Outcast Kasparov still squaring up to Putin

He has been slammed in jail, frozen off the airwaves, and flattened in last week's elections in Russia. Spare a thought for Garry Kasparov. Not even playing Deep Blue, the computer that famously defeated him 10 years ago, can have been this hard.

Kasparov may have crushed a host of formidable opponents during his extraordinary career as chess world champion, but he is now up against an adversary more ruthless and cunning than any he ever faced across the chessboard.

Last Sunday Vladimir Putin won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The president's United Russia party romped home with 64% of the vote and will dominate the new Duma. Kasparov's liberal allies were wiped out.

Kasparov's own role in the election was necessarily limited - first the Kremlin banned him from standing, then had him arrested last week when he tried to lead an opposition march.

After a kangaroo trial, a judge sent him to jail for five days. "It wasn't the greatest experience of my life," Kasparov says. "I won't say I enjoyed it but I was amazed by people's warmth."

The Kremlin claims that United Russia won last Sunday's vote fair and square. Kasparov - the most conspicuous leader of opposition coalition The Other Russia - says the vote was rigged.

He claims election officials manipulated the poll using different methods: old-fashioned ballot box-stuffing, widespread misuse of absentee ballots, and even buses whizzing voters from polling station to station. Kasparov is most incensed at results from the north Caucasus. In Chechnya 99.3% of the population were said to have voted for Putin's party, he says, while in the republic of Mordovia the figure was apparently 109%.

"There was a well-oiled machine to add votes to United Russia. The one technique that was relatively new was forcing people to vote at their workplaces," Kasparov told the Guardian in a phone interview from his home in Moscow.

"I don't think United Russia got more than 40% of the vote. If you look at Moscow and St Petersburg, the results were much lower. It's very clear in big cities ... where information is available they vote differently."

Since retiring from chess two years ago, Kasparov has thrown himself into a full-time struggle against Putin. This can't be much fun. At his last rally in Moscow Kremlin saboteurs played tapes of maniacal laughter when he got up to speak.

Officials suggest he is mad, bad, and dangerous - a western stooge bent on destroying Russia's carefully crafted stability. Kasparov shrugs this off, denouncing Kremlin corruption, falling living standards and the increasingly obscene gulf in Russia between rich and poor.

But his modest rebellion has failed to snowball into any wider uprising against Putin, who is due to step down in March ahead of presidential elections. Last night there was also speculation - denied by the Kremlin - that Putin could become president of a newly merged union between Russia and neighbouring Belarus. So what will Putin do next?

"I doubt anybody in the country knows the answer to this question," says Kasparov. "But I think it's clear there is a fight going on in the Kremlin between different groups."

In particular Kasparov says the clan led by Igor Sechin - Putin's powerful deputy chief of staff - has triumphed over the more liberal Kremlin faction of finance minister Alexei Kudrin. Last month Kudrin's deputy Sergei Storchak was arrested and charged with stealing $43.4m.

The Sechin clan would ideally like to keep Putin in power, Kasparov believes. One possibility is that Putin returns as president in the summer after a brief interregnum, he says.

Despite frosty relations with the west, the Kremlin is not willing to push its luck on the world stage, Kasparov says. "The entire fortune of the ruling elite - their money, assets, families - it's now all in the free world. This makes it very awkward."

He says the Putin regime has elements of Latin American oligarchies, elements of the "Mussolini corporate state" and elements of mafia. What makes it different, he says, is that the trillions earned from Russia's oil and gas wealth has been hidden outside the country. "That's why Putin is getting so nervous: because he would like to go and enjoy life. But there is no guarantee for his safety. It's getting tough. Everybody, including Putin, has too many skeletons in the cupboard."

Kasparov is 44; he is a father; he has a young baby with his wife Daria Tarasova and a lot to lose. He spends thousands of dollars a month on bodyguards and refuses to fly on Aeroflot, the state airline.

With his opinions, is he worried that he could follow Anna Politkovskaya - the investigative journalist murdered outside her Moscow apartment last year?

Kasparov says that, to a certain extent "fame protects me". But he says that he expects the Kremlin to lock him up for longer next time, possibly using a new criminal law "against extremist activities".

He agrees that Russia's new protest movement bears a resemblance to dissidents of the Soviet era, although, he says: "We have a certain window to do things differently. But the problem is the country is sliding backwards. The examples and the fight of those great people inspires us."

From chess prodigy to Putin opponent

An arch-critic of Vladimir Putin, Garry Kasparov is better known as the greatest ever chess player. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, he was a child chess prodigy who, in 1985, became the youngest world chess champion ever. He remained champion for 15 years, an unprecedented dominance. Kasparov had the highest chess rating ever and suffered only one major defeat, in 1997 against the computer Deep Blue. In March 2005 he retired from chess and launched a democratic opposition movement against Putin. He has been banned from Russian TV and repeatedly arrested, most recently last week while leading a rally in central Moscow. He intends to stand as a candidate in March but is unlikely to collect the 2m signatures necessary. ( Guardian )

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