Thursday, July 28, 2016

Preparing for change: Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic in conversation with Garry Kasparov

Preparing for change: A conversation with Garry Kasparov

Once considered a force of stability after the Yeltsin years, Vladimir Putin now depends on exporting instability and escalating international tensions in order to retain his grip on power at home. In the face of which, Garry Kasparov warns against complacency – at the same time as insisting that it is merely a question of time before Putin's apparent show of strength gives way to dramatic change in Russia itself. Kasparov speaks to Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic of Razpotja (Slovenia).

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic: You live in New York, in what you once described as "self-imposed exile". Do you think of yourself as an émigré?

Garry Kasparov: I'm not sure if my exile is self-imposed, since staying in Russia would have been ... not safe, to use a euphemism. This was not my first choice: it was a forced decision. However, my situation is clearly different from old-style émigrés. I can follow what is happening back home, I talk to my mother and friends via Skype, but I have no physical opportunity to go back. To be precise: I can go back, but I might as well buy a one-way ticket, since I would most probably not be able to return to New York. I can still hope to return home some day and do something useful in my country, but no one knows when this moment will come.

LLG: The prospect of democratization seems distant ...

GK: Look, we know from history that regimes like Vladimir Putin's are doomed: sooner or later, they fall. It's just that we don't know how long it will take: the current situation may go on for years, or there may be a turnabout in a much shorter period. Dictatorships, especially those that have managed to hold on to power for a long time, destroy all the horizontal links in a society. So you cannot really evaluate public opinion, especially in the big cities. The people are so far quiet, but you can see other indicators. Polls say that 79 per cent of Russians are not happy with the current state of the economy, but at the same time, they also say that 82 per cent of them support Putin. Do they? Maybe. We don't know. All we know is that Putin's regime is facing massive problems, new challenges. To respond to them, it has changed its algorithm. Before, it was playing on the political apathy of the population. It has since evolved towards a more aggressive form. While previously, it tried to maintain the social peace by buying the loyalty of ordinary citizens with the money from gas revenues, now it demands this loyalty through threats, fear, intimidation and by creating an illusion that Russia is a besieged fortress with Putin as the only one who can defend it from a global conspiracy against its interests.

LLG: In your book,[1] there's an insightful quotation from the scholar Robert Paxton, who defines fascism as "the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external". I find the stress that you then place on self-victimization one of the most interesting aspects of your analysis of Putin's Russia. However, don't you think that analogies with fascism are too far-fetched and counterproductive?

GK: The myth that Russia was a victim of the transition is an important part of Putin's propaganda. In my book, I challenge that myth by confronting it with facts. My point is that Putin hasn't invented anything: if you look at any dictatorship, it starts with victimization. It is very important for any dictator to create a myth that his country or group has been the victim of injustice, and that the current regime is only remedying the situation and making sure it doesn't repeat. Naturally, these grievances have their rationale: you may say that Germany in the 1920s was harshly treated by the victors in World War I. This sense of victimhood is then exploited by dictators who transform it into a myth, which allows them to pursue and persecute internal enemies and concentrate power in their hands in the name of "strengthening the state". But when you run out of internal enemies, you have to start looking for enemies outside the country. Putin simply followed these historical models. Of course, there is no direct comparison between one historical period and another, but there are certain similarities and patterns. The title of my book, Winter is Coming, stresses this cyclical aspect of history. By looking at analogies, we can understand current trends and make some predictions. At the same time, we must try to analyse each situation according to its own merit.

LLG: What would you see, then, as the specific feature that sets Putin apart from previous strongmen?

GK: From the very beginning, Putin had significant advantages. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was in a complacent mood. Nobody wanted confrontations. At first, Putin was seen as a force of stability after the troublesome Yeltsin years. He could build friendships, and he also had a lot of money. He used this luxury, unavailable to many dictators in the past, in order to buy favours. That's why I say that the best way to understand his mentality is not through Machiavelli but Mario Puzo. Like a true "godfather", he built a massive network of agents and lobbyists. During the Ukrainian conflict, we could see how effective they were in undermining the international community's resolution in pursuing a peaceful solution. This became the modus operandi of Putin's regime and contrary to what we hear, also in your country, he is not going to change this algorithm now. He simply has no other choice but to continue the exportation of instability. The state of the economy is such that he cannot say to the Russian people: "I enable you to have decent lives, in return you forget about your freedoms". This worked ten years ago; it is not going to work now. That's why the escalation of international tensions remains his main weapon. You can expect him to step up attacks against institutions that have guaranteed peace and stability in Europe, and in the world, for decades. He will be attacking the EU and the transatlantic alliance, and he will be looking for every weak spot where his money or intimidation can buy him favours.

