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Garry Kimovich Kasparov
Garry Kaspaov at the New Yorker Festival

From the Wall Street Journal:
Anna Politkovskaya

NEW YORK — The news came when I was getting ready to sit down in front of an audience with the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, at the New Yorker Festival on Saturday. Suddenly we had a tragic new topic for our talk about the crisis in Russia today. Anna Politkovskaya was dead, shot down in cold blood in her apartment building. One of the few remaining voices of independent journalism in Russia, Anna was a fearless journalist best known for her reporting on the government’s atrocities in Chechnya.

To know Anna was to know how profoundly she cared. She felt the pain of others deeply and communicated that passion in her work. She documented the illegal acts of the Russian security forces in the Northern Caucasus and the brutality of Ramzan Kadyrov and other Kremlin proxies in the region. She tenaciously investigated the government cover-ups around the Beslan and the Nord-Ost theater terrorist attacks, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. She took on the most sensitive stories and the most painful subjects. She was an inspiration because she was never intimidated, because she never wrote a line she didn’t believe in passionately.

And on Saturday — President Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday — Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. Her killers made no attempt to disguise what their act was, no attempt to make it look like anything other than a politically motivated assassination. Even Russian politicians who always worked to contradict and downplay her reports are calling it a political murder.

But what does that mean in a country where one person is in control of everything? This brutal episode cannot be taken outside the context of recent events in Russia. The forces in control here are facing an impending crisis and fault lines are beginning to appear in the Kremlin’s vertical power structure. The authoritarian structure that Mr. Putin has built in Russia has been very profitable for his circle of friends and supporters. Income is siphoned off from every region of the country. Business and politics have been combined into a streamlined process for bleeding the nation dry. Now, however, Mr. Putin and his associates are approaching a dilemma. The president’s term of office ends in 2008 and this efficient machine is threatening to explode. Should Mr. Putin stay or should he go?

The chaos that will surely occur if Mr. Putin leaves office is relatively easy to understand. Any mafia-like structure is based on the authority of the top man. If he leaves, or appears weak, there is a bloody scramble for his position. Whoever wins that battle must then eliminate the others to consolidate his grip, so the fighting is fierce. Perhaps only 10% of the combatants will pay in blood or incarceration and ruin, but nobody knows who will be in that 10%.

To avoid that dangerous uncertainty, some of Mr. Putin’s closest lieutenants are dedicated to making sure the top man stays right where he is. The problem with this plan is that Mr. Putin is constitutionally prevented from staying in office beyond the end of his term in 2008. The main obstacle is not the Constitution, which can be easily adjusted to the Kremlin’s requirements; the obstacle is that, after he has made so many statements about his intent to step down in 2008, Mr. Putin would lose almost all his legitimacy in the West if he exercised this option. Of course, his regime has never shown concern for the voices of America and Europe, and feeble indeed those voices have been. But the money his associates have become so adept at squeezing from Russian assets resides almost entirely in Western banks. If the Russian government loses its veneer of legitimacy, these accounts could begin to receive an unpleasant amount of scrutiny.

So what can the ruling elite do to avoid both the chaos of succession and the loss of easy relations with Europe and the U.S.? The answer is becoming clearer every day if you read the headlines and look at the big picture. The Kremlin is exaggerating and fabricating one crisis after another, all combining to create an image of imminent peril. Those who believe they have burned every bridge and cannot afford to see Mr. Putin step down are trying to build a case that he is the only alternative to anarchy.

The political showdown with Georgia has led to a government-sponsored racist campaign against Georgians living in Russia. Mr. Putin’s latest statement on this issue was trumpeted as a major victory by Russian ultranationalists, who were delighted to hear his unequivocal endorsement of their platform. Inflammatory language of this sort is, of course, prohibited by our Constitution, which the president is sworn to protect. But what of that!

I am not even certain whether or not Mr. Putin himself desires to stay on. It’s a stressful job and he certainly will not lack for material comforts when he retires, unless of course the next government finds itself in need of a scapegoat.

There is little to be gained from speculating about who exactly ordered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. The system that encouraged the crime, the logic that made it politically expedient for some of those in power, that is the true face of Mr. Putin’s Russia. This is the same Russia that chairs the G-8 and the same Russian leader who received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor from Jacques Chirac. With the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, the forces of corruption and repression in Russia have now made it plain that there is nothing they won’t do to stay in power. This is obviously bad news for my country. But it is catastrophic for every nation that these forces continue to receive the approval of the leaders of the free world.

Mr. Kasparov, former world chess champion, is chairman of the United Civil Front in Russia.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree