Russia Is in Agony, but Putin’s Dictatorship Is Going Down
Garry Kasparov on why this weekend’s protests may be the beginning of the end of autocracy in Russia.
Over the weekend, Russia erupted in some of the largest and most widespread protests in decades, after Alexey Navalny—the anti-corruption crusader-turned-opposition politician who was poisoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agents last summer, and then spirited out of the country to recover in Germany—returned home for the first time and was immediately arrested. To get a sense of what the demonstrations mean, where they are headed, and whether this time will be different, Foreign Policy’s editor at large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Garry Kasparov, the former Russian chess champion and democracy activist. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan Tepperman: What’s status of the protests?
Garry Kasparov: I don’t think anybody knows. Navalny’s team is calling for people to fill the streets and to support him and to express their anger with the regime. And the whole thing has become like a snowball. It went viral when Navalny released his movie about Putin’s palace [editor’s note: an online investigation, released after Navalny’s return to Russia last week, that explores Putin’s massive Black Sea estate and the money flows that financed it in great detail], which has already reached some kind of astronomical number of views. And now we’re seeing the accumulated effect of 20 years of Putin’s dictatorship, the growing disappointment of the Russian people with their socioeconomic conditions, and anger about corruption and the wealth of Putin’s oligarchs. We’re seeing a clear a message from the young generation of Russians that they’re not going to tolerate Putin’s indefinite rule.
JT: How are these protests different from earlier ones?
GK: These protests were the first ones where the people of Russia showed some kind of resistance. And I can proudly say that the demonstrations were peaceful as well. No burned cars, no looted stores, no excessive violence as we saw in the American streets last summer. The only violence came from the police, and that was real police brutality. This was brutality sponsored by the state.
JT: Were you surprised by how many people showed up, given how cold it was?
GK: The big surprise was not the number of people but that, unlike previous protests, these were not Moscow-centric. This weekend we saw Russia’s first nation-wide protest since 1991, stretching from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. And as you alluded to, we even saw people showing up in the streets in Yakutsk, where the temperature was minus 50 [degrees Celsius]. People were on the streets and they sent a very clear message.
As for the government’s response, that was as expected: It showed no interest in making any concessions. Now the question is what will happen in the weeks to come. Whatever members of Navalny’s team haven’t been arrested are calling for more protests on Jan. 31. I can’t make any predictions, but Navalny’s unprecedented heroism encouraged people, and now his life is at stake—and that’s always something that mobilizes people.
JT: Why do you think Navalny decided to return to Russia, given that he’d barely recovered from being poisoned by Putin last August, and that he knew what he’d face there?
GK: I’m not Navalny’s confidant, but I think he believed that the only way to beat a dictator is to rally the people by your own example. Since I left Russia, I’ve never called on the Russian people to fill the streets, because for me to do so would be against the rules of morality. They might be beaten, arrested, maybe even do time in concentration camps—and I don’t believe that, living abroad, you’re entitled to make that call. But if you are taking risks with your own life, then you can do it.
JT: What do you think will happen now? How will Putin decide what to do with Navalny?
GK: The only good thing about this situation is that we know exactly what Putin is going to do. It might be bad news for Navalny, but Putin will not make a single concession—unless something really serious happens to force him to. But so far, Putin’s cronies don’t seem to be doubting his power and his ability to control the situation. What we’re seeing instead is that the whole political spectrum of beneficiaries of the regime is finding new ways to demonstrate their support for him and his mafia rule. I’m not seeing the volcano start to erupt yet. But what could change the situation, what could tip the balance, would be a decisive response from the West.
JT: So far, it seems like Putin has been careful not to make a martyr of Navalny. Yes, he had him poisoned. But there are faster and more reliable ways to kill someone, and when the poisoning failed, Putin let him leave for treatment in Germany.
GK: Yes, but Putin is a KGB guy. He doesn’t kill publicly if he can kill secretly. If he thinks he can get away with carpet-bombing people in Aleppo or sending his mercenaries to Donbass, he will. But killing Navalny with no cover-up—that would be challenging even for him. Remember, though: They already killed [the opposition politician] Boris Nemtsov, so they can kill, even if they prefer more subtle ways of eliminating their opponents.
