MOSCOW June 6, 2013— -- Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has fled his country because he says he fears political persecution if he stays.
"I kept traveling back and forth until late February, where it became clear that I might be part of this ongoing investigation of the activities of the political protesters," Kasparov told a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva on Monday, where he was receiving an award.
"Right now I have serious doubts that if I return to Moscow I may be able to travel back. So for the time being I refrain from returning to Russia," he said.
Kasparov's departures is just the latest in a string of prominent Russian who have left the country because they fear prosecution. In a statement posted later on his website, Kasparov insisted he had not emigrated permanently from Russia.
"Russia is and will always be my country," he wrote, adding that he would continue his democracy advocacy from abroad.
Kasparov was ranked the number one chess player in the world for a record 20 years, but retired from professional chess in 2005. In recent years Kasparov, who famously defeated IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer in a series of chess matches in 1996, had become a strident opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government. He co-founded a pro-democracy party and has been a prominent speaker at anti-Putin rallies that have been held over the past year and a half.
Since Putin returned to the Kremlin last year for a third term in office, authorities have begun what opposition leaders say is a calculated effort to squash dissent and intimidate opposition leaders. Russia's legislature has followed the Kremlin's lead in passing a series of new laws that make it harder for people to organize and severely increased penalties for those who hold what are deemed unsanctioned rallies. Some protest leaders had their homes searched. Last August, a trio of Russian punk feminists were sentenced to two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin stunt in a Moscow cathedral in a case that was widely seen as a message that dissent would not be tolerated.
Russian elites who have dared to fund opposition, or even independent efforts, have reportedly pulled back amid fears that they will be targeted. Indeed, two other prominent protest leaders are facing charges that they insist are trumped up in order to silence them.
Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has been called the face of the protest movement, is facing corruption charges that had previously been dismissed. Sergei Udaltsov, a left-wing activist, is under house arrest after being charged with instigating violence at a rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration last spring.
Today, a trial began against a dozen Russians accused of fighting police during that rally. Exactly who started the fighting in Bolotnaya Square is unclear. Kasparov was at the front of that march and was detained, but has not yet been charged with anything. But riot police clashed with the protesters on the eve of Putin's inauguration. By the end of the afternoon, hundreds of protesters had been arrested and several police helmets were bobbing in the nearby river.
Other high profile Russians who have fled the country fearing they are about to be targeted for what they say are political reasons include Sergei Guriev.
Chess Superstar Garry Kasparov Flees Russia
Guriev, the head of Russia's New Economic School and a top liberal economist, dashed off to France last week after investigators stepped up their inquiries into his support for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, who has been in jail since 2003 after he announced plans to challenge Putin politically. Guriev was considered a political insider in Russia, closely aligned with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's one-time protégé who appears to have also fallen out of the Kremlin's favor.
In an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday entitled "Why I Am Not Returning To Russia," Guriev explained that he "feared losing my freedom."
"I bought a one-way ticket from Russia and will not return to my country," he wrote.
Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia's dominant social network VKontakte, has also reportedly left the country because he fears authorities are targeting him. Earlier this year, police say Durov hit a policeman with a car and drove off and video eventually emerged as evidence. Durov insists he does not even own a car. His company had rebuffed efforts by authorities to access VKontakte's databases for fear they would target the opposition which used the site to plan the anti-Putin protests.
The fear appears to have trickled down. According to a new poll conducted by the independent Levada Center (which itself is under pressure from authorities), over a fifth of Russians want to leave the country. The poll found that 22 percent said they wanted to leave, up from 13 percent in 2009. The poll found that students, entrepreneurs, and particularly young males were most likely to express a desire to leave the country.
Meanwhile, it appears that Russia is not only in danger of a brain drain. The head of Russia's central bank said Wednesday that Russians continue to send their money out of the country at an alarming rate. In the first quarter of 2013, $25.8 billion was sent overseas. That capital flight continues a worrying trend. Last year, an estimated $49 billion left the country. In February, Sergei Ignatyev, the central bank chief, made waves when he said that a small, politically-connected group was responsible for sending about half of that money.