Putin' Russia's future in checkmate
When a man with an IQ of 190 (30 points higher than Einstein’s) warns that you can’t trust Vladimir Putin, chances are, you can’t trust Vladimir Putin.
When that man is Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player who ever lived, the bogeyman of grandmasters past and present, the pronouncement should make you sit up and take notice.
“When I played chess, I knew that whether the opponent was good or bad, my opponent must win playing by the rules - in Russia, no rules,” Kasparov told me during a recent interview.
The world’s top-ranked chess player for 20 years, until his retirement in 2005, Kasparov said Putin has put Russia’s immediate hopes for a brighter future in checkmate.
The former KGB agent from St. Petersburg is a man who has sacrificed the idea of democracy and a law-based state (a “pravovoye gosudarstvo”, in Russian) at the altar of corruption and crony capitalism.
Putin’s political dominance has been abetted by a Soviet-style (think Lenin or Stalin) cult of personality that he’s allowed to flourish, even while feigning humility. (“Can I help it if they adore me so much?”)
The upshot: many Russians these days might be hard-pressed to name a single opposition leader.
The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, warned that Russia risks a return to Brezhnev-era stagnation unless drastic remedial action is taken.
But the iconic leader once known as “Gorby” to his fawning Western fans, is barely a blip on Russia’s radar. His popularity rating languishes in the low single digits. And he’s an object of derision among the few ageing Russians who still bother to spare a thought for him at all.
For Kasparov, simply asking how the opposition is faring in Russia betrays the naiveté - and the Western perspective - of the person asking it.
“People tend to believe that Russia has the electoral cycle,” Kasparov said. “Russia doesn’t have any political life.”
“In Russia, we’re not fighting to win elections. In Russia we are fighting to have elections.”
We’re outta here
And that is only counting those – a dwindling minority – who are even fighting.
Many younger Russians display the deep cynicism and devil-may-care political apathy that have become hallmarks of Putin’s governing style.
A recent survey by the Levada polling center showed that many Russians, about one in five, either want to emigrate or, barring that, have already opted out of Russia’s quotidian reality via “internal emigration”. That is to say, they don’t physically leave the country, but conduct their lives as if they already have.
A popular website, “Time to shove off”, reflects the prevailing mood of anxiety and creeping despair.
Kasparov points out that Russia is witnessing its worst brain drain since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – and it couldn’t come at a worse demographic moment, when Russia’s population is already in rapid decline, beset by rising mortality and lower birth rates.
Putin notoriously called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Banding together with Belarus
In a bid to recapture some of Russia’s perceived lost glory, Putin is now proposing a “Eurasian Union”.
It would span a bloc of former Soviet neighbours, from Kazakhstan on the Central Asian steppe, to the Belarus of Aleksandr Lukashenko, a land critics dub “the last dictatorship in Europe”.
Yet rather than trying to resurrect an empire, Putin should be focusing his apparently abundant energy on reviving the fortunes of his own blighted country.
Otherwise, we may be witnessing a new geopolitical catastrophe-in-the-making - this one of the 21st century - stretching across nine time zones and an eighth of the world’s inhabited land area.