NY Times: Free Kasparov

The editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times rarely agree on anything, but here they are united. The leading lights of US media are showing bipartisan support for Garry Kasparov and against Putin’s trampling of democracy in Russia.

The Journal has long been a loud and clear voice for democracy and individual rights around the world. It is no coincidence that Garry Kasparov has been a contributing editor there for many years. (We expect a WSJ Kasparov editorial on his imprisonment will appear as soon as he can reach a keyboard.) Tuesday’s Journal ran an item on “Russian Justice” with this conclusion:

Russia’s beleaguered democratic politicians, denied access to the media and prevented from freely campaigning, are finding no relief from the judiciary. Mr. Kasparov, a contributing editor to these pages, isn’t surprised, calling his conviction Saturday “a symbol of what has happened to justice and the rule of law under Putin.”

With the decks stacked in favor of the Putin-backed United Russia party, the opposition’s only recourse is to take to the streets. Another pro-democracy rally was violently broken up in St. Petersburg on Sunday. About 200 were arrested, including former deputy prime minister and reformist, Boris Nemtsov, who plans to contest the March presidential election. He was later released.

Pliant courts and crooked bureaucrats are almost as old as Russia itself. In its early years, post-Soviet Russia had a chance to build a legal system that could one day become a healthy check on the state. But this promise of liberal society, as so many others, has been torpedoed by Mr. Putin.

The NY Times published this editorial on the same day.

Exit, Russian Democracy – The New York Times
November 27, 2007

For a leader who has everything — control of the military, the government, the voting process and the media — President Vladimir Putin of Russia looks increasingly desperate and threatened ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday. Polls suggest his United Russia party will win the balloting overwhelmingly, giving him leverage to continue wielding power in some form. But his greedy grab for victory while quashing credible political opposition demonstrates that this is no free and fair election and Russia is no democracy.

Last weekend, two rallies by an anti-Putin coalition protesting the unfairness of the election were broken up by truncheon-wielding riot police. The former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a coalition leader and potential presidential candidate, was sentenced to five days in jail for organizing one demonstration. Boris Nemtsov, another presidential candidate and a former deputy prime minister, was also detained, as were dozens of other pro-democracy activists.

No one expected a smooth trajectory from the seven decades of Soviet dictatorship to Jeffersonian democracy, but the years under Mr. Putin have been a whipsaw. Buoyed by high oil revenues and a rising economy, he is credited with restoring national pride and stability. But Mr. Putin has so emasculated the democratic institutions that evolved in the 1990s that it is apparent he has little confidence in his people. The Kremlin controls the political process, deciding who can run for office and who gets access to national television coverage.

Mr. Putin has accused the United States of persuading international monitors to withdraw from observing Russia’s elections and thus undermining them. But it is he who has taken the legitimacy out of the election process. Without changes, that is only going to get worse when Russia holds its 2008 presidential elections.

Washington’s ties with Russia — bungled by President Bush and given short shrift so far in America’s presidential debates — deserve more attention. The United States, Europe and Japan prematurely brought Russia into the elite group of leading industrialized nations by arguing that it would encourage Moscow on a democratic path. Now they must stand together as democracies and make clear that Russia’s reversion to its autocratic past is unacceptable.

A day earlier, the NY Times editorial board ran this item in their editorial blog.

Free Garry Kasparov – The New York Times
By The Editorial Board – November 26, 2007

Garry Kasparov stopped by The Times recently to talk about his campaign in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Kasparov, the former world chess champion, was realistic about the steep odds against his fledgling movement succeeding at the ballot box. The point is not to win elections, he said, but to have elections.

Mr. Kasparov’s warning — that Russia’s grip on democracy is tenuous — was confirmed over the weekend when he was jailed for five days after leading a protest and trying to deliver a letter to election officials objecting to how the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for Dec. 2 are being carried out.

At the meeting here, Mr. Kasparov said, in response to a question, that he was worried about his own safety. He travels with bodyguards in Russia, he said, and is careful about what he eats and drinks.

Mr. Kasparov said it was important for the United States to keep insisting on free and fair elections and protesting loudly when Mr. Putin erodes democracy.

It’s also important that we all show that we are watching to see how Mr. Kasparov is treated.