Kasparov’s Remarks in Prague

The following opening statement was delivered by Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov on June 5 at the Prague Conference on Democracy and Security. The title of the panel Kasparov was on was “What are the right ways to make the transition from a totalitarian/authoritarian regime to a democracy?”

It’s a great privilege to be here today and to speak at such an important conference. This discussion is one we are living every day in Russia today. The transition from a totalitarian regime to a democracy is one half of the necessary dialogue. For the past seven years, I, like all Russians, have been experiencing the reverse process. Russia’s move away from democracy back to an authoritarian regime is instructive. We can analyze what went wrong, what is still going wrong now, and how we might still be able to turn the tide back toward democracy.

The panel program raised many critical questions about the difference between freedom and democracy. What we have today in Russia, as in many other countries around the world, is an entirely superficial display of democratic institutions. Both Russian politicians and Russian voters know the elections are only theater. The audience for this play is the West, where they like to pretend Putin is a democrat instead of a strongman with complete control over the media, an aggressive security apparatus, our vast energy wealth, and all branches of the government.

How did we get here? Do not forget that between the end of the Communist dictatorship and the crackdown under President Putin, there was a period of real democracy. It was brief and it was flawed, but it could have served as a foundation. Some will tell you that Putin’s assault on democracy is a big shift from the Boris Yeltsin days, but unfortunately it’s a very logical progression. Yeltsin, while he established a few fragile democratic institutions, never uprooted the nomenclatura, the appointed bureaucrats who run the State.

1996, with Yeltsin’s reelection, marked the transition from open democracy to stage democracy. So many of us were afraid, afraid of a return to Communist rule even by democratic means. We, and I was among them, put ideology ahead of process and we are still paying the price today. It was clear Yeltsin couldn’t stay in power with fair elections and the abuses quickly mounted.

Yeltsin and his supporters failed the final and most important test. The fragile democratic structures he allowed to form could not survive his own need for power. He failed to create lasting institutions. The structure relied on his leadership and the freedoms that existed were there only because he allowed it. From that point on the Putin police state was all but predestined. Mr. Putin only had to follow his own KGB instincts and carry through what was already in motion. Strong leaders will always be needed, especially in times of crisis. But more important than strong leaders are strong laws and strong institutions.

Worst of all, this collapse poisoned the minds of the Russian people against what they saw as uncontrolled capitalism and democracy. The oligarchs who took power prevailed over the good of the people. Russians saw no benefits from the supposed blessings of elections and the free market. Now many associate these concepts with disaster. This makes it very difficult for pro-democracy groups like mine to convince people that the solution to their current misery is democracy. They have been misled before and their government continues to mislead them today.

Russia today is police state masquerading as a democracy, but this is just a mask worn for the international community. Putin needs the help of the free world to maintain this illusion. In Putin’s Russia today we have no civil society, no human rights, no rule of law. And yet tomorrow the leaders of the free world will sit down in Germany and treat Vladimir Putin as an equal. That’s what they have been doing for the past seven years, causing great damage to the cause of real Russian democracy. The state-controlled media is quick to ask, “if Putin is accepted among the G7, why is the opposition criticizing his democratic record?” We do not ask for help. We ask that the leaders of the free world stop providing him with democratic credentials.

Democracy is more than a dictionary term describing a system of government. To truly exist and to truly matter it must be fought for. Thank you.

On the subject of Putin’s oft-cited popularity, Kasparov remarked, “You cannot talk about polls and popularity when all of the media is under state control. 70%, 80%, why not Lukashenko’s 83%, or Nazerbaev’s 91%, or Saddam Hussein’s 98%? I don’t want to give anyone here any bad ideas, but with such a propaganda apparatus, backed up by an all-powerful security force, 70% approval should be a minimum!”

In the past, Kasparov has pointed out with a recent totalitarian past and a government led by a KGB officer, it’s amazing so many Russians are willing to give negative responses when asked what they think about the top man. The nearly genetic fear of criticizing its leaders is a major handicap in Russian reform.