During the Putin years the process of democratisation in Russia has stalled, with worrying human-rights violations. But a barely heard opposition is fighting back. Led by chess master Garry Kasparov, advised by activist Marina Litvinovich, can they call the Kremlin into check?
With less than a year remaining before Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to leave office, it’s clear that whichever Kremlin-connected candidate Putin endorses will replace him. But the twitching corpse of Russia’s political opposition has recently shown signs of life, with street protests in several cities that have been violently dispersed by riot police. More are planned in the run-up to State Duma elections in December and the presidential election in March 2008.
One of the organisers of these so-called “dissenters’ marches” is Marina Litvinovich, a 33-year-old political activist and public-relations specialist who is a consultant to former world chess champion and political opposition leader Garry Kasparov.
Litvinovich, who worked as a political consultant for the Kremlin before moving to the opposition in 2003, has been one of Kasparov’s closest advisers since he left professional chess for politics two years ago and set up the United Civil Front, with the aim of preventing Russia from returning to totalitarianism. Kasparov has become one of Putin’s fiercest critics, though he has all but disappeared from state-controlled television which is the main source of news for the overwhelming majority of Russians.
So far, Litvinovich has largely been a behind-the-scenes figure in Russian politics, though her star has been rising in opposition circles. She has been targeted in smear campaigns by pro-Kremlin youth groups and, last year, was attacked with baseball bats and stomped unconscious by unidentified assailants as she was walking to Kasparov’s office. She believes the attack was not connected to her politics, but rather to her work investigating the possible role of authorities in the death of more than 300 people, most of them children, in the 2004 Beslan school terrorist attack. She believes security forces, urged on by Putin, may have organised the storming of the school, despite efforts by local officials and civilians to avoid bloodshed.
Litvinovich concedes there is virtually no chance of an opposition candidate defeating a Kremlin-backed candidate. But she vows to keep calling on people to take to the streets to voice their discontent with the Putin government, which she calls “criminal” for its reversal of democracy. She says the harsh response to street demonstrators shows that the Kremlin might actually be worried.
Monocle: What are the political opposition’s immediate goals?
Marina Litvinovich: The entire regime has to be changed. The government system is in need of total reform. Right now, it is serving a criminal regime. The Duma elections aren’t going to change this. That’s why we’re focused on regime change and the presidential election.
M: What would constitute a victory for the opposition in the presidential election?
ML: If our candidate can make it to the second round. It looks as if there will be several potential successors to Putin, so it’s unlikely that anyone will win by a majority in the first round. But authorities might simply refuse to register our candidate. We will work out a plan should they not allow him to run.
M: What do you want to achieve with the dissenters’ marches?
ML: Authorities have ensured that people have no access to information and turned them into zombies. The protests can prove citizens aren’t afraid to take to the street to show that they disagree with what’s happening. People have been brainwashed into thinking street protests are something strange or illegal. We want to show them that it’s the right thing to do.
M: Are authorities shooting themselves in the foot by cracking down on the protests?
ML: They are making a big mistake. Before the St Petersburg protest [in early March], the governor there issued an announcement telling people not to attend because it would be teeming with thugs. It was advertising for us. People aren’t blind. They saw the protesters were regular citizens.
M: How fractured is the opposition?
ML: Opposition parties know they need the Kremlin’s permission to make it into the Duma. But they have supporters that think it’s wrong to make a deal with the Kremlin. A few years ago, the political divide was between the left and right. Now, the divide is between those who make deals with the Kremlin and those who don’t; between those who take to the streets and those who sit at home.
M: How did you end up in the opposition camp after working with the Kremlin?
ML: In 2000, when the Kursk submarine sank, I saw how coldly authorities acted. They couldn’t summon a single human emotion. I was partially responsible for making sure Putin met with the sailors’ widows. Then, when the Nord-Ost hostage crisis happened [Chechen terrorists seized the Dubrovka Theatre in October 2002 during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost. More than 120 hostages died, most of them because of the botched rescue efforts after terrorists and hostages were knocked out by an undisclosed fentanyl-based gas], I tried to do what I could, but it was clear I was powerless. I left the following year.
M: Were you hopeful about Putin in the beginning?
ML: He seemed like the right man for the job: a young politician dedicated to tackling reforms. But it became clear that it was all lip service. He wasn’t committed to serious reforms and any progress came at the expense of civil rights.
M: Can you describe what happened when you were attacked?
ML: A witness, a neighbour of mine, told my friends that there were two men who began beating me with baseball bats. After I fell, they started punching me and dragged me on to the pavement. But police didn’t even question this witness. It was my friends who found him. Officially, there has been no progress in the case.
M: Why do you think you were attacked?
ML: I think it’s connected with my activities concerning Beslan. Russian history shows that sooner or later past crimes will be revisited. Eventually, there will be a judgment about this tragedy and, if the people responsible are still alive, they’ll have to answer for what happened.
M: What kind of work have you been doing recently in connection with Beslan?
ML: I’ve been travelling to different cities with victims of Beslan and Nord-Ost to meet citizens. We plan to visit 30 cities. Many people connect these trips with the election campaign, but my task is to make sure these tragedies are not forgotten. Whoever our next president is, he should know bringing the guilty parties to justice is his responsibility.
M: How have audiences reacted?
ML: In Voronezh, about 350 to 400 people attended, but members of [pro-Kremlin youth groups] Nashi and Molodaya Gvardiya tried to break up the meeting. It was the first time I’d ever been picketed personally. One sign read “Litvinovich is an agent of Berezovsky [Boris Berezovsky, exiled oligarch and Putin enemy].”
M: How effective has your Livejournal blog been in organising protests?
ML: Livejournal in Russia is a political and media phenomenon. In January 2006 I called on readers to go to the Defence Ministry to protest against the initiation-ritual tragedy involving Private Andrei Sychyov [whose legs and genitals were amputated after he was severely beaten by elder conscripts, sparking national outrage over the brutal, systemic bullying in the army] and 400 people showed up. Livejournal emerged in Russia at exactly the right time, when serious attempts to stamp out free speech and freedom of assembly began. It’s clear more and more people will be looking for information about demonstrations and protests there.
M: What kind of future does Kasparov have in politics?
ML: He has a tremendous future. After he quit chess for politics, it was clear he had a lot to learn about politics. He’s had to learn the rules of the game, but he’s managed to do that. He’s a natural leader, extremely courageous, honest and persistent with enormous energy.