- Wikimedia Commons, CC
- In 2007, a former KGB general warned that he believed former chess champion Garry Kasparov was next on a list of Putin critics to be assassinated.
- Putin is suspected of condoning the assassination of 14 people in the UK.
- Kasparov has lived in exile in New York since 2013. “Look I’m an optimist and I think it will not last forever,” he told Business Insider.
- Putin will be a major issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year because US President Donald Trump will address the meeting. Putin and Trump have a relationship that baffles outsiders.
- Trump gets unusually positive coverage in the Kremlin-controlled Russian media, Kasparov says.
When I met Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and Putin critic, in Lisbon recently, he was sporting a large Band-Aid on his forehead. The wound had been sustained in the back of a taxi in London on the way from Heathrow Airport to a conference in Canary Wharf. With traffic crawling along, as it always does in London, Kasparov decided he didn’t need to wear a seatbelt.
Then the taxi driver slammed on the brakes.
- (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
“I was just talking to my wife, talking to my mother, looking at my phone. And next thing I remember I’m just lying on the floor with my head covered in blood,” Kasparov says. “At first, I was screaming because – now it looks fine – but I was bleeding for more than an hour, so it was pretty nasty. Then I realised how lucky I was because I had my glasses on me, these glasses, one inch down, could be my eyes. One inch on the side could have been temple.”
Kasparov went flying across the back of the Hackney cab, and hit his forehead on the top side of the jump chair. After a couple of stitches at Newham University Hospital Urgent Care, he posted a picture of his injury on Twitter. It spawned a rash of jokes in response: “Lame assassination attempt, Putin is desperate,” that kind of thing, Kasparov says. “The best one was, ‘are you preparing to play Gorbachev at Halloween?’ I was lucky, but now I buckle up.”
‘People who knew them are all dead now because they were vocal, they were open … I believe that he is probably next on the list.’
That Putin joke is only half funny.
Kasparov really is one of Putin’s potential assassination targets. In 2007, the former KGB general Oleg Kalugin told Foreign Policy magazine that Putin’s targeted killings would one day reach Kasparov. The year before, Kasparov had been one of the founders of Other Russia, a liberal, anti-Putin, opposition group that Russian authorities have repeatedly prevented from getting onto national election ballots.
- Wikimedia Commons, CC
Cryptically, Kalugin said: “People who knew them are all dead now because they were vocal, they were open. I am quiet. There is only one man who is vocal, and he may be in trouble: [Former] world chess champion [Garry] Kasparov. He has been very outspoken in his attacks on Putin, and I believe that he is probably next on the list.”
Kasparov has twice been arrested by Russian police while demonstrating, and he was prevented from renting an official meeting hall for supporters of Other Russia in 2007, which is a pre-ballot legal requirement for any politician who wants to run against Putin.
Kasparov has lived in New York since 2013.
Business Insider asked him what it is like to never be able to go back home to Russia, where his mother still lives.
“Oh, back to Russia, I could go today! The problem is not going back to Russia – it’s leaving Russia again! I still have my Russian passport,” he says.
Putin and Russia are suddenly one of the biggest issues at Davos because President Trump will address the gathering
Kasparov is no longer one of Putin’s most visible critics, but Putin still regularly assassinates inconvenient Russians. Fourteen people have been killed in the UK on Putin’s orders, according to an exhaustive investigation by BuzzFeed.
As world leaders, billionaires, and oligarchs meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, again this year, Putin and Russia are suddenly one of the biggest issues at the conference.
That’s because US President Trump will address the Alpine gathering for the first time. Trump has repeatedly expressed his enthusiasm and admiration for Putin. And many in America believe Russia covertly interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a way that swayed votes toward Trump.
Russia is normally mere background noise at Davos. While Russia has a large military and is not afraid to flex its muscles in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, the country itself is relatively poor. Its GDP ranks below Italy and Canada, and only just above Spain – a country whose economy was so heavily battered by the 2008 credit crisis that it still hasn’t fully recovered.
Russia’s influence in the West is limited in large part because European and US companies are afraid of doing business with Russia, precisely because of the ever-present threat of showing up on Putin’s radar.
‘Putin is only 65. The bad news is, I don’t know when and how his rule ends. But the good news is, he also doesn’t know that!’
That means individual ex-patriot Russians in the West who disagree publically with Putin – like Kasparov – can never go home. Does Kasparov worry about being in danger from Putin?
“Would it help? I live in New York, so what else can I do? I live in New York, I don’t drink tea with strangers,” he says.
“Tea with strangers” is a reference to the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian FSB secret service agent who was fatally poisoned in 2006 when he met two Putin agents at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair who placed radioactive polonium-210 into his drink.
“I don’t travel to certain countries where I believe that my security could be in jeopardy. So, unfortunately, the list of the countries I have to avoid is growing,” Kasparov says.
“Look I’m an optimist and I think it will not last forever,” Kasparov says. “Putin is only 65. The bad news is, I don’t know when and how his rule ends. But the good news is, he also doesn’t know that! I think I have to do what is the best for me and my family. My mother still lives in Moscow but it’s painful for her, she’s 80, and she’s spent her entire life just working for me, but she understands that it’s just, she wants me well and alive.”
