The hotly contested race for President of the World Chess Federation features a small group of Canadian chess aficionados who have themselves smack-dab in a geopolitical power struggle, at odds with the West’s efforts to isolate Russia, and allied with...
Photo of Chess City, via WikiMedia Commons.
A small group of Canadian chess aficionados have found themselves smack-dab in a geopolitical power struggle, at odds with the West’s efforts to isolate Russia, and allied with a UFO-fearing, millionaire mini-Putin.
This theatre of the absurd comes amid a hotly contested race for president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). The race pits 19-year incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an eccentric and repressive ex-President of a Russian enclave, against Garry Kasparov, a human rights campaigner and arguably history’s greatest chess player.
After several unsuccessful bids to unseat Ilyumzhinov, Kasparov is the best shot to wrest control of the organization away from Vladimir Putin, who critics say uses FIDE as an outpost to negotiate trade deals, and legitimize Moscow-backed autocrats.
Both sides have opened with aggressive gambits and the multi-million dollar campaign has seen both candidates criss-crossing the globe in an effort to gain the upper hand.
But Kasparov’s side says their opponents are playing dirty tricks.
“They’ve really perfected those mafia techniques of pulling the right levers,”says Mig Greengard, communications director for Kasparov’s campaign.
Ilyumzhinov is no slouch when it comes to politics. He honed his political chops as the 17-year president of the Republic of Kalmykia. His reign was marked by widespread allegations of vote-buying, mismanagement, and outright corruption.
He’s also widely regarded as insane. While president, he spent some $50 million on Chess City—a lavish arena for his fanatical fixation—while his people lived in poverty. He’s a devout Buddhist who believes that aliens want to us to play chess, so he made it mandatory in his schools.
FIDE was also embroiled in scandal repeatedly under his tenure, including the case of one Russian player was accused of cheating by taking excessive bathroom breaks.
He also used his role as President of FIDE to set up meetings with Jamaica’s energy minister about Russian involvement in their oil exploration, and hosted sit-downs with Russian-supported war criminals like Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and Saddam Hussein.
While it might not sound like it, competitive chess is one of the biggest sports internationally. Its biennial Olympiad, which has received recognition from the International Olympic Committee, bills itself as the fourth largest sporting event in the world. And the Kremlin has a long history of using the chess association as its pawn.
Grandmaster Viktor Kortschnoi wrote of one match he played in the 1970’s, where he faced intense pressure from the USSR: "Had I won the match, I would have been physically destroyed, i.e., killed.”A decade later, Florencio Campomanes, Ilyumzhinov’s predecessor as head of FIDE, was installed, and widely regarded as being a KGB asset, ensuring a level of connection and control of the chess-loving Russian sphere of influence. Since then, FIDE has been seen as deeply connected with the Russian regime —an important tool in their soft diplomacy.
That leaves many wondering why the Canadian wing of FIDE is allowing the Kremlin to keep propagating its influence in the chess world.
The Canadian federation says it’s not a cheerleader for Putin’s puppet—they voted against him in the last two elections—but they simply see Kasparov as flawed.
Kasparov, has a terse history with the international body. He had a falling-out with FIDE in the 90s, and got involved in several lawsuits against the organization.
That, coupled with a personal style that the President of the Chess Federation of Canada calls “rude,”led to their decision to endorse Ilyumzhinov.
“The Garry Kasparov camp has been very rude to Canada at every step of the way,”says President Vladimir Drkulec. He says he’s been bullied by Kasparov’s supporters—by people who, the campaign says, have no official affiliation with Kasparov—and others in his organization feel the same.
The membership of the Canadian federation voted 12 to eight for Ilyumzhinov.
Ottawa is none too happy with the decision.
"The government's position towards the Putin regime are well known,”Rick Roth, Director of Communications for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, told VICE. "While this is an independent organization that can make its own determinations, we would ask the Canadian Chess Federation to consider the message this sends to those in Russia."
Canada has been one of the most vocal critics of the Putin regime, slapping sanctions on more than five-dozen Russian officials and businesses. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Putin an “extreme nationalist”and an “imperialist”in an interview with Global News. (Though he is not quite “Hitleresque,”says Harper.)
“We will never accept Russia’s illegal occupation and seizure of neighbouring territories,”the Prime Minister said in a statement earlier this month.
