Why Is Kasparov In Jail?

First we would like to thank the hundreds of people who have written in to express their support this week for The Other Russia, Garry Kasparov, and the other Russian opposition activists who were injured, harassed, or arrested during last weekend’s Dissenters’ Marches across Russia. We especially appreciate those who have supported our activities by making a donation. We operate on a very small budget to bring our readers news about what is really happening inside Putin’s Russia, often news that cannot be found anywhere else. — Mig Greengard, theotherrussia.org

We are happy to report that as of Monday, Garry Kasparov said he was in fine and that he has been receiving acceptable treatment at the Petrovka 38 jail where he is being held until Thursday. Visits to the jailed opposition leader are still prohibited but he managed to exchange a few words with his mother Klara Kasparova at his Monday appeal hearing. He also received a few books and a chess set. (Perhaps this was allowed because the authorities would like to encourage him to leave politics and return to chess.)

Picketers continue to protest out in front of the jail where Kasparov is being held. Many are members of Kasparov’s organization, the United Civil Front. They are regularly harassed by members of the Kremlin-sponsored youth groups as well as the police on occasion. Following the usual pattern the police don’t bother those there to harass Kasparov’s supporters or to chant pro-Kremlin slogans.

In The News

Outside Russia, where the Marches and arrests received far more coverage than inside the country, several western leaders have made strong statements criticizing the Kremlin’s authoritarian tactics and anti-democratic standing.

President Bush: “I am deeply concerned about the detention of numerous human rights activists and political leaders who participated in peaceful rallies in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, and Nazran this weekend. I am particularly troubled by the use of force by law enforcement authorities to stop these peaceful activities and to prevent some journalists and human rights activists from covering them.

The freedoms of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society. I am hopeful that the government of Russia will honor its international obligations in these areas, investigate allegations of abuses and free those who remain in detention.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: “I was very concerned to see reports of police harassment and arrests of politicians and peaceful demonstrators in Russia. The right to peaceful free speech and assembly are basic, fundamental human rights, and I very much regret that the authorities found it necessary to take such heavy-handed action.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner: “I am surprised by this violence. To my knowledge, the world chess champion was not a threat to Russia’s security. All this deserves an explanation. It seems very pointless and does not give Russia a good image, an adequate image at the time of the election.”

We note, however, that Mr. Kouchner went on to make the now stereotypical mistake of westerners talking about Putin’s police state. “Look where Russia is coming from. 20 years ago Russia was in a real dictatorship.” Why is it always 20 years, or 30 years? Why not 10? And why not talk about where we are and where we are going instead of making absurd and antiquated comparisons? Russia is “coming from” a nascent democracy with a free media and unpredictable elections just a decade ago. Putin has destroyed those fragile democratic institutions, turned the media into his personal propaganda network, and made elections into charades where they still exist at all. For the past several years Putin has violently cracked down on any and all critics, no matter how small and peaceful. We don’t need lectures about how things are better now than under Brezhnev or Stalin.

A German spokesman called for Kasparov’s immediate release. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated: “We insist that free reporting and freedom of opinion should be maintained in Russia, particularly ahead of the elections. Russia should be aware that the picture being transmitted is not a favorable one.”

This fixation with Russia’s image abroad is based on a misconception because these concerns are obviously not shared by Putin and his gang. Why should Putin care what France and Germany think when they say so little and take no action at all? Russia is still in the G-8 and his pet oligarchs’ money is still very welcome in every western capital no questions asked. Putin continues to act with total impunity against democracy and his critics and he is still embraced as a democrat by western leaders. This emboldens him to take even harsher steps domestically. Foreign leaders say to Putin, “don’t you see how bad this looks?” Putin replies “And? What are you going to do about it? Ah, nothing. Then clearly you don’t really care.”

In Russia the Kremlin control of the media typically bars even the mention of opposition activities. Those critical of Putin are only ever named when being demonized and scapegoated for every problem imaginable. Many foreign newspapers are asking the right questions but the obvious answers often seem to escape them. The Washington Post wonders why the Kremlin attacks the opposition so aggressively if Putin is so popular and things are going so well. It is because no one knows better than Putin and his small ruling clique that for a broad majority of Russians things aren’t going well at all and that Putin’s supposed popularity is a myth that depends on propaganda and intimidation. The Kremlin is acutely aware that a few small cracks could bring down this entire house of cards with astonishing speed. So every threat, every hint of opposition, must be crushed absolutely at every turn.

The second point is that this Russian regime is not interested in real politics, which would mean satisfying a constituency. They are interested in stealing as much as possible before the Russian people inevitably rise up in protest in numbers too great to beat down. If you want to understand the Putin government, stop trying to analyze politics and follow the money. As long as the West doesn’t take action as Putin turns Russia into a police state, the money is safe and the abuses will continue to stack up.