“I’m out of Russia, that’s basically good news. I don’t spoil their lives there. They can, of course, create problems, I mean real problems for anybody anywhere. Now it’s more difficult in New York than in other places, in Europe for instance, say in Greece or in Cyprus for instance or in Hungary … there are places where Russian influence is really strong.
“But I doubt that right now Putin is too concerned about being criticised even by me. He already reached the point where having enemies in the free world is very important for him, because he sells this point in Russia. So right now sanctions is the biggest hurdle, and that’s why he’s desperately trying to find any bargaining chip with Trump to make a deal,” Kasparov says.
Of course, the big unanswered question for everybody in Davos is, what is the true nature of the relationship between Putin and Trump? Does Putin have some kind of hold over Trump – as the infamous Steele dossier suggests? Or is it simply that Trump really likes to be in the presence of powerful people, and that Putin – and ex-KGB man – is playing him like an asset, as James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, believes?
‘This is, by the way, part of Putin’s message … Truth is relative – everybody’s bad. We bad, they bad, we corrupt, they corrupt. We don’t have democracy, they have a circus.’
Kasparov doesn’t believe it is quite that sinister.
“No, what I saw from the beginning of the US presidential campaign is that the Russian press they like Trump but for different reasons. So they started liking him because he could help them to portray US elections as a circus. And this is, by the way, a part of Putin’s message, both inside and outside of Russia. Truth is relative – everybody’s bad. We bad, they bad, we corrupt, they corrupt. We don’t have democracy, they have a circus. So that was the original message,” he says.
- (Photo by Trevor Jones/Getty Images)
It was only when Trump began leading in the polls that Russia upped its game.
“Then they saw that Trump was winning the primaries, and the messages changed. And that’s the time when Manafort showed up. ‘Oh, Trump! Good guy! But he will never win because the election was rigged!’ So this is the message that was prevailing. And by the way, Trump kept repeating it, but that was the Kremlin’s narrative,” Kasparov says.
‘America-bashing is 24/7 on all the Russian channels, on Kremlin-controlled media. Trump is an exception. Trump personally is not criticised.’
The context to that narrative is that anti-American propaganda is the default background noise of Russian media. Putin needs to constantly remind Russians of the American threat, to justify the strong-state that he controls.
“America-bashing is 24/7 on all the Russian channels, on Kremlin-controlled media,” Kasparov says. “Trump is an exception. Trump personally is not criticised. The only criticism, mild criticism, is that he’s too weak to fight the deep state, which is amazing. … So everything’s bad in America. Except Trump, who’s a good guy.”
Kasparov believes that Putin was caught by surprise when Trump won, and hoped that it would lead to a new “grand bargain,” like Yalta in 1945, at which the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union carved up much of the planet into East and West empires.
- (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
‘I think Putin had a dream of bringing Trump to Yalta’
“I think Putin had a dream of bringing Trump to Yalta, to Crimea, and to do another – not big three maybe this time – big two. You could hear Trump, some of his people like Newt Gingrich, at that time spoke about Tallinn being a suburb of St Petersburg.”
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is only 85 miles from St. Petersburg but after the breakup of the USSR it looked West, to Europe, and joined NATO. Undoing NATO, or reducing its power, is one of Putin’s fondest dreams.
(Historically, the Russian military and security services have regarded themselves as being constantly surrounded by enemies. The loss of the Baltic states after the Cold War exacerbated this paranoia. Getting them back into Moscow’s orbit, by levering them out of NATO, would recreate the former buffer zone of Soviet satellite states that protected Russia from Europe until the Iron Curtain came down in the late 1980s.)
- (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images)
“That’s language that is reflected, their mentality, that they could make a deal with Putin ignoring traditional American allies,” Kasparov says.
So it undoubtedly gave Putin great cheer when, in June 2017, Trump began criticising his military allies in NATO and suggesting that he would pull American military spending from it.
But then … nothing happened.
‘You could just hear them all roaring, wow, what’s happened? How on this earth could Trump not subdue the American elite?’
Trump has been largely hemmed in by a sclerotic US Congress. His executive orders have been tripped up, delayed, or watered-down by the federal judiciary.
Kasparov hopes that will stand as a teaching moment for ordinary Russians. The weakness and the strength of the American system is that being the US president is not the same as being the Russian president. In a democracy, a president is merely one powerful actor who must get the permission of two other branches of government in order to act.
Not like a dictator, in other words.
“This is the moment of big confusion in Russian state propaganda: The decision, several decisions of American federal judges, to stop the travel ban. It was really hard for Russian propaganda to deal with the fact that a judge, a federal judge, could nullify or put an injunction on a presidential decree, on an executive order,” Kasparov says.
“It was a great disappointment in the Russian press,” Kasparov says. “You could just hear them all roaring, wow, what’s happened? How on this earth could Trump not subdue the American elite?” “So somehow it helped us, those who were promoting the concept of the separation of powers, because it proved to the world, even to those in Russia who follow the news, that separation of powers is not an empty sound. It’s a real thing, and it was a big blow for Kremlin propaganda,” Kasparov says. “The whole idea was, oh this election is a farce, the man in the White House calls all the shots. No, he doesn’t!”