Tuesday, July 5, 2005

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The big Russian elephant in the room

Alex Rodroguez has a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune about a new challenger to Vladimir Putin in Russia:

Garry Kasparov had nothing left to conquer. For two decades he reigned over international chess with the swagger of a Cossack and a memory that took on supercomputers. His peers vanquished and his patience worn thin by the politics of his game, the fiery, unpredictable chess legend yearned for a new arena.

This year he found one. Announcing his retirement from professional chess in March, Kasparov threw himself headlong into Russian politics, undaunted by its tripwires or its steely overseer, President Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Kasparov has made clear he sees Putin as his new archrival. Kasparov is virtually alone in Russian politics in calling for the dismantling of Putin's regime, and in the use of large-scale street rallies to try to get the job done.

Russian political analysts view Kasparov's endeavor as quixotic and ultimately doomed. Polls suggest most Russians are unaware of Kasparov's career move. Nearly two-thirds say they never would elect him president.

Kasparov is not accustomed to being the underdog, but it doesn't appear to faze him either. State-controlled television has ignored him since he announced his switch from chess to politics, so he has begun seeding grass-roots backing in Russia's provinces.

In mid-June he took his message of democracy and regime change to Kostroma, a small provincial capital along the banks of the Volga River. Last week he appeared in the volatile North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, recently besieged by a wave of bombings and violence spilling over from the 10-year separatist conflict in neighboring Chechnya. (emphasis added)

It's an OK article, but Rodriguez ignores the elephant in the room when discussing Kasparov's political fortunes in Russia: he's Jewish. Iin fact, Kasparov changed his name from Weinstein after his father's death. To put it gently, I seriously doubt that two-thirds of the Russian population oppose his presidential aspirations because of his politics.

posted by Dan on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM


I think its potentially dangerous for the chess genius to try applying his skill to politics. In war or politics your enemies dont sit still while you make your move. If Kasporov actually builds any steam I fear for his safety.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

On a similar topic, Dan, take a look at this WaPo article


Its about former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan trying for political office in Pakistan. Imran isn't well known in the US, but he is very well known in Pakistan (and India) for his cricket achievements, being possibly the greatest cricketer ever from the subcontinent.

With all that, its not necessarily easy for a sports star (whether its Imran or Kasparov) to do very well in politics at a national level. Yes, I can see such people being elected to Parliament or even becoming a Governor but to be PM or President is not that easy.

posted by: erg on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

Being Jewish might be a handicap for Kasparov once more Russians become aware of his political ambitions. It probably isn't such a handicap right now.

The fact that he is campaigning for fundamental changes in Russian politics and government is, though. Kasparov is several orders of magnitude brighter than Imran Khan, but the Pakistani is only trying to move toward the top of the greasy pole of his country's politics. Kasparov is trying to cut Russia's down.

posted by: Zathras on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

Zathras -- I disagree with you to some extent. Kaspararov is challenging a democratically elected leader, while Imran is challenging a military dictator. Both claim to want fundamental changes in foreign and domestic policy.

Now matters aren't that simple. Putin may be democratically elected, but he has shown an alarming tendency towards despotism. Musharaff is a military dictator, but Pakistan does tolerate political parties and criticism to some extent. And Imran Khan's personal popularity and prominent family position probably gives him protection that Kasparov, an outsider, does not.

I don't know if most Russians know if Kasparov is Jewish -- certainly they wouldn't know it from his name alone. I'm certain it would be a major factor if he were to run for office.

posted by: erg on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

There is a double problem with his origins. His Jewish father is not so widely known but it is more known that Kasparov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Some Russians may assume he is Azerbaijani and that can also be a handicap, given the general suspicion against people from Caucusus region.

posted by: Adrian on 07.05.05 at 10:43 AM [permalink]

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