FIDE, meanwhile, has been happy to recognize players from the annexed parts of Ukraine as Russian.
“There is good reason to be serious, because even if you don't care about chess, or using the chess federation as a Russian asset, FIDE is the first major international sports organization to recognize Russian control of Crimea, over protests by the Ukrainian federation,”Kasparov wrote on Facebook.
Drkulec says, while some of Ilyumzhinov’s bad press is true, a lot of the writing about the Russian-backed autocrat is overstated: manufactured by the Kasparov campaign.
But Greengard says this is about more than chess, that there’s a lot of realpolitik involved in the race. Plum bureaucratic positions are open for those who support Ilyumzhinov—those who benefit from the nepotism later use their official FIDE positions to campaign for their dear leader, when election season comes around again.
“You make a lot of friends. You scratch a lot of backs,”says Greengard. “There’s a lot of plums to be given out.”
Countries without much of a chess community are won over by promises of tournaments in their country: tournaments that rarely, if ever, take place. For others, Ilyumzhinov plays loan shark—“they’re easier to manipulate and control if they’re broke,”Greengard, says.
Those who don’t support the chess strongman are taken out.
The president of the Afghanistan chess federation was ousted after endorsing Kasparov—“to his surprise,”Greengard notes—while the organization in Gambon was completely de-listed after doing the same.
“They’re hoping that they can light these fires faster than we can put them out,”he says.
Greengard says this sort of horse-trading is exactly what Kasparov is targeting. “We’re promising to clear up the town,”he swears.
Lest you think that the Kasparov camp is overstating the importance of the race, Putin has dispatched flying monkeys to make sure Ilyumzhinov keeps his quasi-diplomatic post.
“We would greatly appreciate if Singapore Chess Federation could inform us of Singapore's position regarding Mr. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's bid for re-election as FIDE president,”wrote one Russian embassy staffer to the head of the Singapore’s chess federation in an email obtained by VICE. The president of the Nigerian federation also received a letter, care of the Russian embassy, straight from Putin’s Minister of Sport, encouraging a vote for Ilyumzhinov.
“The Russian embassies are on absolute, full mobilization on this,”says Greengard. “I don’t know if he’s number one, but he’s certainly top five, thorns in Putin’s side.”
The list of nominators for each campaign lays bare the chess match shaping up between NATO and Russia.
Nominating Kasparov are chess federations for the USA, Ukraine, Iceland, Australia, Portugal and South Africa. Ilyumzhinov, meanwhile, has about twice as many nominators as Kasparov, and counts such freedom-loving utopias as Uganda, Iran, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Mauritania and, of course, Russia.
Greengard notes that nominating a candidate isn’t necessarily an endorsement, and that they’ve got many other supporters that are keeping their heads down, so they don’t draw the attention of Ilyumzhinov.
Canada didn’t nominate a candidate but Drkulec says it’s “not very likely”that the organization will change its vote.
It’s possible that running the chess federation is Ilyumzhinov’s destiny. At least, that’s what his psychic says.
His tenure as leader of Kalmykia, a semi-autonomous state in southwest Russia, and Europe’s only Buddhist state, was notable mostly for his repeated claims that he was abducted by aliens.
"I remember that I asked them to take me back to Earth as quickly as possible. Why? Because in two days I had to conduct Youth Government Week,” he told one radio station
“He’s not a complete lunatic, or anything. There’s a lot of ‘crazy like a fox’routine,”says Greengard. “But there’s a dark side to it.”
Ilyumzhinov turned Kalmykia into, what the Moscow Times called in 1998, “one of the most thuggishly evil regions of the former Soviet Union.”It is one of the poorest regions in Russia, where elections are bought with $100 bills and where opposition newspapers must print in secret. Reporters Without Borders called Ilyumzhinov a “[predator] against freedom of the press.”
“OK, so it's not California,”one schoolteacher told the New York Times in 2004. “Of course, it would be good if we had water and gas and if people weren't leaving and if they raised our salaries just a bit.”
Kasparov, meanwhile, is an outspoken critic of the Russian regime who has been arrested and beaten by state authorities on numerous occasions for organizing marches in opposition to the government. He was once beaten by a man with a chessboard for his trouble.
That was probably less embarrassing than being beaten by an IBM supercomputer.
Losing to Ilyumzhinov, however, would be Kasparov’s greatest defeat.