to annul the results of the 2003 State Duma election, which the Committee characterized as “unfair and fraudulent.”  In the course of 2004, the Committee had issued a number of statements about the situation in Chechnya, alleging that “Putin’s policies were the major reason for the Chechen war.”

Interestingly, shortly after the formation of the Committee, Eduard Limonov, the head of the National_Bolshevik_Party, approached it with an offer of cooperation.  Limonov suggested that the Committee would generate “ideas” which NBP “fighters” would be putting to practice.  Limonov’s advance was immediately rebuked by the Committee co-founder, Victor Shenderovich.  In a harshly-worded response, Shenderovich indicated that the Committee had nothing in common with the NBP whose methods (“egg throwing”) it considered repulsive.

It was not until the end of April 2004 that the Committee had finally identified a trademark issue that for the rest of its term remained its de facto mission.  The Committee announced that it will spearhead the formation of a coalition democratic party capable of winning the 2007 Duma election and 2008 presidential election.

Crucial to understanding the Committee’s approach was the concept of “primaries.”  Conceived as a country-wide public poll of liberal politicians, the primaries were supposed to determine their personal order on the federal electoral list for the 2007 Duma election.  It was also agreed that the number one on the list was to automatically become candidate for the presidential election in 2008.

Some aspects of the primaries process seemed to be more appropriate for an underground criminal group, rather than for a liberal political party.  For example, everyone who took part in the primaries could not challenge final results and could not leave the coalition without explicit approval by the Committee.  The participants of the primaries were also prohibited from any “separate” negotiations with the Kremlin.

The Committee has also addressed an important question of leadership.  It named a group of “democratic politicians” without whom the very idea of creating a liberal party simply “did not make sense.”  There were five of them: Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada (all four the Committee members), and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko. 

Looking back, it is clear that from the very beginning, the Committee had made a number of wrong assumptions.  First, the Committee members were firmly convinced that the newly-elected constitutional majority in the Duma would seek to change the Constitution to extend Putin’s presidency, most likely, by cancelling the 2008 election entirely.  Testifying before the Helsinki Commission in the US Congress on May 20, 2004, Kasparov said: “We [the Committee] have no doubt that Putin will use all the available to him resources to stay in power in 2008 … The constitutional majority in the parliament gives him an opportunity to change the rules at any time and create the conditions allowing him to stay in power for an additional term or indefinitely…”  When it became apparent that no constitutional changes were in the making and Putin, on numerous occasions, has indicated his desire to step down at the end of his second term, the credibility of the Committee – perhaps, its very raison d’etre – took a significant hit.   

Second, the Committee members believed that their actions will find broad popular support throughout the country.  It took them just a handful of trips out of Moscow to realize how unwelcome was their explicit anti-Putin position in the regions where ordinary people overwhelmingly supported the popular president.    

Third, they persuaded themselves that there was a growing dissatisfaction with the Putin regime and that the “critical protest mass” is rapidly accumulating in the society.  So much so that on a number of occasions, Kasparov predicted that Putin will be ousted of the office before the end of his second term.  During the mass protests in January 2005 that followed the implementation of the law on monetization of social benefits, Kasparov boldly promised that Putin’s days in the Kremlin were numbered.

Facing the lack of any real results of the Committee activities, Kasparov began using increasingly radical rhetoric.  He was very critical of Western leaders, especially Schroeder and Chirac, for being too “soft” on Putin.  He demanded that Russia be expelled from the G8 and he further suggested that foreign bank accounts of the members of the current Russian political elites were used as a leverage to press the Putin administration into “concessions.” 

Kasparov has reserved his harshest words personally for Putin.  Addressing the Baltic Forum for Development in Hamburg on September 13, 2004, he described Putin as “exemplary Stalinist.”  Later, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he called Putin a “fascist.”

History could have been indulgent to such vocabulary excesses had the Committee succeeded in its major goal: the creation of a united liberal party.  But it is exactly where the Committee has failed so spectacularly.   

Truth be told, at the beginning of 2005, it did seem that such a party was about to emerge.  Documents emanating from the Committee showed that the prospective party was supposed to be built from three major blocks: Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko (represented in the Committee by Sergei Ivanenko and Nemtsov) and a “third force” represented by Kasparov and Ryzhkov. 

Despite significant original skepticism, SPS and Yabloko were moving toward unification; the only unresolved issue was which party would provide a “template” for such unification.  At some point, the agreement looked so much in reach that even patriarchal Yavlinsky descended from his Olympus and took part in a Committee meeting.

It’s customary to put the blame for the failure of unification on the leaders of SPS and Yabloko, with Yavlinsky usually taking a lion’s share of the blame.  However, the examination of the Committee’s documents revealed the destructive role played by Kasparov and Ryzhkov.  The two didn’t believe that the new party should use either SPS or Yabloko as a “template.”  They favored the creation of a new party from scratch, growing it from the regions.  They also spoke about the “maximum renovation” of the democratic leadership, insisting that the “real leaders” should emerge as the party grows from the bottom up.  Naturally, by “real leaders,” they meant themselves.

Having come to the negotiation table without political organizations of their own, Kasparov and Ryzhkov demanded the leadership positions in the prospective party.  When the SPS and Yabloko leadership called their bluff, the “third force” provoked the collapse of the negotiations.   

The first sign of trouble appeared at the end of January 2005, when a rumor spread that Kasparov and Ryzhkov gave up on the idea of a unified party and decided instead to create a brand new one, starting in the regions.  On February 10, speaking at a meeting in Krasnoyarsk, Ryzhkov confirmed this was true.

But the official end of the Committee did not come until April 7, when it issued a statement articulating the obvious: the creation of the unified “democratic” party was impossible.

In an interview with journalists, Kasparov promised a rapid formation of a new political structure, of which he and Ryzhkov would be co-chairmen.  But the centrifugal winds blowing within the liberal camp were too strong to keep together even its building blocks. 

At the end of April, Ryzhkov suddenly parted with Kasparov and joined the Republican Party.  This move seemed to have reflected growing differences between the two, with Ryzhkov getting reportedly frustrated with Kasparov’s overly aggressive anti-Putin rhetoric. 

Unfazed, Kasparov called all existing political parties, including the Republican, “political corps” and promised to build a completely new political movement composed of people who “never were in any political parties before.”

In June 2005, Kasparov’s United Civil Front was born.  The very name of Kasparov’s new project perfectly reflected his state of mind at the time.  He did not need a party; he needed a front.

Also published on Johnson’s Russia List (2007-#136, June 17, 2007) and featured on  Russia Profile (http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=CDI+Russia+Profile+List&articleid=a1182180001)

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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One Response to The Kasparov Opening: a short life of the Committee 2008

  1. Jesse Heath says:

    Great article! Why don’t SPS and Yabloko unite, though? If they replicate their performance from the 2003 elections, they could collectively gain Duma representation. And what were they thinking dealing with Kasparov anyway? Such a troublemaker that one…

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