Sunday 18 August 2019

Books: Who can checkmate Putin?

Politics: Winter Is Coming, Garry Kasparov, Atlantic Books, tpbk, 320 pages, €17.99

Power hungry: Putin
Power hungry: Putin
Polemic against Putin: Kasparov
Winter is Coming

Sean Farrell

Garry Kasparov, long-time World Chess Champion and one of the greatest chess players ever, retired from professional chess in 2005 to join the political opposition in Russia. He was jailed briefly and is now, like many of Putin's opponents, in exile. This book is an emotionally charged look at Russia since the fall of Communism centred on the rise and rule of Vladimir Putin.

With a title lifted from Game of Thrones and a subtitle that reads Why Vladimir Putin And The Enemies Of The Free World Must Be Stopped, the content and tone of the book is not hard to discern. It's difficult to find anything good to say about Putin and Kasparov doesn't disappoint, delivering a polemic against Putin combined with a scathing attack on Western politicians for failing to stand up to him.

Kasparov traces the roller-coaster evolution of Russia since 1991. Boris Yeltsin, though flawed and increasingly corrupt, was the least bad leader for Russia at a time when there was a very real threat that the Communists might return. His 1996 victory over Zyuganov was relatively narrow, and, per Kasparov, Zyuganov was not the "performing pet Communist he is for Putin today" but rather a determined Communist revanchist who had resolutely opposed every liberal reform.

Interestingly, Kasparov suggests that the rise of the Oligarchs was facilitated by Yeltsin's reformers, Gaidar and Chubais, worried lest the economic reforms might be rolled back by conservatives, selling off the state's assets at absurdly low valuations. There was, however, freedom of a sort, in politics and the media, though the last two years of Yeltsin's presidency were marred by increased and obvious corruption, a serious economic meltdown, resurgence of the war in Chechnya, rising crime levels and terror incidents in Russia itself.

Enter Vladimir Putin, relatively unknown, and, as Kasparov wryly notes, someone he then considered perhaps "might just be what Russia needed at the time".

The next 15 years proved how wrong he was. Putin consolidated his hold on power, crushed the Chechens in a brutal occupation, cowed his domestic political and financial opponents and gradually tightened state control of the media. Kasparov suggests an analogy with the Mafia, with Putin rising to become the capo di tutti capi in what is virtually a Mafia state. He has now embarked on foreign adventures, annexing the Crimea, supporting Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine and intervening in Syria.

Play ball with Putin and you will survive. Oppose him and suffer the consequences - prison for Khodorkovsky, exile for Berezovsky (and Kasparov), death for Litvinenko , Anna Politkovskaja, and, most recently, Kasparov's friend Boris Nemtsov. Putin's rule has been consolidated until recently by rising oil prices.

The number of billionaires in Russia in 2000 was zero; by 2015 it stood at 88. Kasparov notes that, in 2008, with genuine opponents disqualified from running by one subterfuge or another, the presidential contest was between "the token nationalist nutcase Zhirinovsky, the token Communist caveman Zyuganov, and Putin, represented by his shadow, Medvedev".

The book's second theme is that the West should have taken action against Putin earlier and should take stronger measures now - including, for example, sanctioning or restricting Russia's energy exports to Europe, as well as arming Ukraine. Kasparov is scathing about the West's political leaders - Schroeder, Sarkozy, Clinton and Obama in particular - for pursuing policies akin to appeasement, when different policies could have helped bring about a different Russia.

Yet Kasparov concedes that Putin is a Russian problem and it is for Russians to figure out how to remove him. A fascinating and thought-provoking book.

Sean Farrell is a former Irish Ambassador to Estonia

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