LLG: If I understand correctly, your analogy with the mafia is directed against those who see Putin as a rational actor who pursues traditional geostrategic interests of the Russian state. You, on the other hand, insist that he is merely using Russian nationalism in order to legitimize the concentration of power around himself.

GK: Absolutely. I do think the parallel with the mafia is a viable one. Putin's state is based on loyalty. There are no merits. The only merit that counts is your loyalty to the boss. That's why you see Putin's buddies coming out of the blue and taking over all the lucrative positions in the country ... coincidentally, of course. Unfortunately, this is also something we see in history time and again: democracies try to project their own mentality and diplomatic mind-set on to their counterparts. The same mistakes were made with Hitler; the same mistakes were made with Stalin at the end of World War II. Often, liberal regimes are trying to find a rational counterpart in dictatorships. They treat them as rational powers whose moves can be analysed as if it were a game of chess. The problem is that chess is not the type of game dictators play. Chess is a game where 100 per cent of the information is transparent. You don't know what I am thinking, I don't know what you are thinking, but I know your resources and, most importantly, I know the rules. By following the rules, you can try to cause damage to me, or gain a comparative advantage for yourself. Dictators play another type of game, more comparable to poker. This is a game where you can have a relatively weak hand, but you can bluff, you try to read the opponent's mind ... This is a quite different game, and Putin is quite good at it. He has very quick reactions, since he is not accountable to anyone: he doesn't have to go to the parliament for support, he doesn't care about the press, public opinion – he can make instant decisions.

This is why I insist that we separate Putin and Russia. Like every dictatorship, he uses the country and its resources in order to grab power. But people persist in the mistaken view that he has at heart the strategic interests of Russia. Just look at his actions. He is basically selling out Russian dominance in the Far East and eastern Siberia to China, in order to buy support for his gambles; he is breaking trade relations with Turkey; literally building a wall between future generations of Russians and Ukrainians, creating a sense of enmity between the two peoples that has never existed before. All this is not for the long-term interests of Russia; it's for Putin's short interest of remaining in power. He is willing to do whatever it takes for an extra day in power.

LLG: Your description will immediately summon an analogy in the minds of Slovenian readers: Milosevic ... In the 1990s, you were one of the few intellectuals, especially Russian ones, who supported Slovenian and Croatian aspirations and warned against Slobodan Milosevic. How far can we stretch this analogy, though? After all, Putin's actions have not come close to the bloodshed and chaos that we saw in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

GK: The resilience of Putin's regime in its early days was dependent on Putin's ability to wear different hats. He could be a liberal, he could be a left-wing populist, he could be a friend of the West, he could be a nationalist. Milosevic, on the other hand, played one card from the beginning: he was restricted by the role he took over in his rise to power. The comparison between "late Putin" and Milosevic is a feasible one: both resort to an aggressive policy towards their neighbours as a way of retaining power at home.

There is one sense, however, in which Milosevic was a minor threat compared to Putin. Milosevic was restricted in his policy by the territories of former Yugoslavia where he could play the minority card – that's why he failed in Slovenia. However, this territorial limitation was not the only reason why he was a minor threat, despite the terrible consequences of his policies: the power structures of the free world were stronger. The question remains as to why this power was not used immediately, in 1991 or 1992, to stop Milosevic; but this is another question. Nevertheless, the power structures were in place to contain and eventually eliminate him. Putin, on the other hand, is aiming at a much bigger target, and this should be a source of great concern. What Putin did in Ukraine, for instance, even Milosevic didn't dare. We are not dealing only with military interventionism: his annexation of Crimea undermined the very foundations of peaceful coexistence in Europe after World War II.

LLG: You have been very critical of the western reactions to Russia's violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity… read more: