By Leslee Kulba- Garry Kasparov was the world’s top-ranked chess grandmaster for 225 out of 228 months before retiring to lend his talents and popular appeal toward challenging Russia’s kleptocratic oligarchy.
In his 2015 book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, he argues Western political leaders have been a partner to Russia’s human rights violations through, “apathy, ignorance, and misplaced goodwill.”
The book addresses a number of eternal political questions from the perspective of a mastermind who grew up in the Soviet Union, watched Putin rise to power, saw the poverty of the masses first-hand, had friends threatened and killed for challenging the power structure, and currently does not feel safe returning to Russia himself.
Kasparov says Putin, like Hitler, was not born a shameless autocrat, though he may have had proclivities.
Instead, both were emboldened, step by step, as other world leaders allowed them to get away with persecution and conquest. “Putin could not have achieved what he did without considerable outside help,” he wrote.
After Russia’s abortive attempt at capitalism, former KGB agent Putin too eight years “to corrupt or dismantle nearly every democratic element in the country – balance in the branches of government, fair elections, independent judiciary, a free media, and a civil society that could work with the government instead of living in fear of it.”
To understand Russia’s government, Kasparov says neophytes need only read the works of Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. Putin is the capo. He gets his wealth arresting political enemies and successful private-sector businessmen, like television mogul Vladimir Gusinsky and gas magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He seizes their assets and transfers corporate control to loyalists.
Having gained majority control of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and their pipelines, Putin loyalists have benefitted from skyrocketing gas prices. Their good fortune, in fact, has been sufficient to cloak the economic mismanagement synonymous with dictatorship. High prices, in turn, have been supported by Putin’s machinations perpetuating global instability.
Loyalty buys contracts, too. Contracts for the Sochi Olympics totaled $50 billion, but most of the money was never spent there. The price compares to $6 billion contracted for the Vancouver Olympics.
In 2000, zero Russians made Forbes’ list of billionaires; by 2008, when 13% of the country was earning $150 or less a month, 88 Russians were on the list, and Putin and “several of his closest cronies” are not among them.
Oligarchs don’t typically invest their dollars back in the Russian economy. Instead, they have a reputation for investing it in banks abroad and laundering it through IPOs in London and New York City.
Their substantial investment in foreign economies render them partners global leaders are hesitant to lose; especially, when those leaders are, by design, direct beneficiaries of the cashflow.
Kasparov faults world leaders for failing to leverage Russian investment for longer-term goals. If all nations professing to be democracies defending human rights would unite to freeze Russian assets, as Bill Browder is campaigning to do with global Magnitsky acts, the fruits of loyalty would either have to be invested in the motherland or perhaps regarded as not worth the trade.
Instead, protective of their assets, Western leaders, “enjoy the benefits of engagement with dictatorships – oil from the Middle East, gas from Russia, everything else from China – while the dictators use the money to fund repression.” Any time an atrocity hits the global newsfeed, they timidly issue statements of “grave concern.” But by so doing, they doubly embolden dictators: through inaction and by corroborating hostile propaganda painting them as humanitarians in name only.
Another shortcoming of Western leaders has been their divestiture of moral underpinnings. The Russian mafia, he says, are united by the motto, “Let’s steal together.” Westerners, despite a world of good causes, have not articulated anything so coherent. Kasparov uses a Russian fable to describe Putin. A scorpion convinces a frog to ferry him on his back across a river. Convinced the scorpion would not sting him resulting in the death of both, the frog agrees. But midway through the voyage, to the frog’s disbelief, the scorpion stings him, explaining it’s just what he does.
Putin has shown that consolidating power is what he does, and he doesn’t care about human lives. He came to power amid a rash of KGB-linked apartment explosions. A reported 130, mostly innocents, were killed in the Nord-Est hostage situation, another 334 in the Beslan school siege; more were killed invading the Ukraine. It should go without saying that defending human rights should underly all governance policy and not be, as it appears today, merely a “bargaining chip.”
If giving up foreign investment and photo ops at celebrity galas is too high a price for Western leaders, how much were the 298 lives lost on MH17 worth?