JT: This past weekend, you held a press conference with fellow democracy advocates Vladimir Kara-Murza, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Bill Browder, calling on the West to impose more financial pain on Putin and his allies. What exactly did you have in mind?
GK: What do you mean, “more” pain? We’re looking for real action that could make Putin listen—and not just Putin but the people around him. What we have now are sanctions that do not affect the wellbeing of those close to Putin; the key players in Putin’s mafia organization have been largely unaffected. Their money flow to America, to England, to Europe, has not stopped. Putin’s lobbyists and agents abroad continue to operate on his behalf. And Putin is still revered by many captains of business and those who are very influential in the political, economic, and financial circles of the Free World.
Now, what Navalny has been asking for, and what we emphasized this weekend, was the need to look at Putin’s key people. The moment these people find that their money is endangered, then Putin’s model—you steal in Russia, but you’re loyal to me, so you can keep this money safe in the Free World—will no longer work. Then we could see some cracks in his loyalty shield. If Putin is no longer protecting his allies’ money, then we’ll see what comes next. It will create havoc.
JT: Do you feel optimistic that Washington and London will listen to you and do what you suggest?
GK: I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t want to be too optimistic, because we’ve been disappointed so many times over the last 20 years. But I can see that there’s now an appetite to take some actions. Maybe we’ve reached the boiling point. Maybe the West is finally sick and tired. Because it’s not just that Putin and his people have been stealing money and hiding it elsewhere. They’ve also been waging a never-ending hybrid war against the Free World; from Brexit to the U.S. elections, you could feel Putin’s influence and the activity of those who are trying to undermine Western democracy. I also think that the Biden administration has no choice but to address the threat from Putin, because whatever it does with former President Donald Trump, it will definitely bring Putin back into the picture. And I think that President Joe Biden might be looking at Russia and Putin’s aggressive hybrid war against the Free World as a historic opportunity. Biden faces many challenges, and very few of his actions will succeed in giving him a place in history. A strong response to Putin’s aggression, and maybe even the end of Putin’s dictatorship, could earn him the same place in history as the great American presidents.
JT: So if you could talk to Biden today, what would you ask him to do? How else can the United States help?
GK: Follow Navalny’s line, and reveal the data. American intelligence definitely has more information than Navalny does on Russia’s corrupt oligarchs. Start publishing it. Start using American laws against money laundering, and ask your European allies to do the same. And use the Magnitsky Act to freeze the funds of those who violated human rights. Use existing laws to punish Putin’s mafia and his oligarchs, who have been feeling very comfortable in the West for far too long.
JT: It’s often seemed like the Russian opposition has been good at producing individual stars, but has repeatedly failed to cohere into a single mass movement. Is that finally changing?
GK: It’s very hard to create a movement in a country that is ruled by a KGB dictator. But now it is happening. And it’s happening because more and more young people are getting involved. It’s happening because more and more middle-aged people are losing all hope of improving their lives under Putin. And Putin has stayed in power for too long. Age is a factor, not just for dictators but for dictatorships. And social media is beating TV; Putin’s traditional propaganda machine is no longer capable of brainwashing the majority of Russians the way it once did. The number of people who watched Navalny’s movie online has already beaten all of Putin’s TV viewership records.
I know that relying on stars could be dangerous for Russian democracy, which is why I’ve always advocated for Russia to become a parliamentary republic. But the way to dismantle dictatorship is to offer an alternative. Dictators have to control the public space; everything has to be about them. Now, with Navalny having reached this peak of popularity, it’s creating a new challenge for Putin’s propaganda machine. Whatever happens on Jan. 31, it’s a brand new situation, and this is the moment for the Free World to act. The regime has never been so vulnerable.
JT: Now you’re definitely sounding optimistic. Being a Russian democracy activist must be a discouraging business most of the time.
GK: Yes, but I see that there’s a chance now. History doesn’t favor dictators; dictators go down. What we’re seeing now is a country in agony. Now, the agony of a dying dinosaur can be very dangerous for those in its vicinity. And we don’t know how long this agony will last. The bad news is I don’t know when and how the end will come. But the good news is that neither does Putin.