Garry Kasparov: Putin is a gangster and a 'petty thief'

Opposing the government is a dangerous game in Russia. Can former chess champion Garry Kasparov stay one move ahead of Vladimir Putin?

Garry Kasparov is careful about whom he takes tea with in Russia, says The Daily Telegraph. "I like to know where the tea has come from," says the chess grandmaster, only half joking. Being a vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin entails a degree of risk, and Kasparov always travels with bodyguards when he visits his homeland. Too many critics of the regime have met with an untimely death.

Putin, he says, isn't so much an old-school tyrant as a kleptocrat. "He has all the traits of a dictator, but he is different; he is, in essence, an oligarch. What he really wants is to rule like Stalin while living like Abramovich," he said last year. More recently he has called Putin, who is standing for a third presidential term next year, "a petty thief" and gangster who operates like Al Capone. "As long as you're loyal to the boss, you're safe."

The would-be "Snow Revolution" (Russia has in the past week seen the biggest protests against the government since the fall of the Soviet Union) is thus welcome news to Kasparov, who has been campaigning for free elections since he retired from chess in 2005 and formed The Other Russia group a mish-mash coalition of Putin opponents. It has sometimes been a dangerous crusade.

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In 2007 he was briefly imprisoned following a demonstration in St Petersburg. The following year, his plan to stand in the election was scuppered on a technicality: no one was willing to rent him a hall large enough to hold his supporters so he wasn't allowed to be a candidate. He continued the struggle via an online "Putin must go" campaign.

Kasparov's formidable will to win was "one of the crucial factors" behind him becoming the youngest ever World Chess Champion in 1985, says Standpoint magazine. He remained champion for another 15 years. But his battle with Putin is no game. This isn't a contest, says the grandmaster. It's an endurance test. "I've always said to my colleagues, We are in for a marathon race, which can become a 100-metres sprint at any moment.'"

For many in the West, Kasparov, 48, has always represented change in Russia. His arrival as the precocious, outspoken new face of Russian chess coincided with Gorbachev's reforms and seemed to signal that "the Cold War, both on and off the chessboard, was over".

Born in Azerbaijan, he was introduced to chess by his parents and attended chess school from the age of ten. He went on to become the greatest player the game has produced: holder of the all-time highest rating. A rare low point was losing a 1997 match against IBM's Deep Blue computer.

Despite his high profile overseas as a symbol of opposition to Putin, Kasparov remains a marginal figure in Russian politics, says The Daily Telegraph. Yet he is confident that his cause will prevail. "The regime will collapse and it might be much sooner than anyone expects."

The Kremlin's Twitter attack

In Soviet days, citizens could tell if a political crisis was afoot when, in place of the news, radio and TV "played nothing but loops of Swan Lake", says Charles Clover in the FT. Today's equivalent is the online message "application unreachable": one Kremlin tactic to quell protests is to stage hacker-inspired denial-of-service attacks on key websites.

Thousands of Twitter accounts appear to have been created "with the sole purpose of drowning out opposition voices" by flooding the service's hashtag search function, says Miriam Elder in The Guardian. Yet perhaps the most sinister attack came via telephone. The liberal Yabloko party and newspaper Novaya Gazeta had their lines paralysed by endless calls featuring a recorded female voice: "Putin does everything for you. Without Putin, life has no meaning. Putin is your protector."

The Kremlin appears to have adopted a strategy of gentle concessions to try and drain the energy from the protest while giving no ground on fresh parliamentary elections, says Tony Halpin in The Times. President Dmitry Medvedev has instead ordered an "inquiry" into allegations of vote-rigging, while telling police to adopt a softly-softly approach to protestors.

Meanwhile, an intriguing new player has arrived on the scene, says The Wall Street Journal. The country's third richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, has announced his intention to stand for the presidency next year. He seems an unlikely candidate.

Since making his fortune with Norilsk Nickel, he's become known as the billionaire playboy who bought the New Jersey Nets, an American basketball team. Indeed, the suspicion among opposition leaders is that his candidacy is a Kremlin ploy to attract the protestors. Putin has lost his "tsar-like aura", says the FT, and, faced with a protest that threatens to snowball, he may have been forced into desperate measures. "His credibility as a ruler is greatly lessened, perhaps unsalvageable."