Straitjacketed by the men in white coats
By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Garry Kasparov was having trouble checking in. The problem seemed to be of the inconsequential sort, a technical glitch that even Russia’s notoriously curmudgeonly airport staff should have had little difficulty resolving.
But not when the passenger in question is regularly portrayed on state television as a troublemaker, Western stooge and dangerous extremist.
In a country as oppressive as Russia has become of late, any inclination to be helpful to such a questionable character is ill-advised.
Delinquency came late to Mr Kasparov. Revered in Soviet times as one of the Marxist state’s great heroes, there were always those who regarded the clean-cut chess maestro as a little dull. He even lived with his mother, they sneered.
Recently, however, Mr Kasparov seems to have discovered his inner hooligan. In the past year he has been in and out of police stations and charged with an impressive array of public order offences.
Last month he was arrested for "shouting anti-government slogans in front of a large group of people" during an anti-Kremlin rally held by the Other Russia movement, an opposition coalition he was instrumental in creating.
Yesterday Mr Kasparov apparently outdid himself when he was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport on suspicion of forging his own airline ticket.
It was an elaborate plot, with suspicion falling on all those travelling with Mr Kasparov, including journalists from The Daily Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal and other organisations.
That the authorities had come up with a pretext to keep Mr Kasparov and his colleagues from travelling to Samara, the Urals city that has been host to the EU-Russia summit in the past two days, was not entirely surprising.
With President Vladimir Putin due to hand over power to a handpicked Kremlin insider at elections next March, the administration’s lukewarm toleration for dissent has all but evaporated.
The authorities had already tried to ban the Other Russia rally Mr Kasparov wanted to hold in Samara and relented only under intense pressure from their European Union guests, among them Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
Unable to resort to their favoured method for dealing with peaceful political demonstrations – violence – the authorities were going to have to come up with some other means to stop it going ahead.
Even so, farcical tactics that the administration did employ to keep Mr Kazparov in Moscow were astonishing in their brazenness.
Things started to go awry from the moment we entered the airport. As I placed my bag in the x-ray machine before check-in, a police officer approached me and asked for my passport and ticket, which had been reserved through Mr Kasparov’s office, although the Telegraph had paid for it.
The officer led me to a counter and told me there was a problem: The Aeroflot computer could not read my ticket. It seemed unlikely – he hadn’t even punched my travel details into the keyboard.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Kasparov and his colleagues arrived and was promptly told he would have to check in upstairs. "Why can’t I check in at the check in counter?" he asked – a reasonable enough question in the circumstances.
Airport officials clearly hadn’t worked out their story very well. Some of us were told the flight was overbooked, others that the tickets were unreadable.
We trooped upstairs to a bar, minus our passports and tickets, which had been confiscated.
Events turned even more surreal with the appearance of four medical orderlies in white coats, who handed out leaflets claiming that Mr Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, the leader of the radical National Bolshevik Party, were deranged and needed to be committed.
A stunt, it turned out, pulled by members of the Nashi youth wing, set up by the Kremlin to counter the spread of democracy.
The movement would later claim the orderlies had convinced airport staff to keep Other Russia officials off the flight because their madness posed a danger to other passengers.
Departure time was drawing near, though no announcements were made. A handful of passengers not linked to the Other Russia movement, including a Guardian correspondent who had booked his ticket separately, boarded the plane.
An hour late, it took off – three-quarters empty.
We waited. Police officers and burly-looking men in dark suits lingered nearby, trying to listen in on conversations. Nashi’s "medical orderlies" strutted their stuff. A woman appeared to inform us that we had "refused" to board the plane.
Then, finally, the police re-emerged to inform us that we were holding fake tickets, that an investigation had been opened and that we would all be questioned individually before we could go home.
The interior ministry released a statement saying we would be allowed to proceed to Samara once the investigation was complete. We knew that was unlikely to happen.
I looked into the eyes of my interrogator, searching for a flicker of recognition of the charade in which he was taking part. His expression was inscrutable. He was, after all, just following orders.
Then, five minutes after the last flight to Samara left, it was all over. We were given back our passports, nearly six hours after they had been confiscated, and told we could go home.
"You either have to laugh or cry," said Mr Kasparov, adding that – today at least – he preferred to laugh.
And indeed the ludicrousness of the whole affair provided its comic moments. But there is, of course, a deeply serious side to all this.
They may not have been beaten – this time – but Mr Kasparov and his colleagues had been deprived of a major human right. What, after all, was the difference between their ordeal and that of many citizens back in Soviet days, forbidden from moving freely within their own country?
Even more alarmingly, the Kremlin seems to be happy to defy western sensibilities with abandon – even when it is playing host to Europe’s top officials. Challenged about the detentions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
The Other Russia movement is far from a paragon of democratic virtues. The coalition has been vilified by a vindictive propaganda war waged by state media. Not all of it, however, is unfair.
Alongside the many decent people yearning to promote freedom in Russia, Other Russia has drawn its share of misfits and oddballs. Some senior officials in the movement have been tarnished by allegations of corruption while working in the Putin and Yeltsin administrations.
Others have views that can be seen as extremist and ultra-nationalist – though similar charges can be levelled at pro-Kremlin parties too.
For these reasons, Other Russia has barely any public support, and can muster at best a few thousand participants at its rallies. Even so, it surely has a right to be heard.
As elections draw near, the Kremlin’s heavy-handed strategy to crush all forms of dissent appears to be working. With every rally violently crushed by the riot police, fewer Russians would dare risk taking part in any future act of public protest.
But it is just possible, in a country that loves its martyrs, that the crackdown could bring the opposition a wave of public sympathy.
At recent Other Russia protests in Moscow and St Petersburg, horrified passers-by heckled riot police as they beat up elderly pensioners and young female students – an unexpected development that would have caused unwelcome jitters in the Kremlin’s musty corridors.