Standing Ovation at Euro Parliament for Kasparov

We hope Europe’s leaders were awoken by the applause for Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov after his address to the European Parliament on May 23. Kasparov was received by EP President Hans-Gert Pöttering and met personally with six different EP political groups (roughly 300 MP’s by his count) as well as the presidents of every group. At the conclusion of his remarks, Kasparov received a standing ovation from the Parliament and many MP’s came up to thank him and offer support.

Mr Pöttering explained that “the invitation of Garry Kasparov to the European Parliament is an expression of our obligation as freely elected MEPs to support all those who are working to bring about democracy and rule-of-law in Russia and in the world. They deserve our full support and solidarity”.

Kasparov was impressed with the newfound forcefulness displayed by the European Parliament regarding Russia, and gave special praise and thanks to President Pöttering. He pointed out that the last month has seen a marked change in Europe’s patience with Putin’s crackdown on democracy and human rights in Russia. European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and new French president Nicolas Sarkozy have all been critical of the Kremlin’s continued descent into authoritarianism. The EU Observer has the most complete media account of Kasparov’s statements:

If the US administration exercised the same [media] control, Bush would have 70 percent also,” he explained. “The regime needs high oil prices, instability in the Middle East is keeping oil prices high.”

“In 1989 there were a few hundred people on the streets. In 1990, a few thousand. In 1991 [when the Soviet Union collapsed] there were hundreds of thousands,” Mr Kasparov said. “On the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg [in April] we had a few thousand.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected the Kasparov line, denying that it sells sensitive arms technology to rogue states. It has also highlighted the fact Mr Kasparov’s opposition rallies attract far-right and far-left groups, and questioned the chess genius’ political nous.

“He’s a better chess player than he is a politician,” the Russian envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, once told EUobserver.

But the Kasparov picture is also matched by other reports: BBC journalists talk of mansions being built outside Moscow while basic social welfare services lapse. The International Energy Agency says under-investment in infrastructure could see massive gas shortages hit around 2010.

Kasparov was also presented with five questions to be submitted into the official EP publication. We present his answers in full below.

1. Do you accept the premise, put forward by some, that the Russian nation needs a strong hand to be governable?

The premise itself is faulty. Where is it written that strong leaders cannot be democratically elected? Or is that supposed to be the case only in Russia? After World War II, many doubted that Japan and Germany could flourish under democracy. Russia’s transition away from totalitarian Communism will require many strong hands, but those hands should be selected by the hands of the voters, the citizens of Russia, in free and fair elections. A leader can be strict while still being fair and respecting democratic institutions and the individual rights of the people. When you possess massive security forces, a puppet parliament, and have the media under your thumb, ruling is a lot easier than when you have to form coalitions, negotiate, answer to your constituents, and listen to criticism. It doesn’t take strength to be a dictator, it only makes you look strong.

2. In your political campaigns in Russia, you have used street protest and the internet to communicate your message. Does this indicate a lack of belief in the political institutions of the Russian Federation?

Only with how they are implemented and distorted by the Putin regime. They have a seven-year record of steadily destroying democracy in Russia. I believe in our Constitution, but our government does not. We go to the streets and to the internet because there are no official avenues for political opposition or dissent against the current administration today. Legal and illegal barriers of all sorts are set against anyone who does not agree with the Putin government. Opposition parties are declared ineligible or are banned outright. Opposition candidates and other voices are barred from the airwaves and the print media. Opposition activists are harassed, often arrested and beaten. In this environment, even the political institutions that are still left on paper are worthless.

3. Will the presidential elections of 2008 bring about change? Do you intend to stand? If your movement wins, what would be its first move on the political chessboard?

They will bring change, but at this point we have no way of knowing in which direction that change will move Russia. The mafia structure that President Putin and his oligarch allies have constructed is beginning to look very shaky as the elections approach. If Putin stays, overriding our current constitutional ban on a third term, his government will lose any remaining legitimacy in the eyes of the West. This in turn will put at risk the vast personal fortunes our ruling class has amassed in western banks and in other assets abroad. But if Putin steps down, the fight to succeed him will lead to fierce fighting within the competing Kremlin factions, inevitably causing casualties and a degree of chaos.

My purpose right now is to serve as a sort of moderator in this grand coalition we call the Other Russia. Because of my background – outside of politics but always representing my country – I am in a unique position to help such a diverse coalition stay together despite our many ideological differences. To that end I have put any personal ambitions aside. This summer we will propose a program endorsed by our potential candidates. Later in the year we will try to run a type of primary election, which will be difficult under the circumstances, with so much government pressure on our activities. It is very important that we stay together as a united democratic force in case the coming battles in the Kremlin lead to collapse. If that happens, a credible, independent group such as the Other Russia will be ready to step into the gap.

Our first and only goal right now is to see honest and open elections. If one of our movement comes to power, his own beliefs and experience will lead him. What we all agree on is that building strong democratic institutions is more important than our differences on social and economic issues. Without true democracy we all suffer. What we would do first is more a matter of how long it would take to undo the great damage our institutions have suffered in the past seven years under Putin.

4. You have brought your campaign to the European Parliament today. What is it that you think the EU and EP can and should do in its relations with Russia?

I have always said that Putin is a Russian problem and that we do not need outside assistance. But that does not mean we are happy to see Europe’s leaders, supposedly the defenders of democracy, giving aid and support to the authoritarian Putin government. We do not so much ask for your action as for your honesty. Stop providing Putin with democratic credentials he has in no way earned. Stop receiving him and his allies as democratic equals. Stand up to authoritarianism instead of quietly endorsing it.

Nobody denies the necessity of doing business with Russia. The EU also does business with China, for example. But you do not provide the Chinese leadership with the trappings of democratic comradeship as you do with Putin. Every summit, every collegial meeting, is played on state-controlled Russian television as a way of discrediting the pro-democracy opposition of which I am a member. They say, “see, Putin is welcomed and treated as an equal by Europe’s leaders. He is a democrat too.”

The idea that Putin’s Russia will be slowly brought over to the side of human rights by appeasement has by now been thoroughly discredited. The Kremlin takes every concession as a sign it can go further in cracking down on dissent and demolishing democratic structures. Those who fail to denounce these steps are complicit in this Russian regime’s current and future crimes. If you believe a democratic Russia is important, it is past time to stand up and say so.

5. What is your view of the recent decision of the authorities in Estonia to move a war memorial? Do you share any of the Kremlin’s concerns about this?

This is one of those sad situations in which both sides are wrong. Estonia is a sovereign state and can do as they wish, but in good conscience I cannot endorse the desecration of the memories of soldiers who died fighting Hitler and fascism. It is not the same as pulling down a statue of Lenin. But even on this issue, which could have generated support from many political quarters in Russia, the Kremlin again demonstrated its bullying nature. The overheated rhetoric from the Kremlin was just as deserving of condemnation as the Kremlin-supported thugs who attacked the Estonian embassy.