Out of America: Grandmaster with a moral message for the White House

To tackle the 'new tsar' in the Kremlin, the US must first get its own house in order, Garry Kasparov warns
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For an old Moscow hand, it felt just like old times, back when Soviet dissidents would summon a few Western correspondents to a clandestine meeting. They would denounce the evils of the unaccountable and unassailable regime in the Kremlin, and suggest how America and its allies might nonetheless bring pressure to bear.

Today another and equally unshakeable regime runs Russia, and new dissidents have emerged. But their basic message has not changed: if this or any other White House wants to change the Kremlin's ways, it must first of all avoid double standards in its dealings with the world.

This, of course, is 2007, not 1977. The setting was not the kitchen of one of those cramped Moscow apartments that I remember so well from my days as a reporter there, but a smart theatre auditorium in a wealthy suburb of Washington DC. And the speaker was not some tousled academic or minor poet, but Garry Kasparov – a household name wherever chess is played, believed by many to have been the greatest player in the game's history.

Now Kasparov is taking on an even more daunting task than holding the world championship between 1985 and 2000. Three weeks ago he was chosen as candidate for the "Other Russia" opposition party in the presidential election next March, to take on whoever is handpicked by Russia's present tsar, Vladimir Putin, to succeed him.

It is, of course, a hopeless fight. Kasparov may not even be allowed to stand. If he does, polls suggest Other Russia will get only 3 or 4 per cent of the vote. But the man is nothing if not a fighter. He likens the moment to his epic challenge in 1984 to the reigning champion, Anatoly Karpov.

Kasparov, the brash outsider, was taking on the champion of the Communist system, the favourite of the Kremlin establishment. The winner was to be the first to six victories, and at one point Kasparov trailed 5-0. But he gradually wore his opponent down. After he narrowed the gap to 5-3, the authorities called the match off, saying both men were exhausted. Karpov indeed was, and the following year Kasparov captured the crown.

But chess games can't be fixed in advance. Politics can. With quasi-total control of the press and TV, Putin has made himself as unassailable as the Communist rulers of yore. Times have changed, of course – superficially, at least. Kasparov can travel in and out of Russia to promote his new book, How Life Imitates Chess, one of those how-to-succeed-in-life manifestos that Americans love. But the reality is darker. Opposing the Kremlin and its interests is a dangerous business.

If they are clever, the Putin crowd will let Kasparov's campaign go ahead, as proof that the election, however pre-ordained its result, is "democratic". After all, when there are two security policemen and hired hecklers for every participant at an Other Russia rally, not much can go wrong. But very nasty things can happen – as they did to the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in Moscow, and Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London.

I asked Kasparov if he thought he was in personal danger. "Yes, I am afraid. I take care," he replies. "But what can I do? I have no choice." He avoids flying on Aeroflot and eating at restaurants he doesn't know. His wife and child spend much of their time in New Jersey. In Russia he pays a small fortune for private security. "I like to think there are limits on what they might do. But if they decide to go after me, all precautions will be useless."

So what can the rest of us do? As those dissidents of the past used to argue, Kasparov says that America's most powerful weapon is moral. It must lead by example. It must practise what it preaches, and avoid double standards. So "when Putin acts badly, you must criticise him. When he behaves like ... Mugabe, he should be treated the same way."

Alas, this White House has turned double standards into an art form. This last week alone offered a fine example, with the intense pressure by the Bush administration on Congress to drop the resolution condemning the 1915 genocide of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, on the grounds that it would upset Turkey, a key ally in the war against Iraq.

Nothing has created greater double standards than the "war on terror". In the absence of WMD, the revised justification for the invasion of Iraq is that it was meant to bring freedom and democracy to the heart of the Middle East – remember the stirring stuff in Bush's 2005 inaugural address, about abolishing tyranny from the earth. Except, of course, if you happen to sit on a great deal of oil, like Saudi Arabia, or are a key regional ally, like Pakistan. And what price liberty and the rule of law in the era of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and "extraordinary rendition"?

The greatest casualty of the "war on terror" is America's good name. Of all the wounds inflicted by the Iraq conflict, this one will be hardest to heal. And, as Kasparov realises, for Putin it is a godsend. Last week, speaking to today's US correspondents in Moscow, the Russian President likened himself to Franklin D Roosevelt, as social reformer and national saviour. A stretch? Of course. But that's what you get when you operate double standards.