The decision by Gary Kasparov, the world's top chess player, to retire from the game and devote his talents to opposing Vladimir Putin will hardly induce the Kremlin's grandmaster to resign his position. But Kasparov's move reflects broader, increasingly vocal discontent over the president's perceived descent into authoritarianism. The Putin paradox is that the more he tries to exert control, the more uncontrollable a changing Russia may ultimately prove to be.
Kasparov's assertion that the country "is heading down the wrong path" echoed the words of a more formidable political figure, Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister during Putin's first term and finance minister under Boris Yeltsin.
Accusing Russia's leader of abandoning democratic values by stifling political pluralism, undermining judicial and media independence, and turning his back on a free-market economy, Kasyanov called on the democratic opposition to unite. "I have reached the view that not one of these values is being implemented or respected," he said last month. "The direction has changed ... The country is on the wrong track."
This view has found prominent supporters. Former President Mikhail Gorbachev warned last week of social upheaval and a "merciless revolt" unless Putin sacked incompetent advisors and changed tack. Yeltsin is also believed to have lost faith in the protégé he raised from obscurity in 1999. "He doesn't say it in public, but Yeltsin thinks he made a mistake with Putin," a source said.
Kasyanov's hint that he might seek the presidency in 2008, when Putin is constitutionally bound to step down, has prompted comparisons with Viktor Yushchenko and Ukraine's "orange revolution." Ukraine's popular protest movement, itself inspired by street activism in Serbia and Georgia, has found willing emulators among student groups in St. Petersburg and Moscow. They have formed an organization called Walking Without Putin, dedicated to democratic renewal.
But command of the streets will be harder to achieve than in Kiev or Tbilisi. For a start, the activists are opposed by two pro-Putin youth groups, known as Walking Together and Our Own. Russian newspapers have linked Our Own to Vladislav Surkov, a Putin confidant, influential Kremlin ideologist and boss of a state oil monopoly. Surkov is held responsible for the success of the pro-Putin United Russia Party that dominates Parliament, and for developing a system of "managed democracy" that has effectively neutralized the divided left-liberal opposition parties as well as the Communists and right-wing nationalists.
For these reasons, and despite Putin's falling poll ratings and recent demonstrations over cuts in social security programs, there is no sign yet of a Ukraine-style mass opposition movement.
Russia expert Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment has argued that while a "Putin meltdown is not out of the question," part of him is still genuinely committed to reform. Russia could fare much worse under another leader.
Other analysts view Putin's attempts to centralize power around himself as a throwback to Soviet and czarist times that is doomed to fail. This is particularly true of Russia's regions, where federal and party control structures have eroded, according to Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution.
Opponents worry that Putin and the siloviki -- the Kremlin's inner clan of powerbrokers and security service chiefs -- may try to change the constitutional or electoral systems to retain power after parliamentary polls in 2007 and the presidential vote in 2008. "People don't believe these elections will be fair," one politician said.
Kasyanov has no illusions about the difficulties and dangers of challenging the president, a source said. He has already been branded a Western stooge in the pay of the United States. But Putin's position is not unassailable.
"Putin plays on nationalism, on patriotism and what we call empire feelings -- nostalgia for the Russia of the past," the source said. "On the economy, he is not renationalizing, he is redistributing -- but not to the people. He is creating his own oligarchs. The speed of negative developments is very high. This trend must be stopped before it becomes irreparable.
"That is why Kasyanov decided to call for democratic forces to unite. And that is why it is important that the West keeps reminding Russia of the need for democratic values."